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Between a rock and a hard-data place: Nurturing school climate


school climateAs you read this, take note of all the other mental baggage competing for your attention. Are you distracted by someone or something in the next room? Are you tired or distressed about something?  If you are experiencing any of these feelings, chances are that they’re going to impair your ability to concentrate or think critically about what you are reading.

Now imagine that you’re a student. Perhaps you feel disconnected from your teachers and peers; meanwhile, life at home is slowly unraveling. Are you having a tough time concentrating on what you’re reading? Most likely, yes.

Intuition tells us that creating a positive school climate, an environment where students feel safe and engaged, is crucial to our students’ academic success. And a growing body of research confirms this. Yet according to a recent Education Week article, groups preparing future school administrators are finding that training on school climate and culture is, generally speaking, inadequate. Why though?

Perhaps it is because school climate—unlike absenteeism, graduation rates and test scores—is difficult to quantify. And in a culture consumed by hard data and academic accountability, it has become increasingly difficult for “turnaround leaders” to spend the time necessary to build relationships and a healthy school climate.

This is disconcerting, especially if you buy Clyde A. Cole’s argument that quantifiable problems (high dropout rates, low test scores) are actually the symptoms of a poor school climate, not the other way around.

If Cole, an executive director of content and curriculum for New Leaders, is right, perhaps it’s time that we give more attention to our school climate after all. How though?

Here’s what Rachel J. Neill, a principal at Quail Hollow Middle School in Charlotte, N.C. has done:

Last year, in her first as principal at Quail Hollow, Ms. Neill held individual and group meetings with teachers to identify what they thought was working at their school and what needed to be changed.

She then instituted a quarterly anonymous online survey for teachers to weigh in on how things were progressing throughout the year. After the first survey, Ms. Neill said, a teacher protested, arguing that even though the survey was anonymous, submissions could be traced to individual computers and used in future teacher evaluations.

"I genuinely just wanted to get feedback," Ms. Neill said. "On one hand, I had to have that conversation and say, 'I really hope you trust me.'

"On the other hand, I had to prove that in my actions, taking the survey data back to the teachers and saying, 'Here's what we found; here are the changes we're making based on the feedback' … and for people to see that it didn't show up in anyone's evaluation."

In Westfield, Ms. Scallion has started school culture training for all assistant principals on track to become school leaders. She meets with them monthly to review school data, such as student-behavior incidents and climate surveys, and look at various case studies.

"I look at them as my talent pool for future principals. Effective principals are intentional, consciously trying to influence school climate," Ms. Scallion said. "We ignore it at our peril and our students' peril, because students need to be in an environment where they not only feel physically safe, but feel emotionally supported and successful."

To read the rest of Sparks’ article on school climate, click here. We also recommend reading “The Challenge of Assessing School Climate, an article by Jonathan Cohen, Terry Pickeral and Molly McCloskey. 



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