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Creating a Learning-Centered School Culture & Climate

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Background

A school’s culture is one of the most difficult to describe and yet one of the most important elements in its success or failure in educating its students. The culture and climate of a school can be affected by factors from disciplinary problems and classroom rowdiness to educator pessimism or student apathy. Culture and climate, however, can most nearly be described as the sum of all perceptions and emotions attached to the school, both good and bad, held by students, faculty, administrators, parents, and the community at large. Some schools are seen as better or worse than they are, some have “reputations,” some are suffocating while others nurturing. Every school is perceived as different and every school has its own atmosphere and mood.

The importance of understanding and managing this somewhat elusive element is, however, manifest. Research shows quite clearly that schools perceived as being positive, safe, and nurturing environments focused on student learning do better than schools that lack this climate, regardless of say available technology, teacher training and other more obvious factors. This is not to say that a school with no textbooks will outperform one with textbooks based solely on environment, but that the learning environment, culture, and climate produced by the school as a whole can help or hinder in dramatic ways.

Benefits

The benefits of creating a positive learning environment, a culture of inquiry and thought, and a climate of passion and excitement are obvious; a school having such characteristics will be a place that students enjoy coming to everyday, an institution for which parents will be grateful and work to support, and a source of pride for the community in general. Advocating an improved school culture is easy, logical, and, in some ways, obvious. Nonetheless, when it comes to the culture and climate of a school, it is almost more important to focus on what can happen when things go wrong than when things go right, more important to focus on the obstacles than to focus on the results.

Ideally, all schools will be safe, fun, intellectually challenging places where students explore topics with interest. The reality, however, is that many schools like to think of themselves as possessing these traits when in fact they do not. When advocating for a better environment for learning, proponents of reform plans must look at their teaches, the parents, and the people of the school and put everyone under a microscope. For example, a principal, parent, or teacher that accuses another of being unenthusiastic or uninspiring is wading into dangerous waters; improving a school’s culture involves improving people and this can be extremely difficult. Educators that cannot do this, however, put their schools at risk for becoming institutions with a “toxic culture.”

Toxic cultures in schools can be created by a lack of hope—“these students just aren’t willing to learn”—a lot of pessimism—“we’ll never get that funding”—turf battles and dogmatism—“I’ve been doing this for 30 years and I’ll keep doing it my way.” Schools that have discipline, drug, or violence problems can also create a toxic environment—“it’s impossible to learn when your life is on the line.” All of these sentiments are absolutely crippling and must be avoided.

Ultimately, improving a school’s culture is more of a “must” than an option or a strategy. Though it can be incredibly difficult for educators to change the way people think and feel, once things begin moving in the right direction, positive results will almost immediately be seen. The greatest benefit for any educator who successfully manages to improve his or her school culture is the inevitable understanding of one’s self, one’s colleagues, and others, because knowing what people feel and think allows them to be inspired and led.

Examples

Huntington Beach High School in California is an excellent example of a school that managed to improve its student’s academic performance through an improvement of school climate and culture. For long a school labeled as “under-achieving,” Huntington Beach’s new administration decided in 1991 to initiate an adopt-a-student program aimed at those students who were labeled as struggling or on track for failure. By pairing these students with mentors, the school sent out a message that everyone was important and that no one would be left behind. Also, the school successfully made a “stand against violence” by initiating a “green ribbon campaign” which gave students the opportunity to unite in an effort to improve their school. By holding regular meetings centered on student improvements and setbacks, teachers and staff were able to compare notes on what was working when it came to troubled students and where improvement was needed. Finally, the new administration realized that the students causing problems in school were also the ones who were suffering academically. By using their adopt-a-student tracking program, Huntington Beach educators were able to improve academic performance and behavior at the same time, thus improving the learning environment of the school as a whole.

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