Three years ago, I worked as an Instructional/Literacy Coach in Iron County School District in Cedar City, Utah. As observations and coaching were a foundational part of this position, I would catch myself picking up on the culture and climate of every classroom or school that I entered. Some of the attributes that I distinctly remember were how comfortable the students were with following the expectations or not following the expectations that were posted. Did students feel safe participating in a whole-class discussion or small group discussion? Did the teacher provide positive feedback for the students? Were students receptive to the style of teaching that was being delivered to them? After my observation, I would later debrief with the teacher I had previously observed and ask them about these same questions that I used to guide my observations. Many times the teacher response I received to these questions was, “I don’t know, I think so.” I could tell from their response that even though they had inherently created a feeling or culture within their classroom walls, it was not intentionally planned.
Classroom culture and climate set precedence and an expectation for what the overall school feels like. The attitude toward peers and adults is then perpetuated through the classroom and streamed throughout the hallways and into the building. Solely, not one person or event can take ownership for a culture of a school or a classroom, but if it is not talked about, intentionally planned or executed, pretty soon you will be working or teaching in an environment that is steering itself and is succumbing to various attitudes and biases that enter the space.
Brene Brown, author and professor, stated “Courage is contagious. A critical mass of brave leaders is the foundation of an intentionally courageous culture. Every time we are brave with our lives, we make the people around us a little braver and our organizations bolder and stronger.”
Even though one person is not responsible for a school-wide or an organization’s culture and climate, a brave leader making courageous decisions will have an impact on putting barriers on where the culture and climate can be led. When speaking of culture and climate, educators use these words interchangeably. It is important that they are not only differentiated but defined in terms of intentional planning and execution.
Culture refers to the way teachers and other staff members work together and the set of beliefs, values, and assumptions they share. A positive climate and school culture promote a students’ ability to learn.
Climate refers to the quality and character of school-life. It has been described as the heart and soul of the school. That essence of a school leads a child, a teacher, and an administrator to love their school and look forward to being there each day.
In my observations as an instructional coach, there was a distinct difference with classrooms that had a great climate and culture, and it always came down to support. If students felt supported by their teacher and knew their teacher believed in them, the climate and culture were tangible. The same is true in my current role as an Executive Director. If the faculty and staff not only feel supported, but they are supported, and they have their basic professional needs met, they will succeed.
Over the past three years, we have developed a support network where all staff members are able to vocalize what we call their “support language.” This idea came after many months of making sure the system was in place to have our staff feel supported. What I realized early on in this process was a hand-written letter of gratitude or a catered lunch event work for some to show support and appreciation, but not all.
As a leadership team, we started meeting with employees and teams in the middle of the year and end-of-year interviews. We started asking the question, “What is your support language, or what does support look like to you?” The answers were astonishing. Some teachers felt more support than they ever had because of a hand-written note showing appreciation for a specific way they handled a student, taught a lesson, or had a positive attitude toward change. Other staff members would say money, that they need gift cards or bonuses to feel supported. We found out, much like “love languages,” a person’s “support language” varies from person to person and personality to personality.
Throughout these periodic interviews, one thing stood out to us. We have to be more intentional about how we support the employees in our building, and although we might not reach everyone’s support language with “moments” we create for our staff, we need to at least try to reach as many as possible. Culture and climate are now on our weekly meeting agendas; we give time to talk about how we can support all of the employees. We ask the teachers in their weekly collaborative meetings to talk about the specific needs of individuals in their grade level and how they can address those needs. We have mirrored those same conversations within the leadership team to ensure that if our teachers feel supported, their students will learn.
The culture and climate of a school or a classroom can be felt as soon as one walks into the environment. We have to do everything we can to ensure that the feeling that is felt is one that is open to creativity, open and honest discussions, honest and hard conversations that help us all improve and grow. The schools around the world and in our country that are succeeding are the ones that understand that education is more than just absorbing information and ideas; it is about feeling pride, ownership, and gratitude for being accepted for who you are as an individual. Just like an engaging lesson in a classroom is intentionally planned, we must do the same offering support and ensuring that the culture and climate within the walls of our building or classroom is one that can be felt by all stakeholders.