Tips for changing school climate

I have written two professional books on preventing bullying and improving school climate. Using content from those books, my presentation to professionals offered what I thought was a clear approach for improving school climate.  After one of these presentations, a principal raised his hand and said, "That's okay, but tell me what to do."

I thought, "these administrators want quick solutions that never work."  But as I reflected on why so many school problems seemed resistant to change, I decided to shift the focus of study from education to the research of why people change or don't change.  I soon discovered that the principal, whom I had mentally criticized, was right, and I was wrong. I also realized that I had forgotten how difficult it is to make any meaningful changes in a complex organization like a school.  That principal was kindly telling me not to waste his time with PowerPoints but instead to offer him tangible and concrete things he could take back to his school and do.

My experience of presenting solutions and meeting resistance, however, is endemic to most change initiatives in the field of education.

Here is a typical scenario: Research has shown that a positive school climate is linked to student achievement.

  • Use data: develop and use a climate survey to measure it.
  • Share data/results with school community.
  • Select and implement a program/framework/strategy designed to improve school climate.
  • Evaluate how it works.
  • End up finding that some schools improve and some don't.

Unfortunately, this pattern is a familiar one to those who live and work in schools. To them these initiatives appear as just a set of new solutions to the same old problems. Many school veterans learn to wait out these so-called  fixes until they fall out of favor; meanwhile, they continue to say and do the same things that they have always done.

Although it might feel comforting to follow a scenario that makes sense on paper -- especially for those removed from the day-to-day life of a school -- school leaders should consider these other variables in the change equation when they seek to improve school culture and climate:

  • No culture/climate is all good or all bad.
  • It is hard to ask those who have created the culture/climate to change it.
  • Telling people to change is interpreted as a criticism.
  • The terms "school culture” and “school climate" are too abstract.
  • People need affirming messages even when their words and actions need to change.
  • Large-scale change is exhausting.
  • Culture and climate are directly related to the power of the structure of schools.

Based on my experiences and what I have studied, I propose some viable work arounds for moving in the right direction of improving school climate:

Focus and build on the positives already in place. Very good things happen every day in every school, yet they are easily overlooked or overshadowed by problems.  Find some time on a regular basis for all members of the school community to share the good things.

Leadership needs to acknowledge the challenges and difficulties inherent in educating hundreds of students.  Good leaders send the message,"We are all in this together."  When administrators can honestly admit their mistakes and their struggles, the people they lead are more likely to work with them. 

There are no easy answers or solutions; struggle is inherent in the endeavor.  Longing for things to be easy is a part of our culture, but wishful thinking often undercuts our efforts.  Remember most people chose teaching because it was hard and challenging. Rekindling this original sense of purpose can galvanize all change efforts.

Problems are not just okay -- they really show the way to go. This is the corollary to the preceding statement. It is human nature to want problems to go away, but problems point to where we need to grow.

Those in leadership positions should direct their power and authority to discovering and affirming shared values and beliefs. It may take time, but coming together around an agreed-upon set of values and principles for guiding everyone's words and actions is the foundation of a healthy community. An individual's words and actions should not be judged in terms of whether or not they please those in power, but rather by their consistency with those values and principles.

Build shared responsibility for helping all members of the school community align their words and actions with those values, beliefs and principles. A good leader can respectfully call out words and actions that are inconsistent, but they do so by pointing to the values and principles as the true authority. Ultimately, however, every member of the school community should accept responsibility for reminding, guiding and helping everyone align more consistently with those values and principles.

Get granular.  Focus on points of contacts between all individuals. Make it clear that simple things like consistently saying “please”, “thank you” and “you’re welcome" are how the values and principles are manifested in the environment.  Simple gestures like smiling, nodding or greeting someone while passing in the hallway are not incidental, but rather they are essential to creating a positive culture and climate.

Recognize and affirm all signs of progress.  Since progress is never linear, and problems and setbacks are inevitable, discouragement can be a significant issue among those committed to improvement. Build into the schedule times to collectively review all signs of progress. People need to see how far they have travelled, especially if the destination seems far away.

A school's culture and climate are the accumulated effect of the how people treat each other.  Change people's words and actions, and you change the culture and climate. Wise school leaders, therefore, don't devote much time to just talking about changing school climate.  They make sure that their words and actions reflect how everyone should treat one another: that is the starting point for all significant change. People, not programs, change hearts and minds.

Jim Dillon has been an educator for over 40 years, including 20 years as a school administrator. He is an educational consultant for Measurement Incorporated, who sponsor the Center for Leadership and Bullying Prevention. He is the author of "Peaceful School Bus", "No Place for Bullying", "Reframing Bullying Prevention to Build Stronger School Communities" and the picture book "Okay Kevin."

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