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Climate Control: 6 Ways to Improve Your School Environment

Dr. Allen Mendler

Author, speaker, educator
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Spring vacation is just around the corner, and the dreaded state tests are inching ever closer. It is a time of year when you may be running out of ideas, patience and energy, and so is everyone around you (or so it seems). You have gone through three different behavior plans, but Madison is still acting out, and Sam continues to come late despite an untold number of phone calls home, detentions, planning sessions and positive reinforcement programs. The faculty room is rife with a combination of boring tasteless food, stale conversation and annoying complaints about you-name-it. You try to remind yourself that "no news is good news" because, although you are working your butt off, rarely if ever does anyone seem to notice.

It's easy to feel unimportant, ineffective and taken for granted. While that may appear obvious, it seems almost human nature to notice when things go either exceptionally well or horribly wrong, and to pay little attention when things simply go right. Virtually nobody pays attention when they flip a switch and the light goes on, but everybody notices when the lights go out. In a crowded supermarket, parents respond rapidly to a child's tantrum, but are far less likely to recognize compliance to a spoken request in a normal tone. At a sporting event, we might remember the great catch or the boneheaded error, but rarely do we recall the many routine plays that happened so effortlessly. How often do customer service centers hear from satisfied customers? Most people don’t write thank-you letters when the car, refrigerator or stove works. Rarely do we think about acknowledging or thanking a doctor when he gives us the right medication. Almost never do we read news stories about positive race relations or how well people are getting along.

Is it possible that you are focusing primarily on the negatives and missing the more mundane, smooth-sailing events? Might that be affecting your view of your school’s "climate?"

It Begins with You

School climate is hard to quantify but very palpable when you are in the same place every day. It is such an integral part of the daily experience and is largely determined by the leadership, your colleagues and a host of other influences, but it is primarily about feeling appreciated for what you do -- and it begins with you. Too often we fail to see how crucial each of us can be to improving our own well being and the school's climate simultaneously. Begin by seeking positive feedback for yourself and noticing the positive contributions made by others. You’ll feel better, and so will they. Here are some strategies:

  1. Give your students a class assignment to write at least two specific things about you that they like the most and that help them be successful. You can also have your students do this with each other to help improve the classroom climate.
  2. Ask parents to write down at least one positive thing they have heard or seen from their child about your class. You can make this into an extra credit assignment that requires students to return a written answer from their parents. This will give kids an incentive to interact with their parents.
  3. Ask a colleague or two to visit your classroom and observe your teaching, and then ask them to share specific things they saw you do really well, along with any suggestions they think might help you get even better.
  4. Keep a daily record or log of your and your students' accomplishments for one or two weeks. This will force you to notice when things are going well.
  5. If you are getting little notice and appreciation but deep down you know that you're a good teacher, there's a strong possibility that nobody around you is getting much, either. Be generous in your recognition of others. Notice when things are smooth sailing, no matter how rare. How often have you shared positive feedback with a colleague about how well his class passed by your room? When was the last time you thanked an administrator for her organizational effort on a day when things went smoothly, or a parent who signed the permission slip on time? Dale Carnegie once said that you could make more friends in two months by showing an interest in them than you could in two years by trying to get them to be interested in you.
  6. Create a "troubles-free" zone at your school where only good, upbeat news about faculty, students and issues can be shared. A table or two set aside in the faculty lounge can be a good place, since too often the lounge becomes an unpleasant chamber for griping and complaining.

Getting and giving positive feedback is the most direct way each of us can create a school climate conducive to high achievement and happiness. You won't be able to influence everyone or affect everything, but you may have more power than you think to make your school more of what you want it to be for yourself and others.

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Shane's picture
High school English teacher in Texas

Some nice ideas here, but some definite problems with #'s 1 & 2. It seems tough to be seen as a respected professional and solicit compliments from parents and students. I don't think doctors and lawyers follow up asking for us to tell them all the ways they helped us out. Usually it's more about anything else they can do for us.

3, 4, & 5 are great institutional ideas administrators can turn to to improve the environment; however, if the environment is toxic, 6 is more likely to alienate a teacher further.

Overall, the ideas seem a little disconnected from reality.

Dr. Allen Mendler's picture
Dr. Allen Mendler
Author, speaker, educator

Shane - I appreciate your thoughtful comments and they remind me that not every strategy suits everyone. I see no down side to seeking appreciations. Unlike doctors and lawyers, teachers spend every day in a repetitive way for long periods of time with the same kids and their parents. In such a circumstance, there are so many wonderful things that most teachers do that go unnoticed and in my view seeking occasional feedback is a good thing. Further, I don't agree with your comment that creating a troubles free zone would further alienate a teacher in a toxic environment. Doesn't someone need to encourage a more nurturing place? Is it possible that any school would have nobody else who might support this and join in? In the many schools to which I have consulted, I have found there to always be at least some staff that are seeking and appreciate efforts to make their school a more caring place.

ASGB's picture

I love this article! I believe that the suggesstions are practical and definitely encourage educators to reflect on their teaching practices, actions, beliefs, and interactions. As an educator, I sometimes get frustrated because I feel underappreciated by my administration. Since my focus is on what I am not getting from them, I miss the the "smooth-sailing events." Your article has inspired me to set up a "troubles free" zone at my school. The teacher table in the cafeteria is normally the place where teachers gripe and complain about students, parents, administrators,and new initatives. I intend to anonymously place a sign in the middle of the table outlining the "rules" of the troubles free zone. Hopefully, as the end of the year approaches and frustration increases, the lunch table will now be a place of encouragement, praise, and appreciation that will remind teachers to try to find the best in unpleasant situations.

Dr. Allen Mendler's picture
Dr. Allen Mendler
Author, speaker, educator

Glad the article provided you with ideas and inspiration. I'd love to know how your actions are making an impact at your school and in your attitude. Keep me posted.

Linda's picture


I would have to disagree with your comment regarding soliciting compliments. Our physicians send out a comment survey following every office visit. They want to know what they did well and what they need to improve upon. I do believe they want to know how they were able to help our family.

Linda's picture

I think this is a great article. I agree that especially this time of year we are all so focused on testing and end of the year, we need to remember our successes. It's easy to get caught up in the chaos. Thanks for the reminders!

Susan Weikel Morrison's picture
Susan Weikel Morrison
Science Education Program Developer, Sci-Q Systems

Taking the word "climate" more literally, some things that can be done to improve the classroom environment are to make sure there is sufficient oxygen in the room (hypoxia dulls brains), reduce interruptions from unexpected visitors, phone calls, and public address systems, and make sure kids have eaten (glucose energizes those neurons).

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