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A Feelings Walking Tour: Surveying Your School Culture and Climate

Maurice J. Elias

Prof. of Psychology, Director, Rutgers Social-Emotional and Character Development Lab (, Director, the Collaborative Center for Community-Based Research and Service (
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Take a walk through your building or workplace and attend to the feelings you have. No, not an actual walk -- a symbolic one. By so doing, you will learn a lot about the culture and climate of your school and some areas where action may be needed.

Close your eyes and picture yourself arriving at school, walking in, and moving from place to place over the course of a typical day. Pay attention to the entrance ways, what you see on the walls, the furniture and how it's arranged, and the main office. How welcoming it is?

Look in on classes, lunch and recess times, hallways and staircases, trailers and far-off wings of the building, meetings, extracurricular activities, after-school and evening events -- the entire gamut of what occurs on regular school days. Finally, imagine yourself preparing to leave and departing, and then open your eyes.

Now ask yourself some questions about what you experienced:

  • Where and when do you experience "positive" emotions such as pride, joy, and excitement?
  • Where and when do you experience "negative" emotions such as anxiety, frustration, and anger? Where do you experience both types of emotions?
  • Where do you detect harassment, intimidation, and/or bullying going on?
  • Where do you see the most student peer-to-peer, adult-to-student, and adult-to adult support?
  • What is happening in these places to cause these emotions?

Based on an activity from Building Learning Communities with Character: How to Integrate Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning, this process can be done individually or with a team, grade level, department, or entire faculty, and can give you great insight about your school as a learning environment. It will tell you about places that need to be changed, as well as those whose good qualities need to be preserved and expanded.

Yet we know the path from insight to action is neither obvious nor easy. So there a couple of questions to ask yourself: What feelings are most likely to serve as catalysts for action in your setting and who are your allies in taking systematic and sustained action?


As a teacher, principal or staff member, how might you envision using this activity at your school? Please share in the comments section below.

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Maurice J. Elias

Prof. of Psychology, Director, Rutgers Social-Emotional and Character Development Lab (, Director, the Collaborative Center for Community-Based Research and Service (

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Dr. Susan Stillman's picture

Outstanding process, Maurice! I think the qualitative feelings "walk through" is an excellent idea! At the same time, I'd suggest adding a standardized self-report school climate survey, with participants from all stakeholder groups. Our Six Seconds Educational Vital Signs school climate survey has standard and also fully customizable questions, to address the core concerns of a particular school or district. All categories of constituents are included.
Thanks for bringing up this important idea--of surveying and then using this type of activity to serve as a catalyst for action. i know a school that did this, and derived a great coordinated plan for SEL from their initial school climate survey.

Elana Leoni's picture
Elana Leoni
Edcamper, Former @Edutopia, Founder of Social Media Marketing Consultancy aimed at helping educational orgs.

Thanks Maurice for yet again another great blog post. I recently engaged with a PhD Researcher in the UK on Twitter about this and they brought up the point that student voice should be factored in the walking tour. Are there ways to explicitly ask/survey students. Sometimes what we see or perceive isn't always the case and you need to go to the source.

Looking forward to your thoughts,

Jennifer Miller's picture

This is a wonderful suggestion. It's an emotion walk. The question prompts are really terrific. How often do we ask what feelings arise in various parts of the school building? But so often, different parts of the building can invoke strong feelings with memories associated. I would also love to try this and physically walk around to see if being in the physical space brings up more for people than just visualization. I don't know. Great ideas here!

Mr. Williams's picture
Mr. Williams
Eighth Grade Math Teacher from Roanoke, Virginia

Maurice, this was a fantastic suggestion. I never really thought about taking a walking tour of my own school to determine how I feel about a variety of things I see. On a daily basis, I hear about other students in the classroom and their behavior, but it never really occured to me as to why students may act the way they do; it may be because of the teacher, the home life of the student, etc. I have been able to see many of my colleagues in action and well I feel that there can be some changes made. I don't have really any issues that some of them face because I bring the positive emotion to the classroom and I feel that your students can also feed off on that. Looking at my own school and school division, I feel this is a great strategy to implement to help the overall school atmosphere to push our students for success. Thanks again and God Bless!

stace leza's picture

A great post! Is there a possible checklist to guide the emotional walk? Sometimes in the blur of the day, it is difficult to see past the buildings and the people that work there. What do you suggest?

James's picture

I think is a great idea Maurice. Being that this is my first year at my school a "Walk Through" will allow me to get a feel of the different areas of the building. Your question prompts will be useful in my "Walk Through" also. I am considering doing the "Walk Through" with a teacher who has been at the school for a few years so we can compare our emotions in the different areas around the building. Can't wait to do this.

Guy E. White's picture
Guy E. White
Author of "Building the World's Greatest High School." HS English near L.A.

Physical spaces have immense power. Frankly, many educators feel they have little control over the physical spaces around them (and sometimes they're right). Ken Wilber talks about four quadrants of being. Physical spaces have the potential to impact every level of our experience as humans: this is one of many reasons why having a green lawn, a tall tree, a clean classroom, a musical quad, etc. is so important. Personally, I recommend a physical walk -- actually walking at a slower pace than normal and taking in the five-senses of the hallways. You many be surprised at what you find. It's through knowing through subjective feeling and objective seeing that educators can take the next step at recognizing these spaces for what they are -- and what they offer. As a marketer, coach, and educator (all roles that teachers and administrators must take on) two questions that are quite useful: "What essential purpose does this space serve? What essential feeling do I want this space to embody?" There are reasons why students and staff congregate in specific areas. Those that want peace may end up at the library. Others want activity and end up in the quad. Do you have any spaces that you have crafted specifically to serve the purpose you intend?

Ann-Marie's picture

I really enjoyed this and thank you for the suggestion of the book, Building Learning Communities with Character: How to Integrate Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning. I am currently on a committee to try an improve our school climate. I really believe that if we take the "walk" around our school this will help us with targeting the areas that need the improvement right away. We are trying to come up with a motto or mission statement to bring the whole school community together as one. If you have any suggestions I would love to hear them.

Farah Najam's picture
Farah Najam
Teacher Trainer and write on education

Outside the classroom my positive emotions and feelings of being rewarded resulted when students greeted me in the hallway when students respected me for something other than their subject knowledge or teaching. A sense of professional efficacy that is the feeling they are effective and true to their beliefs and values is also a source for teacher's positive emotional experiences,

Samantha Robinson's picture

Amazing and a thorough way to gauge the atmosphere of a school. The school where my child studies conducted a similar climate survey like this by SoGoSurvey and I found the questions very simple and I could easily relate to them.

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