If you were dropped into a random location on Earth, you would be able to determine the climate pretty quickly. Is it hot or cold? Rainy or dry? Is it a place you would like to stay, or is there 90% humidity and poisonous snakes twisting in the trees? Perhaps you landed on an iceberg in the middle of an ocean. If you were dropped into a random school, could you tell its climate?
The climate of a school is the feeling you get when you are there; it is the philosophy, the environment, the personality and attitude. While school climate may seem too intangible to measure properly, there are indicators that are effective measures of school climate, such as the National Association of Secondary School Principals School Climate Survey. Indicators of school climate explored in this article are derived from the contents and research behind this survey. Why bother with a school climate survey? School climate affects every factor of a child’s education, including academic success, level of student participation and community involvement.
When a positive school climate exists, stakeholders (parents, students, community members and school personnel) report that the people in the school are fair, helpful, well-organized and caring. Students and adults feel their time in school is meaningful and worthwhile. They feel safe. Students are interested in academic achievement and have self-regulatory behaviors. They set goals and work together to meet them. A positive relationship exists among students, staff members and families.
On the other hand, in a negative school climate, stakeholders describe people in the school as unwelcoming, difficult and not helpful. Students and families feel disconnected from school staff members. Learning is often disrupted by disrespectful behavior. When there is a negative school climate, students, families and staff members would much rather spend their time elsewhere.
If a school environment is uninspiring or even toxic, school personnel can resign and volunteers can find other places to serve. Students and parents, for the most part, are stuck. The only way out is to stay home, and children may get “sick” to avoid school. When a parent believes their child is unsafe at school or that his time is not well spent there, the parent is more likely to let the child stay home. An unhealthy school climate not only decreases teacher retention, but also increases student absenteeism. If the best teachers in a school are jumping ship, you know something is not right and is probably getting worse.
What are factors that determine school climate?
Maintenance How well is the school kept up? Is the paint chipping? Ceiling stained? Once a place starts to fall apart, people lose respect for the building and the breakdown escalates. Students and teachers feel unimportant.
Safety Are teachers and administration monitoring the hallways between classes and present at student pick-up and drop-off? Are there effective anti-bullying and positive behavior programs? Schools with a positive school climate have programs in place that teach and reinforce self-respect and the respect for others.
Leadership The administration in a school is directly responsible for setting the tone. Does the principal clearly communicate a high standard of expectation to his or her students, parents and faculty? Does he or she have a strong child-centered philosophy based on the principle that adults are there to provide a quality education for youth? Does he or she see the student as a whole person with a wide set of needs and strengths?
A principal sets the tone by using data to improve the quality of teaching. Top teachers are seen as leaders and are given opportunities to mentor new or struggling teachers. Professional development is based on the needs of the teachers, not on the latest educational trend. As an effective leader, he or she spends less time behind the desk and more time in the hallways or classrooms with teachers and students or building relationships with parents and community members.
Special programs and activities It would be difficult to find a school in Texas without a football program, but what about the kids who are not interested in competitive sports or those who do not make the team? Do they have a place to belong, to explore interests, to practice social skills and to have fun? When students are a part of something bigger than themselves, they are more likely to attend school and want to be there. A school that values all children does not assume that because a child is not in a music program or sport that he or she is unmotivated and uninterested. Intramural sports, academic competition, martial arts,
robotics and gardening clubs are all possibilities. For students who struggle with academics, these activities may be the only thing that makes them want to go to school.
Social health The quality of relationships among stakeholders is high. Teachers should be seen as caring, demonstrate a high level of expectations and maintain a confidence that students are able to succeed. Students should feel comfortable asking for help. Every student should have at least three friends and be able to resolve conflicts in a productive way. These characteristics of healthy interactions do not come naturally – they require careful planning and implementation by the adults in the school.
Strong relationships between teachers provide the support needed to improve instructional technique, solve problems in the classroom and share ideas. Conflicts between adults can be solved productively and respectfully and the staff should feel supported and heard, not bullied or intimidated by administrators or other teachers.
If your school has not completed a school climate survey, maybe it is time to ask for one. Students are constantly being benchmarked, evaluated and assessed. It is just as important to measure their level of comfort and safety and the level to which they feel valued and heard. When a school’s climate is inviting, all kinds of good things happen: the very best teachers stay and thrive, volunteers flock in to help and parents get more involved. The good news is that improving school climate is very much possible when all stakeholders are involved, informed and invested.
Jennifer VanBuren is an educator, writer and Georgetown mother of three.