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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

School Climate: Why Avoiding Tough Conversations Limits Our Learning

By Peter DeWitt — November 15, 2016 4 min read
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School climate seems to be gaining popularity right now. Articles are appearing in journals and educational newspapers. Unfortunately, School climate is often something we talk about, but rarely do we always practice what we preach.

I’ve heard leaders say they want to focus on it but there isn’t enough time and they can’t handle another thing on their plate. This is flawed thinking because school climate is the plate that everything else sits on.

The National School Climate Center (2007) define school climate as,

The quality and character of school life and experiences that reflects norms, values, interpersonal relationships, teaching, learning and leadership 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."

As you can see, we cannot get students to think critically, be creative, work in collaboration and communicate (P21) if we have a school climate that doesn’t address the tough situations that happen in schools for our minoritized populations. Minoritized students are the students who are pushed into feeling like the minority by another more dominant group. Minoritized students rarely see images in school that look like them, have teachers who read books on topics that address their needs, or hear common language that makes them feel included in the school community.

If we’re going to talk about school climate, then we need to be addressing the needs of minoritized groups.

Sometimes this happens because teachers feel that these are “tough topics” and they know their leaders won’t support them when there is parent pushback. Other times these minoritized groups are seen through the lens of a deficit model. And lastly, these topics are ignored because the adults in the school don’t even think about addressing them.

School climate means we talk about these issues.

At Risk Populations
Berkowitz et al (2016) recently highlighted the work of Halpin and Croft, who are described as the, “pioneers of research on school climate.” According to Berkowitz,

Halpin and Croft maintained that climate is the "personality" of the school, expressing the collective perception of teachers of school routine and thereby influencing their attitudes and behaviors. Their definition was based on the measure of a school's openness and assumed six prototypes of school climate."

Those 6 prototypes that Halpin and Croft researched are:

  • Peer sensitivity
  • Disruptiveness
  • Teacher-student interactions
  • Achievement orientation
  • Support for diversity
  • Safety

Let’s take for example, a student in the LGBT community and the 4 C’s (Critical thinking, creativity, collaboration, communication) of the 21st Century Skills that have been so important. In the Gay, Lesbian Straight Education Network’s (GLSEN) 2013 National School Climate Survey, they found that,

55.5% of LGBT students felt unsafe at school because of their sexual orientation, and 37.8% because of their gender expression. 30.3% of LGBT students missed at least one entire day of school in the past month because they felt unsafe or uncomfortable, and over a tenth (10.6%) missed four or more days in the past month."

That statistic from GLSEN’s survey illustrates the need for leaders and teachers to establish an inclusive and safe school climate, because no one can be a productive member of a collaborative group if they feel unsafe in their school. I mean, if we truly want to get our best out of all of our students, then we have to address their needs so they feel as though they can contribute to the larger group.

If a student has been harassed or bullied within their school, even if no one within their collaborative group is responsible, it is possible that those LGBT students are less likely to contribute. They may be skipping school on days when the collaboration is taking place.

All of this contributes to school climate.

Let’s take a more international issue, and that is the indigenous population within our schools. In Australia there are Aborigines students, New Zealand there are Pacific Island students, and in North America we have Native American students. Do they see images that are representative of them? Do they feel as though they are a valued member of their school climate?

In the End
School climate is one of those areas that we talk about but often say we don’t have time because there are too many things on our plate. Then we jump into the next 21st century initiative to better prepare our students for the workplace, and forgot that we may never have had the tough conversations that help all of our students feel as though they belong.

If students are to learn how to work in collaboration with other students, and not just the ones they choose to sit and work with, then they need to understand the experiences of the students within their group. In life, we can’t always work with others who are like-minded and look like us, nor should we want that as our goal because it limits the learning potential of the situation if we do have that narrow-minded goal.

If we have not held conversations about cultural proficiency, read books or held classroom discussions that include images that represent our whole student population, will we really ever get them to reach beyond their potential?

Do your textbooks and novels, curriculum, movies, and images around your school represent everyone within your school community? Will all of your students ever excel at the 4 C’s if we haven’t properly addressed the important 5th C of Climate?

If you really want an inclusive and safe school climate for all students than the following need to be addressed and supported:

  • Images - The images seen in the hallways and classrooms are representative of all students and families (i.e. blended, bi-racial, LGBT, etc).
  • Safeguards - Student Code of Conduct and School Board policies that safeguard all students regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation and religious beliefs. Not only do those documents have that language, but leaders and teachers follow through on it.
  • Inclusive Curriculum - All students are represented in the curriculum taught in schools.
  • Inclusive books and novels - There are books within classrooms and the library that represent all students in the school.
  • Common language - Staff use acronyms like LGBTQ and understand and use words like minoritized populations.

Peter DeWitt, Ed.D. is the author of several books including Collaborative Leadership: 6 Influences That Matter Most (September, 2016. Corwin Press). Connect with Peter on Twitter.

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.