When we were students, we didn’t think about school climate. We didn’t wake up in the morning wondering what the school climate was going to be like that day. Our thoughts turned to homework, friends, favorite classes, most hated classes and after-school sports and activities. If we were having an issue with a friend, we couldn’t ignore seeing them because we were both confined to the same building. If there was someone who didn’t like us, we most likely could not avoid them either.
We learned which hallways to go down and knew which teachers we could confide in. There were teachers who seemed to hate their job and others who loved every minute of their job. Some students cruised through the day unscathed, but others seemed to have a hard time in every class and every transition to their next class. Whether we actively thought about it or not, school climate was in the forefront of our minds. We just didn’t call it school climate because it was a part of our everyday lives.
In the article “Social-Emotional Needs Entwined with Students’ Learning, Security,” Sarah Sparks wrote, “Students’ ability to learn depends not just on the quality of their textbooks and teachers, but also on the comfort and safety they feel at school and the strength of their relationships with adults and peers there.”
According to the National School Climate Center , school climate can be defined as:
- 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. (The definitions of school climate and a positive, sustained school climate were consensually developed by the National School Climate Council.)
Students need to feel safe in order to learn. When the clock ticks down to the end of a period, those students know they have to walk into the great unknown…the school hallway. The hallway is where adults may ignore issues they see because they don’t want the hassle, or equally as bad, the adults don’t see a problem at all.
We know that marginalized groups like our LGBT student population do not always feel safe when they enter schools. A 2011 Gay, Lesbian Straight Education Network (GLSEN) study found that, “the majority of LGBT students are faced with many obstacles in school affecting their academic performance and personal well-being. Results indicated that 8 out of 10 LGBT students (81.9%) experienced harassment at school in the past year because of their sexual orientation, three fifths (63.5%) felt unsafe at school because of their sexual orientation and nearly a third (29.8%) skipped a day of school in the past month because of safety concerns. (Kosciw).
Schools sometimes have school board policies and codes of conduct that address bullying based on sexual orientation, gender, ethnicity and religion. Many schools implement anti-bullying programs in order to continue the conversation about school safety and bullying.
However, school climate is so much more than bullying programs. Sparks writes, “Experts say that administrators who focus on using climate merely as a tool to raise test scores or to reduce bullying may set up their reform efforts to fail. Stand-alone programs targeting individual symptoms like bullying or poor attendance may not provide holistic support for students, and emerging research shows such a comprehensive approach is critical to improve school climate.”
In the end
Student engagement, another aspect to school climate, is built when schools encourage student to voice and use tools that allow students to have their own autonomy. The same goes with teachers. When teachers feel supported by their school administrator, they feel more engaged in their school climate, which is a positive for all stakeholders.
According to the National School Climate Center, there are four dimensions of school climate.
- Rules and norms
- Physical safety
- Social and emotional security
Teaching and learning
- Support for learning
- Social and civic learning
- Respect for diversity
- Social support — adults
- Social support — students
- School connectedness/engagement
- Physical surroundings
Peter DeWitt is an elementary principal in Averill Park, N.Y. He blogs at Finding Common Ground for Education Week and is the author of “Dignity for All: Safeguarding LGBT Students,” published by Corwin. He can be found at PeterMDewitt.com. Connect with DeWitt on Twitter @PeterMDeWitt.
Cohen, J., McCabe, E.M, Michelli, N.M & Pickeral, T. (2009). School Climate: Research, Policy, Teacher Education and Practice. Teachers College Record, Volume 111: Issue 1: pp. 180-213.