With every interaction in a school, we are either building community or destroying it, by Sean Slade

"In addition to violence, bullying, and harassment in schools, many school personnel are combating low morale and increased stress levels. We are in an era of increased accountability and, as a consequence, increased repercussions. There are high-stakes tests tied to teacher and administrator evaluation, and many of us hear how morale is at an all-time low. It seems as though this claim has been made every year for the past few years. All of this obviously weighs heavily on our minds. We are aware of the need to create a positive and inclusive school environment, and there is no better time than now to do it. Our students deserve a positive start to their adult lives, and a supportive school climate will help us achieve that outcome.

School climate is based on patterns of students', parents', and school personnel's experience of school life and reflects norms, goals, values, interpersonal relationships, teaching and learning practices, and organizational structures. A sustainable, positive school climate fosters youth development and learning necessary for a productive, contributing, and satisfying life in a democratic society. This climate includes

  • Norms, values, and expectations that support people feeling socially, emotionally, and physically safe.
  • People are engaged and respected.
  • Students, families, and educators work together to develop, live, and contribute to a shared school vision.
  • Educators model and nurture attitudes that emphasize the benefits and satisfaction gained from learning.
  • Each person contributes to the operations of the school and the care of the physical environment. 

It's important to call attention to the final bullet point: that each person contributes to the operations of the school. Whether we contribute kind, supportive words or give negative responses and are dismissive to new ideas, we are contributing to the school climate. It's also important to note that school climate and school culture are different. We define school culture as how safe students and teachers feel in their school, whereas a school climate involves a more proactive approach to the entire school infrastructure and everything that comes with that. School climate includes how welcoming staff in the building are, how engaged students are in their own learning, and the instructional strategies teachers use to engage students. It also includes the events that take place during the school year and how welcome parents feel when they not only attend schoolwide events but also come for one-on-one meetings with a teacher or school leader." (School Climate Change, p. 3)

This excerpt from our book School Climate Change (Sean Slade & Peter DeWitt, ASCD 2015) highlights one important issue – that everyone who is present in a school community, whether they are a classroom teacher, Education Support Professional, or administrator, plays a role in the development of its school climate. They do it via interactions and they do it via the way they solve problems. They do it in how they greet people in the morning and they do it via the cleanliness, safety, upkeep of the school building. They do it in the pride they show in their roles and in the school itself. They do it via every interaction with a student or with other adults in the school building.

While students and families play a role in developing a positive school climate it is the staff in the school every day that play the most direct and influential role. The adults who establish the policies, create the behavioral norms, set the standard for positive interaction. It is the adults who create the climate for success and the sense of belonging.

Education Support Professionals are frequently the staff in a school environment that students feel safest with and closest to. They fill the role of responsible and supportive adult without necessarily the burden of test scores and grades being front and center. They serve as a constant reminder of the supports that are available to all students to help them grown, develop, and learn. They serve as the most apparent bridge between school and the local community, as they frequently live and work in the same neighborhoods. They play a critical role in establishing and maintaining a positive school culture, inside the building, across the school and into the local community.

School is more than just a content delivery system, it is a place where our children learn to interact with others, develop and grow in a safe environment. It is an environment that, when developed appropriately, allows each child to try new things and to know that the school is looking out for them. It allows individuals to flourish in a collectively safe and supportive environment.

The truth is that we notice the school’s climate immediately when we walk into it. We immediately know whether this is a safe environment, a supportive environment, a learning environment.

"School climate is a pervasive thing. Most educators have experienced the positive and negative aspects of it. It's possible to get a good feel for it within the first five minutes of entering a school. Students send powerful messages through their facial expressions and body language. It's often possible to tell whether they are busy, noisy, silent, engaged, or bored with just a glance. Look at the state of the playground, parking lot, and school buildings. Are they clean or unkempt? Walk past students and staff, and notice how they watch, look at, greet, or stare at you. Are you welcomed, shunned, or ignored when you enter the building? Look around at the walls; how are they decorated? Open your ears and listen in the hallways. Depending on the school, they may be filled with positive interactions among students and adults or the harsh sounds of adults chastising and hushing students walking between classes.

The truth is that every school has a climate. It is either developed—planned with intent—or it is adopted by proxy. When planned with positive intent, it can be supportive, protective, nurturing, and conducive to effective teaching and learning. Unfortunately, when neglected, it can also be unsafe, unsupportive, and disconnected. Imagine that you are a student, teacher, or parent entering such a school on a daily or weekly basis. How would it make you feel: motivated or distracted? Supported or vulnerable?" (School Climate Change, p.4)
 


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Sean Slade

Sean Slade is the Senior Director of Outreach at ASCD, focusing on promoting and expanding the ASCD Whole Child approach across the United States and globally. The ASCD Whole Child approach is part of a broad, multiyear plan to shift public dialogue about education from an academic focus to a whole child approach that encompasses all factors required for successful student outcomes. It strives to enhance learning by addressing each student's social, emotional, physical, and academic needs through the shared contributions of schools, families, communities, and policymakers. Sean has spoken and written extensively on topics related to the whole child and health and well-being, and he has been at the forefront of promoting and using school climate, connectedness, resilience, and a youth development focus for school improvement.

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