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You Need an Elevator Pitch About 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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When I asked a principal recently about the climate of his school, he said that it was often very humid because of poor ventilation. In another school, the principal complained about drafts in the wintertime. Those incidents, and others, have convinced me that many school personnel still need to be informed about school culture and climate.

Or what about this? Imagine you are in the elevator and in walks your superintendent. It's the elevator in the administration building, so you know it's going to be a slow ride (at least 30 to 60 seconds). The superintendent says to you, "I understand you are in a leadership position in your school's culture and climate committee. What exactly is the focus of your committee, what's your understanding of school climate and why it's important, and what are your plans?"

The elevator door closes, and it's your turn to speak. What are you going to say?

Creating Your Elevator Pitch

In both cases, you need an elevator pitch. It's also known as an elevator speech, but colleague Joe Cervantes suggested that the use of "pitch" is brief, focused, and less intimidating. I agree. Everyone in a leadership role (as leader or on the leadership team), when asked, must be able to clearly articulate what he or she and the team are doing.

Often, it takes a little while to get oneself -- and one's team -- to accomplish this. But it is embarrassing to be in that role and not fully understand what is happening. Imagine forward to a time when you will be speaking with your school's culture and climate committee, and your committee members will be speaking with the staff, administrators, and maybe parents or school board members.

Everyone should be articulate and professional about what they are doing. Even if it's not your favorite thing in the world to do, as a professional, you still want to be, and appear, competent.

So that's why you need an elevator pitch! That pitch should include a definition of what the key terms mean, why it's important, and what the research says. And you should be able to deliver the essence in 30 to 60 seconds. Here are some starters for your elevator pitches.

What is School Culture and Climate?

School Culture

This is the sum total of the behaviors and interactions of all adults and children, their attitudes and norms, and the extent to which the school is safe, supportive, healthy, engaging, inspiring, and challenging for all. Culture is what we do in the school or, as my colleague Marvin Berkowitz says, "How we be in the school."

School Climate

This is the collective perception of how well a school provides suitable conditions for learning; for positive social, emotional, and character development; for all staff to grow professionally; and for parents, families, and community resources to become engaged in the school.

Why Is It Important?

A positive school culture and climate is no different than clean air and water. It is the basis for sustainable learning and preparation for the tasks and tests of life. Conversely, in a toxic school culture and climate, learning by all will not take place effectively, and what is learned may be sustainably negative and harmful. When a school is a positive place to be, people are happy to be there, do their best, and make their best better.

After the Elevator Pitches

Once a leadership team has helped the school community understand the importance of culture and climate, they are ready to consider assessing it. This can happen systematically, but it usually is best to begin conversationally. So school committees concerned with morale, discipline, and climate should ask:

  • What is it that we are doing to help students (and staff) feel that this is a positive school, a place they look forward to coming into every day?

And then, with the necessary courage, ask the question:

  • What is it that we are doing that is discouraging for students, that creates a negative climate?

An honest analysis of each of these, and the balance of them, sets the stage for taking specific steps to improving the culture and the climate. Once specific areas of need are uncovered, there are ample resources to guide steps toward improvement. And remember: Students will be an essential resource in making progress.

What are your thoughts and ideas on this post? 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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Cindy Johanson's picture
Cindy Johanson
Executive Director, Edutopia

Nice post, Maurice. Have you come across any schools w exemplary elevator pitches? It would be great to hear what they say. Hopefully, the community can chime in with some specific examples.

Maurice J. Elias's picture
Maurice J. Elias
Prof. of Psychology, Director, Rutgers Social-Emotional and Character Development Lab (, Director, the Collaborative Center for Community-Based Research and Service (

Sample Elevator Pitches

Here are some examples that show different ways to approach this... and different sized buildings being traveled within!

* SEL occurs when we focus on developing honest and caring relationships between educators and students. This fosters an atmosphere of respect for accomplishing personal goals, respect for the rights of others learn in a supportive environment; in addition to reinforcing the concept of taking responsibility for ones own actions.
Recognizing the right of all students to achieve at something!

* Local Elevator to Students Success
Going Up. . .
Ground Floor. . . "SEL is a methodology framed within a common set of values."
2nd Floor. . . "SEL is a set of intra/interpersonal skills necessary to
Overcome obstacles to academic success."
3rd Floor. . . "SEL is a program that enables students to regulate emotions
and motivate them to learn."
4th Floor. . . "SEL is a program where learning becomes meaningful across
all content areas as students exchange ideas, perspectives and knowledge while remaining open to others."
5th Floor. . . "SEL prepares students for the work place. It reinforces the
skills that are necessary for them to be successful in the real world."
6th Floor. . . "Welcome to student success."

* SEL is a set of basic social skills that provide respect and it creates a better community within the school between parents, students, and staff.

* Social-Emotional Learning is the interjection of social/survival skills in our schools. It starts with the adults informally modeling proper behaviors and having high expectations; eventually formally modeling and teaching theses life skills. Also, working collaboratively with the students, having them take part in the plan will generate a sense of ownership and pride. It involves making it a big deal, whether rewarding or reminding a student, when he or she is demonstrating a life skill.

Laura Thomas's picture
Laura Thomas
Director, Antioch University New England Center for School Renewal, Author of Facilitating Authentic Learning, Director of the Antioch Critical Skills Program; Elementary Library Media Specialist

Well, my context is different, but I think mine would be "Horace Mann told one of our first graduating classes to 'be ashamed to die until (they) had won some victory for humanity.' That's a pretty big charge, but we try to live up to it everyday. Between the gardens, the Perpetual Food Drive, the green bikes and electric car charging station and our progressive pedagogy, I think we're doing a great job!" :-)

Maurice J. Elias's picture
Maurice J. Elias
Prof. of Psychology, Director, Rutgers Social-Emotional and Character Development Lab (, Director, the Collaborative Center for Community-Based Research and Service (

Laura, you are making a most important point... everyone's context is different and so we have to think about what we most want to convey, craft it, and say it! What an amazing quote, and how valuable it is to link students today to some sense of legacy, both conceptually, pragmatically, and, ideally, historically to their school.

Tzofnat Zoe Peleg-Baker's picture
Tzofnat Zoe Peleg-Baker
An educator, consultant and scholar

Thanks, Maurice! I like the idea of an elevator pitch. In today's fast-paced, changing environment, delivering a concise message is must. Yet, I find the distinction between climate and culture confusing, and in an elevator, I would rather focus on culture. The culture you are describing, Maurice, is a particular, desired one: nurturing and inclusive. My recent post on inclusive culture might be of interest:

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