When you think about the “persona” of your school, what comes to mind? Hopefully, you think of traits like collaboration, communication, and shared values. A school’s culture impacts students’ learning experience as well as teachers’ teaching experience.
Even schools with the most positive school culture have been affected by the last two years of disrupted learning and the rise of behavioral and emotional issues. Teachers, administrators, students, and parents are feeling the strain. A 2020 US study found that 14 percent of parents reported worsening behavioral health for their children since the start of the pandemic. That number rises to 40 percent for students quarantining at home.
How can you create and maintain a positive school culture with these challenges? We’ve broken down our research into actionable, yet simple steps to get your school to make the shift. Let’s take a look:
- Model care and empathy
Ensure that students and teachers know that they matter to you and that’s why you’re working so closely with them. Sometimes students can feel like the extra attention is negative; they’re working more and being challenged. They’re asking themselves why. Let them know that this is a temporary growing pain. This is a level of support they need but won’t need forever. You’re fostering strong adult relationships. These build students’ empathy, which builds strong bonds within the individual classroom. Once one classroom feels safe and comfortable, others can join in. As students go to the next grade, those bonds continue to grow. Some key characteristics to help build empathy and a caring environment is to be dependable, someone a student and colleague can trust. Truly listen and pay close attention when working together. Show that students are known and valued by believing in them and their abilities. Offer colleagues a listening ear, support when they need it, and share what’s working for you. Showcase a warm demeanor to communicate that you enjoy spending time together. Lastly, encourage students by praising them for all their efforts and achievements. Any small growth IS growth!
- Keep the right people in the loop
Share successes made by students with all stakeholders in their lives. Build up that excitement for all to bask in! There are many easy ways to keep parents and guardians informed with the rise of 1:1 technology. In Classworks, virtual observations are an easy way to highlight any behavioral or academic notes throughout the day. There are also emails and Zoom calls that easily coordinate different schedules. Some districts have parent communication apps in place. With an open line of communication, parents can contribute more to their child’s ever-evolving needs. When everyone’s on the same page with the same goals, students have a whole cheer squad rooting for them! Students tend to be more ready to tackle challenges and obstacles with a growth mindset. Push them to keep getting better! Support this newfound effort by expecting the student’s best and knowing they'll live up to their potential. Remember that yesterday was yesterday, and today is today. It’s important to hold students accountable and teach them to take accountability. However, it’s equally important to give them a clean slate and a new chance to succeed. Provide opportunities to reflect on failures to normalize them. We all learn from mistakes and setbacks. This should be a two-way street. The model is reflective of your areas for improvement.
- Challenge students effectively
We want all students and teachers to build confidence. But, if teachers don’t have the right data, they sometimes make educated guesses, which means they aren’t able to make adjustments to ensure continued progress. Make analyzing and collaborating with other teachers about data a regular part of your school process. You’ll feel more successful and confident that the instructional decisions you’re making will have a positive impact. For more about implementing a data-driven culture for SST meetings, read our recent post. When challenging students, teach them how to effectively collaborate and work individually to solve problems and reach goals. Create opportunities for students to sharpen and show off their skills by taking the lead on projects. Assigning classroom and school-wide roles builds students’ experience, confidence, and college and career-ready skills.
- Empower students
Normalize checking in with students and assessing their social-emotional and behavioral needs. This should be a regular part of SST and other collaborative team meetings. Helping students build and strengthen SEL competencies will directly impact their academic achievement. Let students lead the way and have a voice with democratic schooling. Involve students in decisions that affect them! Everyone’s input is needed in positive school culture. This is an opportunity to model and build mutual respect for everyone in the building. This life skill will translate into all their relationships in life.
- Provide accurate support
Once you’ve assessed holistic needs and have a sound system in place for analyzing data, it’s time to provide the needed supports. SMART goals are a great way to help students build new skills and practice applying them. If you have a digital goal tracking program in place, this is a perfect way to track individual, class, and school goals. For example, Classworks SMART Goal Tracker guides students with creating SMART goals, academic, behavioral, or personal, and tracks their progress towards achieving the goal. An essential part of the goal-setting process is teacher feedback and encouragement. Build time into the schedule to check in with students on their feelings about their goals and help set realistic expectations. SMART goals empower students and build confidence.
- Show students this is just the beginning
When all of these moving parts are interconnected, it creates lasting bonds and connections. Students begin to acknowledge the importance of people and their impact on each other. Expose students to new ideas, experiences, and places to show them the endless possibilities of their connections and the impact they can have on their future. Inspiration will flourish once they can better grasp the scope of the world. Making a mindset shift in school culture is no small feat. Take time to acknowledge what’s already happening around your school. Highlight educators going above and beyond and see how their thinking can help jumpstart a positive change. Maybe it’s removing certain words in conversation, such as “can’t”, to begin the belief process.
What does it look like when there’s a positivity shift across your school? Some changes will be easy to note, while others may be subtle or take longer to manifest. You’ll begin to notice school stakeholders (teachers, students, parents, staff, etc.) are engaged and respected. They are listened to and valued. All stakeholders work together to develop and contribute to a shared school vision. School staff has mutual respect and a desire to help each other succeed. Stakeholders contribute to a collaborative environment, and care and pride for the physical school environment are evident (National School Climate Council, 2007).