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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

What Holds Us Back From Focusing on School Climate?

By Peter DeWitt — August 21, 2015 4 min read
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“The primary challenge in my opinion being the existence of federal and state policy that outlines what is taught and what is tested - with the latter dictating the former.” Sean Slade

Maybe you have heard the terms before...maybe you haven’t. Terms like Social-emotional learning, Pro-social learning, Character education, or the Whole child approach...

Perhaps they are soft terms for you. Perhaps they don’t focus enough on being tough, having grit or they are seen as excuses for students not taking responsibility for their own learning. Perhaps, those terms are just seen as words that academics and educational researchers throw around. If that’s how you feel it’s unfortunate, because when we are in a time of need we often hope for adults to help us who embody those characteristics.

We hear a lot about each one of those terms related to school climate. We talk, debate, and try to figure out ways to infuse them into our daily lives in schools, even though we are charged with meeting mandates, passing high stakes test, proving growth and achievement, and defending ourselves against the negative rhetoric about school.

Last month, I asked Sean Slade, my co-author of School Climate Change: How Do I Build a Positive Environment for Learning(ASCD) a question about social emotional learning and school climate. Sean is the Director of Whole Child Programs for ASCD.

My question to Sean was,

The vast majority of school leaders understand the importance of school climate, but there seems to be an issue creating inclusive and positive climates in schools. What do you believe are the challenges to helping schools to create safe, supportive, engaging and healthy climates for learning?

Sean answered,

Both Jonathan and Howard hit on the key challenges in their piece last month. The primary challenge in my opinion being the existence of federal and state policy that outlines what is taught and what is tested - with the latter dictating the former. As Jonathan Cohen wrote, Current federal and state educational policy and accountability systems: Policy shapes practice.

And just as we saw via the well-intended but ultimately flawed No Child Left Behind (NCLB) act, policy will influence classroom instruction. Nowhere in NCLB was there a recommendation to slash the range of subjects taught but because of the punitive nature of the accountability measures tied to the act, classroom instruction atrophied and learning overall suffered.

Policy is still condemning the promotion of school climate to an add-on or a nice to-do, something to concern oneself with once the evaluations are in...and are positive. Yet for those who in the school who understand the power of climate and the culture of learning that can be established in a school, this is a misinformed decision.

Culture eats strategies for breakfast.

I’m not certain who to attribute the phrase to - I believe it was originally Peter Drucker, but it holds true as much in education circles as it does in business. Culture will ultimately win out over strategy. However, culture itself grows and wanes dependent upon the people, actions and targets of those in the school community.

The second challenge holding school climate back is the fragmentation of the pro social/whole child/school climate field. While most of us involved in this field appreciate the vast similarities and nuanced differences between terms such as social and emotional learning, pro-social, character education, and a whole child approach; the public and many of the education public don’t.

Too many educators view these as separate entities, or at worst individual programs, to be implemented and run for a set period of time. Yet each of these approaches seek to reengage the student in learning and reset the culture of the school. As several have mentioned it may be time for us to re set the semantics and reengage the public in what we are all aiming for.

So, how do we re-engage? NCLB has gone away, massive amounts of parents have opted their children out of high stakes tests, and the public is asking for something different than what they have gotten out of the past decade of mandates and accountability. Is it time to finally put school climate at the center of our discussions.

In the End

There is no doubt that school climate is vitally important. When I work with educators in schools or school districts, school climate comes up as an important element to the social-emotional and academic growth of children. I feel that school climate is the plate for which everything else, including academics, sits on. But too often it falls to the wayside and it becomes something where leaders act reactively rather than proactively.

In order for school climate to be at the center of the school community, we need to make sure that the following are in place. They are:

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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.


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