A Teacher's Role in Improving School Climate

The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA)  was passed to replace No Child Left Behind and requires that states measure non-academic indicators alongside traditional standardized test scores. The new legislation that governs elementary and secondary education wants to track school success based on a number of factors. States have the right to choose which indicators they'll look at besides student test data, as well as how to measure and track those non-academic indicators.

In education, it's widely known that what gets measured or assessed is what ultimately gets taught or followed through within the school. So, by broadening accountability to include non-academic indicators, schools will be forced to start measuring things like student engagement, or access to advanced coursework. One of the indicators that is allowed by ESSA is school climate and safety. Let's take a look at what school climate and safety is and how individual teachers can play a role in encouraging and improving this non-academic area.

What is School Climate?

You can tell what kind of a climate is present at a school campus soon after you step through the doors. It's indicated in how the people who share the space interact with each other. Do students and teachers appear as if they want to be at school? Is this school clean and well organized? Are positive messages clear on murals and bulletin boards? Is excellent student work showcased and a point of pride? The National School Climate Center defines school climate as “the quality and character of school life.” The Center measures these things by looking at the values and expectations that people feel in the environment, how emotionally and physically safe people feel, how engaged and respected people are, how much all stakeholders work together to develop and maintain the school vision, how positive attitudes are emphasized and nurtured, and how each person contributes to the care of school.

Why School Climate is Important

Schools with positive climate are safe schools. Detention and expulsion rates, as well as disciplinary issues, are less frequent at schools where everybody is on the same page in terms of respect, responsibility, and safety. Schools with positive climates also have higher graduation rates. This is usually due to higher motivation levels and decreased student absenteeism when students feel safe and engaged in their learning. Because schools with a positive climate encourage close collegial relationships, teachers in these schools work together to define and meet outcomes. This shared work effort increases staff morale which, in turn, adds to the positive school climate. Schools with a positive climate are caring and responsive. They use fair discipline practices and encourage positive student-teacher relationships.

How Teachers Can Improve the Climate

Even though ESSA measures school climate by school and district, it is through the efforts of all stakeholders that school climate improves. This is especially true of teachers, whose input helps guide programs and decisions on campus. Here’s how teachers can take a leading role in improving school climate:

  1. Get students caring for the school environment.

One factor of a positive school climate is the cleanliness and organization of the school grounds,  as well as the classrooms and shared spaces. In order for students to feel buy-in and connection to the school environment, they need opportunities to care for the environment and plan how space is used. When changes are being made to the classroom, seek student advice. Ask your students how to move things around in order to make the classroom safer and more comfortable for their learning. In addition, have students clean up the classroom and school grounds. You might work with other teachers to create a schedule to determine which class is responsible for school clean up each day.

  1. Revise discipline policies.

According to the National Association of School Psychologists, “punishment-based discipline does not improve school safety, learning, or behavior.” Zero Tolerance policies are the norm in many schools, however, the harsh consequences that are given, despite the severity of the misbehavior or the circumstance, negatively impacts the overall climate of the school. Discipline policies that rely on suspension and expulsion remove students from their peer groups and take away their chances to fix problems and continue to learn. These policies also negatively impact minority students and students with disabilities. Even if your school won't change a Zero Tolerance policy, you can enact positive discipline strategies in your own classroom. Give students a chance to improve peer relationships and continue to be included in classroom learning and activities.

  1. Implement a Social and Emotional Learning curriculum.

Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) is more than just a buzz phrase in education right now. It is the foundation with which people form and grow positive inter- and intra-personal relationships. Longitudinal studies have shown well-documented positive effects of SEL programming on improved school climate and school connectedness, not to mention on student academic achievement. What’s more, SEL programming positively impacts students from diverse backgrounds, meaning your curriculum becomes more inclusive and students feel engaged and safe in your classroom. Check out the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) website to research existing SEL programs and choose one that’s right for your students.

  1. Teach peer mediation.

We've already discussed positive discipline policies above. However, let's take a look at one extremely effective method that uses positive discipline. Peer mediation is behavioral intervention that is done when two students get together and problem-solve. In this practice, students meet privately to work out problems with the help of a trained peer mediator. Not only does that reduce the time that teachers have to spend on discipline issues, but it also empowers students to resolve issues by themselves. For more information and how to get started with peer mediation for your students, check out the Peers Making Peace program which is the peer mediation program recognized by the US Department of Education. This program has had tremendous success, including leading to a 73% reduction in expulsion and almost 60% reduction in discipline referrals.

  1. Engage parents.

One of the most important factors in creating a positive school climate is involving all of the stakeholders in decision making. When teachers, administrators, students, and parents, work together toward a vision of an improved school community, the school climate will immediately be improved. According to the CDC, “Research shows that parent engagement in schools is aligned with better student behavior, higher academic achievement, and enhanced social skills.” It's not always easy to get parents to come to school for meetings and events, though, so teachers can begin the engagement by meeting parents where they’re at. Home visits are a great way to get to know parents in a low-stress atmosphere and to see a student's natural environment. In addition, most adults have smartphones or access to the internet. So, engage parents online with classroom and school social media accounts. By letting your student’s parents see what is happening at the school every day, they can become more active and engaged members of the school community.

Improving a school climate really does take the effort of all stakeholders. But, as a teacher, you are at the forefront of that change. By improving the climate in your classroom, you can affect a big change outside of those walls. Your students can become role models to students in other classrooms. You can take your new discipline policies and peer mediation practices to staff development and pass them along to other teachers. You don't have to wait for your school to implement specific programs to improve the school climate, you can start within the four walls of your classroom.

Amanda Ronan  is an Austin-based writer. After many years as a teacher, Amanda transitioned out of the classroom and into educational publishing. She wrote and edited English, language arts, reading, and social studies content for grades K-12. Since becoming a full-time writer, Amanda has worked with a diverse set of clients, ranging from functional medicine doctors to design schools to moving companies. She blogs, writes long-form articles, and pens YA and children's fiction. Her first YA series, My Brother is a Robot, is slated for release by Scobre Educational Press in September 2015.