Reflecting on School Climate and Culture
Continuing the conversation about positive learning environments, I have noticed a flurry of articles about school climate surveys because of the new federal Every Student Succeeding Act’s requirement for at least one noncognitive measure. I am heartened by the inclusion of this topic in the national conversation about school improvement. For those of us who are a part of the Young Spirit Foundation, we know how important a nurturing, healthy environment is to support our learners.
For my first fifteen years as an educator, I was part of a transformative educational experience called Ho`āla (Ho AH la), which in Hawaiian means “awakening of the self.” The Ho`āla way of being and organizing a school helped me become a better educator, parent, and family member. I also understood the power of school climate to support students, parents, and educators. This understanding was the foundation in my last eighteen years as principal to create a school where students were happy and engaged.
Schools generally are not student-centered. Instead, they are about academic results. The process to attain those results often doesn’t include students’ voices and doesn’t include assessing schools’ encouragement of student voice and choice. Human beings are wired by nature to be autonomous and it is in adolescence when that desire to be one’s own person, own thinker, and own decision maker arrives. I believe it’s important to involve students more as partners in the process of learning whenever possible and appropriate rather than recipients of adults’ imposed decisions. I’ve seen how my middle school students responded with enthusiasm when they were given a chance to be heard or allowed to create from their own ideas whether in their class project or in contributing to our school community. As principal I gave my students opportunities to share their ideas and implement them. With this kind of school climate, they gained confidence and skills about how to “sell” their idea and implement it successfully.
I also know that the other quality of a healthy school climate is students’ connectedness, a sense of belonging with adults and peers. These relationships form the foundation for them to develop their unique and authentic sense of self. John Goodlad said that the self cannot form without community. A school climate survey should assess students’ connection to the web of relationships that create a school family.
I believe the need for belonging through trusting relationships and the need for a sense of self and identity are critical for development into healthy adults. Being grounded in knowing and being comfortable with who they are, give students confidence and independence as they leave home to interact with the larger community.
Sr. Joan Madden, my mentor, said these needs for belonging and identity can be fulfilled when students are listened to, taken seriously, and feel that they make a difference. When I organized my school around these principles, amazing things happened for my students. I saw very shy students emerge from their shell in sixth grade to speak powerfully by eighth grade. Sara was one of these very shy students who rarely raised her hand when she entered my school. By eighth grade, she was involved in our Peer Mediation group helping other students.
She is now a sophomore in high school. In her first week as a freshman in the very large high school she attends, Sara was asked to attend a meeting with other students to consider giving up on her desire to take AP biology that year. On the morning of the meeting with the counselor and the other students who brought their parents, Sara’s mother asked if she should also be present as support. She said, “No Mom, I think I can handle it.” And she did! She didn’t relent on her desire and, in the end, the counselor found a way to make her schedule work to include AP Biology. Remembering Sara in sixth grade and seeing how empowered she is today gives me such a thrill as she continues her transformation to be an independent and empowered young adult taking charge of her learning.