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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, Peter DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. Former superintendent Michael Nelson is a frequent contributor. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

School Climate Still Has a Long Way to Go

By Peter DeWitt — January 24, 2016 3 min read
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Have you ever walked into a room feeling insecure about whether you would fit in with the people who were there? In your mind before walking in you already played through all the questions and comments that could possibly come up, and tried figuring out what to say...and how to say it.

It’s not that you did anything wrong, but just had the feeling there were enough people in there that wouldn’t understand you. Some people go through these events unscathed because they always fit in. While others aren’t so fortunate, and conversations that turn to more personal questions can be intimidating.

Worse than that, what if you knew that this feeling of uncertainty...this feeling that people would walk away saying something negative about the way you live...would be a daily occurrence and you were required to be there? Like...school. And you longed for the days when you could walk into a room and feel supported and valued by people who do understand you.

Let’s talk about that place of support.

That place of support is somewhere that you can be exactly who you want to be, and feel supported as you take healthy risks. You’re less guarded about what you say because you won’t be judged as harshly if you say something...wrong. That place where you can be yourself is the place where you thrive.

That is what a school climate should feel like.

The National School Climate Center defines school climate as,

The quality and character of school life. School climate is based on patterns of students', parents' and school personnel's experience of school life and reflects norms, goals, values, interpersonal relationships, teaching and learning practices, and organizational structures. A sustainable, positive school climate fosters youth development and learning necessary for a productive, contributing and satisfying life in a democratic society. This climate includes: Norms, values and expectations that support people feeling socially, emotionally and physically safe. People are engaged and respected. Students, families and educators work together to develop, live and contribute to a shared school vision. Educators model and nurture attitudes that emphasize the benefits and satisfaction gained from learning. Each person contributes to the operations of the school and the care of the physical environment."

There are 4 critical elements to school climate, and they are:

  • Engagement
  • Empowerment/autonomy
  • Inclusivity/equity
  • Environment

In School Climate Change: How Do I Build a Positive Environment for Learning (ASCD Arias. 2014) Sean Slade and I wrote, “At the most basic level, people form and create school climate through their interactions and actions, and this obviously involves students, auxiliary staff, and community members in addition to staff.”

The problem is that not everyone cares to understand the very population of students that are walking into their schools or classrooms on a daily basis. The adults in the school can be responsible for judging students based on sexual orientation, gender, gender expression, race and weight.

What About the Adults?
It’s not just the students we have to worry about when it comes to feeling supported or threatened in a school climate. It’s the adults as well. Sometimes it’s due to an abusive school leader and other times it’s because of an abusive teacher and their cronies.

There are adults who fit into marginalized populations who do not feel supported or safe when they are at school. Maybe it’s their race because they are within a minoritzed population when most of the other staff are not, and other times it’s because they are gay and the principal, some parents or staff don’t like them to talk about their “personal lives.” Although, it seems like everyone else gets to talk about their spouse or children.

Recently, I saw some pretty hateful comments come out when I posted the guest blog by Abigail Robinson titled How I Ruined My Teaching Career by Changing Gender. Robinson started her own school in Bucherest after being passed over for jobs based on the fact that she changed genders.

What I thought was interesting was that there were some comments on the blog by educators who compared her to a wookie, clown, and told to do something about her testosterone level. They even mentioned that they felt that way because Robinson made a “choice” to be transgender. What those commenters may not know is that many in the transgender community make this...what the commenters called "choice” after years of counseling, family relationships that were fractured or destroyed, and painful surgery. But that wasn’t recognized in the comment section. Thank goodness for those commenters who showed empathy and thanked Robinson for her story.

Robinson said it best in the blog when she wrote,

It isn't young people who need to reflect on their attitudes and assumptions about transgender teachers: it is the adults who manage schools, appoint staff, and make decisions about how schools are run, who need educating in how to embrace diversity, celebrate difference, and take the occasional brave decision."

The reason why the comments on the guest blog have everything to do with school climate is due to the fact that it’s educators who are making those comments. What will happen when a student goes to them and says they think they may be transgender? Will they criticize the student for making a “choice?” Will they compare a student to a “wookie” or a “clown?

It’s not that we have to agree with the lives of every student or teacher that walks into our school, but we should at least have empathy. Every time we don’t have empathy it chips away at the school climate.

In the End
The National School Climate Center says,

We can all remember childhood moments when we felt particularly safe (or unsafe) in school, when we felt particularly connected to a caring adult (or frighteningly alone), when we felt particularly engaged in meaningful learning (or not). These are the school memories that we all tend to vividly remember: good and/or bad. It is not surprising that these kinds of experiences shape learning and development."

In order to have a supportive and nurturing school climate I don’t think it’s fair for some people, especially those being charged to engage all students, to make a “choice” on who deserves to be engaged and who doesn’t.

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Creative Commons photo courtesy of Maybettiniblank.

The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.