It’s clear that schools are more convinced than ever that attending to school culture and climate (SCC), as well as students’ social and emotional and character development (SECD), is essential for success in school and life—for both the children and the adults in schools.
Schools are equally beset by what Patricia Wright calls the “I Can’t Do One More Thing” syndrome. Wright, a former superintendent of schools in New Jersey and author of the acclaimed book Sustainable School Improvement: Fueling the Journey With Collective Efficacy and Systems Thinking, shared insights with me into the dilemma facing many schools about how to realistically move forward.
Everyone Must Know the ‘Why’
The work of SCC and SECD is not technically difficult. It’s within the competence of any licensed teacher or mental health professional to learn how to implement best practices in these areas. However, they are not typically emphasized in educator preparation, and their importance is not sufficiently understood. Hence, Wright advocates that educational leaders must have meetings, conversations, and professional development around helping teachers own and appreciate the salience of SCC and SECD.
This is not unlike how reading is at the core of all other academic areas. Teachers must have a chance to both question and personally articulate the “why” of SCC and SECD in the success of whatever role they have in the school. From an action perspective, priority should be given to SCC; SECD cannot thrive in a school with a negative climate.
Systematically Address School Culture and Climate
Every school needs a school climate team that will keep a focused eye on creating and sustaining a positive, supportive climate for all students and staff. The most effective climate teams are treated as school committees with monthly meetings of 60–90 minutes that are counted as part of educators’ time, or stipended. The typical team will have several teachers representing grade levels within the school, a school mental health professional, a “specials” teacher, and a school administrator either on the committee or serving as a liaison/supervisor.
Wright has identified what she calls “10 conversations” that help these teams get organized and ready for the tasks ahead. Foremost among those tasks is to set up an ongoing process for assessing the climate of the school.
“I highly recommend starting with a school climate survey that can be administered to students, staff, and parents/guardians,” says Wright. “The responses from all three groups allow the team to analyze how the elements of school climate are viewed from each stakeholder’s perspective, providing valuable insight that can drive the development of school climate improvement goals.”
Disaggregated data on detentions/suspensions, bullying, and attendance also can reveal important trends. (This means it’s also a good idea for at least one member of the climate team to be comfortable working with data or statistics.)
Of course, the point of knowing the climate is to improve the climate. Taking the time needed is essential, even if it’s clear that the school climate is problematic. Wright suggests four steps toward creating a positive climate that echo my own experience.
4 Steps to Assess and Improve Your School’s Climate
1. Take an inventory of what the school is doing now to address school climate. Realistically basing future actions on what is in place avoids “intervention fatigue” that can make even helpful initiatives feel burdensome. This inventory should include social and emotional learning and character initiatives, assemblies, discipline-related programs, and school rules around transitions such as entering and leaving school and lunchtime procedures, as well as programs for milestone recognitions and clubs designed to boost teacher morale and provide support.
2. Ask the following questions about each of what is identified:
- What need is it addressing?
- Who is responsible for carrying it out? Is there accountability? Is this voluntary, or is the work involved recognized in some way?
- What evidence do we have that it is effectively addressing the need?
- Should we keep, modify, or abandon it?
- How does it fit with other climate-related efforts, and how can we ensure that all the pieces fit together well?
3. Get input from staff on what is in place, as well as ideas for changes.
4. Recognize and provide appropriate compensation or credit for the work of the climate team, and ensure that the team is reporting at all staff and schoolwide meetings.
Don’t Forget About the Interactions Among Adults in the School
One of the most telling climate questions I have posed in schools is to ask students (anonymously), “How much do the adults in this school like being here?” Staff are often shocked to learn that students are quite aware of their feelings about the school and their colleagues. When the school climate is truly positive, staff like to be there, students perceive this, and we often see a virtuous cycle of student–staff interactions. Wright outlines key steps for creating a collegial atmosphere in schools:
- Ask each person, including every administrator, to write a list of the expectations they have of a professional colleague.
- Have small, heterogeneous groups work together to come up with group lists.
- Share and discuss these lists, and create an agreed-upon list of expectations.
Of course, lists are not enough. There must be explicit agreement to a final expectation: We will hold each other accountable for meeting these expectations in a spirit of mutual kindness and continuous improvement.
It’s good to remember that the technical issues of improving the school climate are much more approachable once the “why” is broadly understood by all of the adults in the school, and by the students as well. Should climate progress revert, it’s best to revisit the “why” before trying new programs. Once schools have embarked on the journey toward a positive climate, bringing in ways to improve social and emotional and character development is considered wind in the sails, rather than a hindrance.