Have you experienced any of these in your schools?

  • Poor attendance
  • Frequent discipline incidents
  • Negative talk about students or other faculty
  • Poor perceptions of the school
  • Underachieving students
  • Low staff morale
  • Staff apathy
  • Passive learners

Like most schools, you likely need to focus more on improving the culture and climate. 

Would you rather experience:

  • Job satisfaction
  • Increased motivation
  • Improved connectedness between staff and students
  • Collaboration and cooperation
  • Support of school leadership
  • Ownership in goals
  • Shared responsibility for learning
  • Caring attitudes
  • Innovation
  • Improved teamwork
  • Enhanced morale
  • Increased productivity and efficiency
  • Retention of the workforce
  • Reduced stress
  • Increased academic achievement
  • Social and emotional wellness

It’s universal. All school leaders experience at least some of the first list and want lots more of the second list. There are many research-proven benefits of a positive school culture and climate. But there is a large gap between research findings related to school climate and culture and the practices that are observed in schools today. Addressing these issues is a critical foundation for the improvement of the ultimate school outcomes, student success and wellbeing. Fortunately, there are proven methods to build support and set the groundwork for your school culture and climate improvement initiatives.

Whether you address them or not, your schools’ culture and climate is either helping or hurting your students. According to a study out of Brown University and Harvard University in 2016, culture and climate are key drivers of your ability to retain teachers.  They are also have a mediating effect on efforts to improve student achievement.  According to John Hattie (2017), teacher efficacy has more influence on student achievement than any other factor (Effect size = 1.57!). This is partially because a positive school culture builds teacher efficacy, which has a very powerful influence on student achievement.  According to The Research Alliance for New York City Schools, both teacher retention and student standardized test scores increase faster when the context of the school is strengthened.

  In short, school culture and climate have a large impact on critical teacher and student outcomes. Unfortunately, but most schools are not measuring our culture and climate, and we rarely have a systematic process for managing the culture and climate.  Teacher retention, staff morale, staff engagement, staff motivation, and student achievement suffer as a result. It’s a huge missed opportunity to make schools better for everyone.

This is not a new call to action. Back in 1998, DuFour and Eaker warned us that decades of school improvement efforts had failed to improve school achievement because they did not address improvement of the school’s culture and climate. In essence, educators have known for a long time what needs to be done, but we have not implemented the sustainable policies and practices needed to optimize school culture and climate.

It’s easy to understand why this gap between knowledge and practice exists. School leaders and staff have never been under more pressure to do so many things for so many people. The date needed to determine what improvements need to be made and then monitor those improvements to see if they are working is elusive.  What little data does exist is rarely actionable and even more rarely translated into sustainably deployed initiatives.  Let’s face it.  We lose focus, and when we do our initiatives fade away, and we lose the ground we had gained.

And this all comes at a cost. We even lose some of our best people. And the bottom line is teacher attrition wastes money and hurts student achievement. According to the Learning Policy Institute, teacher turnover costs an average size district two to three million dollars per year. Tragically, a 2016 report out of Virginia Commonwealth University finds that schools with the greatest socioeconomic and academic challenges are more likely to experience the negative effects of a toxic school culture, perpetuating inequality and the college and career readiness gap.

The solution is simple, yet not so simple. We need to improve!  Even schools that already have a strong school culture and climate saw higher student achievement gains when they improved their culture and climate, according to a 2018 report from the University of Chicago. They further found that “Schools with the highest learning gains had principals who promoted a strong school climate by empowering and coordinating the work of teachers and school staff around shared goals. Improvements in school climate set up all teachers and students to be successful.”

Ok, improve, but how? Improvement requires a well-constructed plan, a strategy for measurement/monitoring the culture and climate, and a support and accountability model that sustains the initiative.  But even a well-constructed plan will have difficulties at take off with the support and buy-in of our internal and external stakeholders. Staff buy-in, particularly, can make or break our improvement efforts.

Fortunately, there are effective strategies that have been proven to create the support and buy-in we need.  First tell them why improving culture and climate is important. Discuss it with your staff, colleagues, and leaders in a place and at a time that is comfortable for them. Explain how the improvement will impact the school and/or district.  Share the key goals and objectives that you want to achieve.  Make sure to grab their attention by appealing to their needs and challenges. Use data, preferably your data. The National Educators Association recommends giving surveys to students, parents, and teachers to see where the gaps are in the culture and climate of your schools. Sometimes, it is helpful to paint the picture in the form of a success story you’ve heard or read about. Explain how focusing on culture and climate will make their life at school better. 

You may benefit from leaning on the credibility and expertise of people outside of your organization.  There is an abundance of research to support this work.  Perhaps, you could even bring an expert on the topic to speak to your staff, colleagues, and leaders, either an expert on the research or someone who has led their own improvement of culture and climate.  If needed, it is often helpful to encourage those you are convincing to join you on a visit to schools that have successfully implemented school culture and climate projects. Most importantly, as you build support and buy-in, be transparent at all times and gather input from those affected by these improvement efforts. Listen for concerns and address them early as possible by identifying their root cause. 

With enough planning and effort, it is likely that internal and external stakeholders will see the value of improving the culture and climate of their schools. They will see the significant benefits they stand to reap through improvement and the negative effects of ignoring culture and climate. The foundation will be set for a high fidelity culture and climate improvement initiative.  Now all that needs to be done is to measure, monitor, and engage in the work of improvement!

Watch the Satchel Pulse webinar"Why staff culture and climate matters".

Author: Dr. Jeff Klein

Posted: 20 Aug 2020

Estimated time to read: 6 mins

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