The School Climate Problem (and What We Can Do About It)
Students need emotional connection to school to be fully engaged
Peter DeWitt is an author, presenter, and former K-5 public school principal who writes about collaborative leadership, inclusive school climates, and connected learning. He is a regular opinion contributor to edweek.org.
The other day I was on a flight from Albany to San Jose, Calif., and I read an interview with Hilary Swank in Sky Magazine. Swank remarked that she grew up in a trailer park in Washington state, and although she never felt rich or poor, she understood "classism at a very young age." She explained that she began to "feel like an outsider, when you’re told you don’t belong because of where you live."
As I made my connection in Atlanta, so many questions popped into my mind as I approached the gate.
The interview stuck with me long after I returned the magazine to the back pocket of the seat. To me, it was about much more than Hilary Swank. It spoke to our expectations of teachers and leaders. It addressed school climate head on.
Was it just in her community she felt that way? Did she feel that way when she entered her school building as she went through her formative years of schooling? Did the feeling she remembers, even after two Oscars, have something to do with her school’s climate?
So, what is school climate? The National School Climate Center defines it this way: "The quality and character of school life and experiences that reflect 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."
School climate is about building a sense of collective efficacy. Researchers Megan Tschannen-Moran and Marilyn Barr define collective efficacy as, "the collective self-perception that teachers, in a given school, make an educational difference to their students over and above the educational impact of their homes and communities." The collective efficacy of teachers leads to a stronger school climate because teachers and leaders look past some of the obstacles and focus on establishing a supportive and inclusive environment where all students can take risks and learn.
The bottom line is that school climate is about how students feel when they enter the building. Are they welcomed through the front door every day, or are they told to get to class? When seen in the hallway by the principal, are students told to display their hall pass, or are they stopped and asked how their day is going, what they’re learning about, and what has been the best part of their day so far? Positive and inclusive school climates are those where all students feel welcomed and supported.
Lately, it’s very popular for schools to use the motto "All Means All." When schools promote that motto, I have come to realize that sometimes "all" means those who make us look good, those who aren’t in crisis, those who don’t love differently than we do. All means all are just words in some school buildings. And it doesn’t matter whether we are talking public, private, or charter.
"All means all" are very important words, but the actions of those who work within the school sometimes speak much louder. There are schools that may promote the motto, but they have a hidden agenda. What a school promotes as its culture is visible on its walls, in its curriculum, and in the literature available in its media center. And when that positive message is missing, it sends a signal loud and clear—a signal that’s as powerful as one that promotes a positive culture.
And much of what’s missing, when it comes to images, curriculum, and literature, affects minoritized populations. That is where the "All Means All" message begins to break down.
Researcher Sean Harper explains the word "minoritized" this way: "Persons are not born into a minority status nor are they minoritized in every social context (e.g., their families, racially homogeneous friendship groups, or places of worship). Instead, they are rendered minorities in particular situations and institutional environments that sustain an overrepresentation of Whiteness."
I would take it a step beyond race and say our lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender students are minoritized as well. I work in many school districts across North America where All Means All is splashed around their hallways and on their websites. However, when the topics of LGBT, race, or gender come up, teachers and school leaders brush them aside. And the unwritten don’t-ask-don’t-tell policy begins to surface. Teachers and leaders say, "We don’t need to talk about that."
In schools that care about fostering a supportive and inclusive school climate, in which all really does mean all, understand that our students need an emotional connection to school in order to be fully engaged. Sometimes that emotional connection happens when we focus on those things they identify with the most, such as their culture, gender, or their connection to the LGBT community.
Beyond our minoritized students are the students who suffer from trauma at home. They understand quickly whether they fit in or are thrown to the side because their issues are much deeper and darker than those who always fit in. Do we provide them with the interventions they need, or do we just hope that they don’t go into crisis during the day and maintain status quo?
In the end, school climate is about empowering all of our students, not just the ones that make us look good. School climate is about welcoming all students at the door along with their diverse needs. It’s about providing them with the interventions they need. All means all includes students, like Swank, who left the trailer park and became movie stars.
All means all is about how students talk about their feelings when they were with us, long after they leave us. How will your students talk about your school after they leave?