A school climate is the result of school policies and social norms.
Educators need to be able to make changes to school climates to focus on student and parent engagement and representation.
What is school climate?
The concept of a school climate refers to the idea that each school has a unique emotional and psychological environment created by the people who engage with that community. The characteristics and quality of life within a school reflect the way a school operates, whether it’s in organizational hierarchy, written rules, and learning and teaching practices, or whether it’s in less tangible forms such as values, social norms, and the personal relationships between people and groups. The school climate reflects these patterns and impacts the life of the community as a whole.
Academic achievement is often considered the end-all and be-all of the school environment, but to focus solely on grades ignores the most crucial elements of a positive school environment. Social and emotional learning is just as important in a school environment. Staff and teachers must learn to draw their focus back and see the student as a whole, encouraging our young people to grow not just as academics, but as people. The politics of distraction often keeps us from focusing on what’s most important.
Students fall between the cracks frequently, and many teachers wonder why. Part of the problem is that students often do not feel safe in multiple ways in their schools, and when children do not feel safe, they cannot pay attention to academic subjects. Test scores are absolutely inadequate when it comes to understanding the emotional and psychological stress that cause a child to fail to thrive. Instead of obsessing over test scores, our school culture needs to focus on how to engage students in ways that work for them–and that question is central to the school climate discussion.
Many aspects of the way a school is run enter into the creation of a positive environment for the school, and there are always elements and factors that can be adjusted or changed for the better, depending on the needs of your students. Some truly fundamental elements to consider when looking at the school climate as a whole include:
We live in an increasingly diverse world, which is becoming so because we have more information and opportunity to express ourselves than ever before. The way we treat our LGBTQ+ students is an issue that has come up more often in recent years. Most educators want to protect and nurture their LGBTQ+ school community, but many teachers and administrators claim that they don’t have any kids in their school who are queer or gender variant. Since that’s statistically impossible, it’s far more likely that these kids aren’t being noticed, or don’t feel that they’re able to safely express their identities in the school environment.
Look at your curriculum, look at the reading material used in classes, look at what’s in the library. Does it depict a wide variety of lives and feelings? Does it look at what your kids face and experience?
A curriculum that doesn’t include honest and positive depictions of minority communities sends your students the message that they don’t matter, that they are not wanted, that they are not welcome.
Do you want your students to feel that way in your classroom?
Attitude & behavior
There are two ways to go about the process of building interpersonal relationships with others. One way is to be a bridge-builder, someone who tries to build connections with others. People who use this strategy work to find positive traits in the people they meet, whether they’re friends, co-workers, or even students. They recognize and acknowledge the value of others.
Some people’s experience in hostile environments lead them to focus on traits in other people they see as negative. These people may withdraw from relationships and make others work to connect in order to protect themselves. Some may try to compete with others, or may even try to exploit them if they have that power.
Teachers and other leaders must focus on bridge-building behavior. This is crucial not only to model it for students, but to achieve positive results in a school environment. So often, adults treat children as though they’re walking time-bombs of delinquency, and that mistrust is reflected in the way children treat adults. Good faith is returned with good faith; if we trust children and seek the best in them, they will generally return the favor.
Get to know your students as individuals. Welcome students off the bus and into the classroom. Hang student art where it can be seen and admired by parents and visitors. Ask your students how they are doing, and listen to the answer.
Student voice and student engagement aren’t the same thing. Students may make their opinions heard in many ways, and administrators may consider their input at times, but they may not have any direct influence on decisions or any real ability to change school policy, no matter how small. Student engagement means that students are actually the primary agents of projects, from their inception as new ideas that may be responses to school needs to their execution as finished works.
Many students and even many teachers and staff may feel that they have no voice. They need not just to be heard, but to be actively involved in the school’s process of making decisions about methods and administration. Not every issue that comes up in the school needs to be considered by everyone, but decisions that affect the school should be decided by the people who are impacted by the way the school is run.
Resolve conflicts & issues
Some schools do have policies in place that are meant to keep their students safe from harassment or other mistreatment based on things like gender, sexual orientation, religion, or ethnicity. But when students actually report instances of bullying, teachers or administrators are just as likely to treat it like a normal interpersonal conflict or ignore it entirely.
It’s not just school counselors who need to be able to recognize instances of bullying or harassment–it’s a job for all teachers and staff. If a student comes to an adult with a harassment problem and that adult is unwilling to help that child, then your school’s anti-discrimination policy isn’t working. Students know when a teacher is willing to protect them from discrimination, and when a teacher is safe to talk to and trust.
Do your students trust you this way? If not, what can you do better?
How to build engagement for a better school climate
- Ask staff and teachers to help create goals for faculty meetings
- Ask teachers to create criteria and methods for teacher observation
- Help students set their own educational goals
- Don’t monologue! Listen to what staff and students have to say.
- Encourage students to blog, and do not censor students’ social media outside of school
- Create a Principal’s Advisory Counsel, and ask a wide range of voices for advice (students included!)
- During conferences, open houses, or PTA meetings, send parents crucial information before the meeting so you can have real dialogue instead of just imparting data
- Use surveys, and take action based on the information you get. Many instances of low engagement with school climate surveys by parents may be attributed to a lack of action on the school’s part—if parents feel that nothing changes after a survey is taken, why bother to take the survey in the first place?
Focus on teaching
As teachers, we often feel pressured to teach to the test, and that pressure isn’t making our jobs any easier. Our school culture needs to change to focus on the process of learning, and not on testing a very narrow range of results.
There isn’t one simple way to learn. It’s a messy process, and requires mistakes to be made. All of our students are capable of learning material that engages them in their own pace and in their own way. Help them learn how to learn, and your students can accomplish anything.
No matter what position you occupy in your school’s organization, school climate is important for you to consider. Visitors to your school can tell if your environment is a nurturing one or not as soon as they step into a classroom. Parents are guardians are also more likely than ever to share their impressions of your facility on social media.
Can you satisfy every parent who walks through the door, or intuit every child’s needs all the time?
Perfection isn’t possible. But that’s no reason not to create an environment where those needs can be addressed and those voices can be heard. Ultimately, if we don’t create a better school climate for our students, then none of us are truly reaching our full potential.