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3 questions for changing school climate

6 min read


School climate has rightfully emerged as an essential element of any school improvement initiative. The goal of improving a school’s climate should be universally accepted by every member of that school’s community, but it is often met with resistance.

Schools that want to improve their climate typically choose a survey that helps them measure and quantify their climate. They use this data to generate plans designed to improve it. This approach sounds pretty clear cut, straightforward and should work — but too often it doesn’t. Unfortunately, changing school climate is a very difficult and complex undertaking that often leaves many schools “unchanged” and in some cases even more resistant to future attempts to change them.

There are some inherent problems that all schools face in meeting the challenge of improving climate:

Climate is hard to grasp for those who live and work in it. To those who work in a school, climate is indistinguishable from their experience of school. It is just the way things are. A teacher once told me that he didn’t realize how toxic his previous school was until he left it and got a job in a school with a positive and caring climate.

Telling a school to improve its climate can easily be interpreted as a criticism. A school’s climate is the result of how people interact in a shared environment. The current climate of any school is a product of the people who work there. Telling them to improve school climate is an implied and thinly-veiled criticism.

Since school climate improvement initiatives come from those in authority, people resist committing to someone else’s version of the change that is needed. When people have little or no ownership in the change, they resist — or at best — give surface compliance, which is a weak substitute for the commitment required for meaningful change.

Even if people want to change the climate, they often don’t know what the change should be. It is difficult to ask people to change when they are unclear or uncertain of what the change should be. Their implied, but unspoken question is often, “change to what?”

If people want to change the climate and have a clear sense of what the change should be, they often lack the knowledge and skills required for managing the change process. Too often, the focus of most change initiatives is on the content of the change and very little thought or time is devoted to being strategic in how to bring about the desired change.

Three questions to launch school climate change:

There are three simply questions that members of the school community can use to overcome some of these inherent problems with changing school climate. These can be asked in any type of group gathering or meeting.

1. What are you already doing to create a positive school culture?

This question does the following:

Pre-supposes that people are caring and committed to their school. Even the most hardened or “toxic” teachers see themselves as caring and committed. This question projects a positive identity onto them. People in general tend to act in a way that is consistent with their identity.

Affirms and acknowledges the positive that is happening in a school. Even the most negative school climate can contain many positive events and interactions. If a school is going to change, it will need to build on the positive that is already there.

Sends the message that members of the school community have the capacity for making positive change. People need to believe that they have the capability and capacity for changing if it is to occur. This positive change requires empowered people — not people who are only doing what they are told.

Allows for people to share their answers with each other. Giving opportunities for sharing positive actions creates new and stronger connections among people. The more people feel connected to each other, the better the climate will be.

2. What is one additional thing you could do to enhance school climate?

This question does the following:

Connects the future to the positive present. If a school with a negative climate wants to move forward, analyzing the past does little good. The positive feeling that could emerge from the first question can be extended with this one.

Creates greater ownership for any proposed changes. Good ideas that emerge from this question are more likely to be used because they are coming from within and are not imposed.

Creates a menu for positive change. Too many choices often deter people from acting. People are more likely to try out new ideas when they have a few choices put in front of them.

Acknowledges that the people who live and work in the school know what the school needs. It sends the message that the members of the school community are not the problem but rather are the solution.

3. What is one thing that you think everyone should do for positive school culture? (If everyone did this, the school’s climate would be improved.)

This question does the following:

Has each member of the school community assume a leadership perspective. Even simulating a leadership role in people’s mind, allows them to think of the greater good and not just their own situation.

Links the aspirational to the concrete. Grand aspirations might motivate people, but they should be connected to concrete actions that are relatively easy to do. This can translate “change in climate” to specific words and actions people can commit to.

Helps people see the power of collective action. Small acts done sporadically and by just a few have little positive impact. When everyone does even one small thing together, change has already happened. For example, a 10-page letter to Congress has less impact than a 1000 postcards.

Becomes a great resource for determining the best first steps for change. Great changes can come from small first steps, especially if those steps are generally viewed as representing the will of the community.

Ask, don’t tell.

Educators want positive changes in their school climate but they are tired of other people telling them to change and what the change should be. Positive change comes from acknowledging and affirming the positive things that are already happening in the school. People commit to improving their school’s climate when they are respected and empowered, not criticized or simply handed a mandate from above. The best way to start to change a school’s climate is to have members of the school community ask themselves the right questions, listen to each other and decide when and how to start the process.

Jim Dillon (@dillon_jim) has been an educator for over 35 years including 20 as a school administrator. He is currently the director of the Center for Leadership and Bullying Prevention. He has written two books, Peaceful School Bus (Hazelden) and No Place for Bullying (Corwin). He writes a blog at

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