School Climate Matters Now More Than Ever

Bullying is one of the greatest health risks our students face, and it’s impact is often not as visible other health concerns. While there has been decades worth of research on the subject, bullying, racism, and homophobic harassment have never been in the public consciousness like they are now. These are significant problems that severely affect our students’ safety and sense of belonging and we need to do something about them now more than ever.

Student safety, relationships with school personnel, and a sense of belonging in the school community are important factors to academic achievement. Now that the Every Student Succeeds Act requires states to incorporate nonacademic factors into their accountability systems, more and more districts are looking closely at school climate and making proactive steps to improve the climate in their schools.

Let’s take a look at 3 different ways schools are addressing school climate within their districts.

Morning Assemblies

Weiner Elementary School in Arkansas has a tagline: “A great place to be a kid.” Students at Weiner Elementary School in Arkansas start each morning with a dance party. Students and staff members gather in the cafeteria where they sing songs and learn about an artist, a musician and an international city of the week. Birthdays are celebrated and one student is crowned ‘Student of the Day’ each morning.

Weiner is a rural town with a population of less than 700. More than 99 percent of the students receive free and reduced-price lunch. Since the school has started making proactive steps to improve climate, students are rarely late (no one wants to miss out on the assembly.) Average attendance is 99.93 percent this year.

The school principal, Pam Hogue, implemented the daily morning assembly after she shifted her mindset from that of a principal to that of an educator. Once she started looking at her profession through this lens, she began to see a need to create a more positive, uplifting feeling within her school. Ms. Hogue explains school climate as a feeling in the building.  “When you walk in here, it just feels right. It looks like a place where learning is happening.” Most importantly, Hogue says, people in the school — students and staff — are happy.

Teacher Voice

For teachers in Berkeley, CA, it’s not just what you say, it’s how you say it. “I’ve known teachers who have been yellers and teachers who have been very, very soft-spoken,” said David Kretschmer, an education professor at California State University, Northridge. “Just as with the tone we use with anybody we’re conversing with – or the tone we use with a pet – it can have a powerful impact.”

Part of Kretschmer’s job is to observe student teachers in classrooms, where they are practicing their craft in real time. He offers advice to the teachers on the impact their tone has on student engagement. “I tell them if you put an inflection in there, and vary your tone and volume, that can have a remarkable impact on students,” he said. He goes on to say that he thinks every teacher should take a theater class. This echoes a popular sentiment that teaching is one-fourth preparation and three-fourths pure theater.

As a result, teachers across the district have made a conscious effort to be more mindful of their tone not only to engage their students but also to improve teacher-student relationships. Some teachers incorporate music from legends such as Aretha Franklin and James Brown to achieve this goal.

And it’s not just teachers who have school climate on their mind. One bus driver in the district explains how she used a song to address a bullying situation on her bus: “I had some pretty rough kids,” Mrs. Cahn said. “I picked those kids up and they were always trashing each other. I’d say, ‘Say something nice, guys — guys, guys.’” She turned on the radio and “Be Thankful for What You Got,” sung soulfully by DeVaughn, filled the bus. “They all starting singing, and moving side to side, and I started directing them,” she said. The right side of the bus took the chorus: “Diamonds in the back, sunroof top, diggin’ the scene with a gangster lean.”

She knew at that moment that her job was “the greatest job in the world.”

Relationships Above all Else

Dr. William Hayes, the principal at East Camden Middle School in NJ, knows every student and staff member in his school. Students and staff members frequently stop him in the hallways to chat. He can often be found playfully teasing students about getting their homework done or briefly chatting with a staff member about their personal life. These relationships matter to him.

School climate is something that is always on his mind. One of the ways he advocates for school climate is by helping the students at his school deal with trauma. In his school, there’s a room dedicated for students and staffed with a skilled therapist. He’s also transformed a classroom into a sanctuary of peace and tranquility—a place for students to get away from the trauma that many of them have been experiencing living in Camden.

Dr. Hayes also works closely with the staff to create a culture that can develop and maintain a high academic bar. It seems to be working because English proficiency scores on PARCC tripled after his second year as principal. He is quick to emphasize that these results are not just because of him but “a great team of leaders and teachers that support the kids 100 percent.”

Dr. Hayes is truly a shining example of a collaborative leader who values student and staff input to create a positive school climate.

In a time when bullying, racism, and xenophobia are on the forefront of public consciousness, many of our students are feeling more vulnerable than ever. It’s more important now than ever before that school leaders address school climate within the walls of their own schools. This is not an easy task. Improving school climate can be tough, tedious work.

But when it’s done right, it’s a beautiful thing.