School climate: the collective perception of how well a school provides suitable conditions for learning, for positive social, emotional, and character development, for all staff to grow professionally, and for parents, families, and community resources to become engaged in the school (Elias, 2015).
A positive School Culture and Climate is equivalent to clean air and water. Without air and water, you are unable to sustain life, and without a positive School Culture and Climate, you are unable to engage students in meaningful and positive learning that promotes academic achievement and success. As a principal, I have heard these terms used interchangeably, as if they were one and the same, and it always bothered me. While they are dependent upon each other, they are not the same. Culture and Climate are not just about individuals; they encompass the entire school as an organization.
As a school leader, I knew the culture of the school was very important. These were the traditions carried from years past to the present that created the very essence of the school, the brand, the logo—the school songs, the homecoming traditions, senior pinning, the way we recognized students, the things that happened at every athletic activity. Sometimes culture showed up through sayings, such as “This is how we do things around here,” or “These are the unwritten rules.” These traditions and customs made up the culture that had been established at the school and what students from past and present remembered for years to come. Some may be good, and others may need to be tweaked, changed, or eliminated.
With each new principal at a school comes new traditions, but I suggest that all leaders should always learn the history behind existing ones. Many times, traditions and customs can get lost if the school has rapid changes, like many underperforming schools often do. As the leader of the school, make it your business to find the people who know the history and talk with them, talk with the alumni association, and look at previous yearbooks. “The effectiveness of a new culture depends on the strength of the people behind the change and the strength of the pre-existing culture” (Steve Gruenert, 2015). Creating a positive culture will make a big difference in the school and help you build relationships with the community.
The climate of a school is created by the attitude of people working in the building. In other words, what we do and how we carry ourselves and interact with students help create the climate. I say climate is most critical to the school environment—it IS the school environment. The climate of a school can be felt from the moment you arrive on campus and enter the doors of the building—it surrounds us (Muhammad, 2018).
During one of my latter years as a principal, my school had a climate problem. We had an incoming group of ninth graders who needed lots of love, we were merging the faculties of two schools that were in the same building, and the district implemented a new code of conduct. A perfect storm. I was in a situation where new staff had to be trained, the freshmen had to learn the new expectations of their environment, and I had to create practices that both faculties could live with so it did not appear that I was making them do everything “my way,” but I needed it to be “our new way” of doing things.
What I learned is, in order to make this happen, you have to be vulnerable and you have to have a team of people committed to the vision and values you have as a school. You also need to have support from your district and supervisors, as some decisions you have to make in order to create a positive climate may not be popular but are needed. It was not an easy task. “Why?” you may ask. Because people do not like change, especially when they think their way of doing things was already okay. It took a lot of relationship building between administration and teachers, teachers and students, students and students, etc.
As the leader, I had to help everyone realize “we were one” and that the ultimate goal we all were trying to achieve was improved student achievement. It meant I had to have critical conversations with all stakeholders. I rooted my conversations in data to show what each individual school contributed to the whole and how this could continue to happen. I had to reassure teachers that their voice was valuable, reassure parents that the high quality of education their children were receiving would not change, and let students know that we cared about each one of them individually and as a collective whole. Was it easy? Hell no, it was hard work. But it was worth every minute. I will say, it is a lot easier when you don’t have forces working against you, so you must be aware and identify who will help you Lead, Inspire, Fuel, and Empower.
As a leader, I took a big risk each quarter. I created a Culture and Climate survey and distributed it to all faculty and staff. It was anonymous and included questions that provided me with a quick analysis of the Culture and Climate of the school. I shared the results with the leadership team as well as the faculty. We celebrated the successes and solicited ideas on how we could make changes to areas of need. I shared with the team that, as a collective, WE were responsible for our Culture and Climate, and working TOGETHER is how it changes. If they had an idea about how something could happen, my response was “How do we make that happen?” It gave everyone an opportunity to own the idea presented. It allowed me the opportunity to pivot and make changes on a continual basis to ensure that our Culture and Climate remained positive and provided students the best opportunity to succeed.