On school climate

In graduate school, I can remember discussing school climate and school culture using an analogy of an iceberg. What we see of an iceberg is only a tiny fraction of the actual majority of the iceberg that is hidden under water. That visible part of the iceberg is the school climate. It’s what we perceive on the surface.

School culture, however, informs school climate. School climate may fluctuate. A school may go through some positive, optimistic periods, but if the school culture is negative then it will eat away at that positivity until what remains is as bitter and hopeless as the culture.

Cultures exist at multiple organizational levels. For every rung of the organizational ladder a corresponding culture exists: state, district, school, teachers, and students. I want to focus on building-level cultures, so I will address school culture as it relates to teachers and students using my own personal experience.

As a teacher at my first inner-city school, I was brand new. I was yet unaware of any cultural norms, so I did everything in an idealistic way. I worked as hard as I could because I like to be good at everything I do. I stayed for hours preparing for the next day’s lessons and wrote detailed lesson plans. I came in to work when I could barely talk in an effort to eke out every bit of instructional time afforded me. I approached every lesson with excitement, as an opportunity to be a part of the solution to the problems with education. I stayed out of the teacher’s lounge and eschewed any negative teacher complaining.

Although it was emotionally draining working to form relationships with inner-city students, I loved my job and my students. But I thought about the idea that no man is an island. I did not want my colleagues to think that I was too good for them. I did not want my colleagues to think that I felt that I knew everything and did not need their input or advice.

Through interactions with teachers I learned the bare minimum I could include in my lesson plans for them to be considered acceptable. I learned I could very easily use my sick days as mental-health days. I learned that I could play videos and justify them as curriculum. I learned that if I would coach something I’d have job security no matter what the quality of my teaching. I learned that I could miss even more school by jumping at every opportunity for professional development. The culture for teachers was one of doing the bare minimum.

The school had just been given a new principal, and that principal made a point of trying to re-culture the school. Although the school was a failing school, he was going to throw every penny at turning that around. And he did. Teachers worked as hard as they were capable. Teachers stayed four to five hours after school was over. Teachers implemented innovated ways of teaching and grading. Teachers collaborated with each other on their own time. But there was another culture at odds with this new culture for teachers that was being cultivated: the student culture.

The student culture was one of failure. I can remember one of my smartest students telling me that no one goes on from our school to do anything great. Why would our athletes train their hardest when no scouts were going to check out our games? Why would our students strive to be academically successful when it meant little to do so at a failing school? So they didn’t. Teachers were going at 200%, but in the end we were still a failing school.

But we had only failed by two students. Teachers had a glimmer of hope. One more year was all it would take. One more year of running at full speed. But we failed again. Our principal was “fired” to show the district was doing something about our poor performance. He was then promoted to a district office position because he was actually an amazing, dynamic leader; he just couldn’t do the impossible. Teachers started to question the value of wearing themselves out just to be failing teachers in a failing school. Teachers burnt out and went back to that bare minimum mentality or they left the school, left the profession, or moved on to other endeavors.

Teachers are trained to find creative ways to give students a taste of success to motivate them to do well. We weren’t given a taste of success. We worked as hard as we could, but we only got fear, uncertainty, and blame. Our motivation was shot.

Now once again I am a new teacher and figuring out the climate. The school culture is completely foreign to me. Teachers dress professionally. Teachers hold high expectations for their students. Teachers don’t take a bunch of mental health days and are held accountable for attendance by their colleagues. All teachers must post their lesson plans (as opposed to just new teachers) for all other school personnel to see. Teachers are expected to communicate frequently with parents. We have parental involvement. We have celebrations—and success to celebrate. Our teachers get great evaluations and support.

We have school spirit. Our students are proud and consider themselves lucky to be a part of such a great school. Students from out of zone fight to get to come to our school. Our athletic teams win district and state championships. Our students go on to become National Merit Scholars. Our students hold high expectations for themselves and work hard to achieve success. Students feel that they have real futures. These circumstances create cultures for both students and teachers of success. That culture of success goes a long way in perpetuating that success. It’s a big, wonderful cycle of success that breeds more and more success.

We can’t expect to turn around our worst performing schools if we don’t allow them a culture of success. This witch hunt on the basis of test scores is killing the morale of students and teachers in our inner-city schools. If we want to breed positive school cultures that can sustain positive growth, we must not label schools as failing schools. That year that we failed by only two students, we should have been celebrating the tremendous growth we’d made since the previous year. But we weren’t. We couldn’t. When failure is your only future, why even try?


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