School Culture vs. Climate

I know ASCD is months away, but it is an honor to be asked to speak as part of the learning tables on Saturday and Sunday and taking the time to prepare is critical.  I will be talking about school culture and the impact it has on job satisfaction of teachers.  This was the topic of my dissertation and I am excited to share thoughts and findings.  However, in my current reading and in leadership conversations, I hear and read leaders using Culture and Climate as the same meaning as it relates to schools. Although these two terms have similar characteristics, they express two separate concepts. Maybe it is just a pet peeve of mine after spending two years researching culture, but even so –  I feel it is important to clarify for aspiring or even sitting school leaders.

Think about this…. If teacher brings cupcakes in on Monday and puts them in the conference room with a note “have a great start to your week”.  Everyone is happy, a great way to have a treat and a great Monday.  She does it the next Monday – this is a good example how how to have a good climate.  This act can turn a bad day into a good day or can make coming back from the weekend a little easier. That is the basis of school climate, creating a mood (hopefully positive).  However, it can change quickly.  Think about it, what if that teacher doesn’t bring cupcakes the third Monday? Do teachers say “why didn’t she bring in cupcakes” or “boy I was hoping for a treat today, Monday’s suck”… you can see the climate changing.  Culture would be an email going out after the first Monday saying, “Thank you to Ms. Teacher for the treats, next week I am up…who’s next?”  Is this a simplistic way to look at it? YES. But culture is something that is built and then carried on, not quickly changing.

In my research, I would sum up school climate as the collective mood, or morale, of a group of people. Climate describes the shared perceptions of the people in a group or organization, while culture includes how people feel about the organization and the beliefs, values, and assumptions that provide the identity and set the standards of behavior.

My research findings had a direct connection to a positive culture infusing positive motivation and in turn higher job satisfaction and increased instruction. Unfortunately, some leaders do not research the most effective strategies for creating a positive school culture….but they are actually trying to create a climate by relying on extrinsic rewards -such as preferred, or duty free lunch or think about the cupcake example. Bringing cupcakes after a weekend may help a few teachers come in on Monday, but this will not affect the culture of the building long term.

I think of climate as “how are we feeling around here” verses culture is “the way we do things”. Yes, a very small difference but climate is more mood or attitude of the group where I see culture as the personality of all staff members. Both climate and culture impact behaviors of the people in the school, but climate is as a narrower concept than culture. Culture goes deeper to include the immediate environment and what people believe and value. Culture is a product of the relationship history in a school while climate is a function of how current staff perceive those relationships in the present

Again, I feel a positive climate is important and is the main leverage point for any culture, which means that if school leaders want to shape a new culture, they should start with an assessment of the climate. If the culture is ineffective, there are probably climate issues that were missed before they became rooted in the culture.

A school staff develop a common culture in order to pass on information to the next wave of teachers. In schools, new teachers arrive yearly with their own ideas about how to teach. Through their college classes and practicum, teachers have been immersed in theories of best practices and current methodologies. If the culture of their first job does not embrace these new ideas, the new teachers will soon learn that to fit in they will need to conform. Because new teachers want to fit in and to feel like experienced teachers, they are vulnerable to the school’s culture and all the unwritten rules that have been passed on through the years of building a culture. An organization’s culture dictates its collective personality.

So this is all well and good but how can we move toward assisting current and aspiring leaders to look at their own school’s culture. Ask yourself “What are the foundations of my school’s climate and culture”.  A few questions I always recommend to assist with this reflection are:

  • Is there collaborative relationships between faculty members?
  • Do I see positive teacher-student interactions?
  • Is there collaborative relationships between the school leader and faculty?
  • Is there collaborative relationships between faculty members?
  • Do our goals focus on learning and high expectations for student achievement?
  • Are students feeling safe, connected, and engaged?
  • Do we have policies promoting social, emotional, ethical, and intellectual skills?
  • Are there clear, appropriate, and consistent expectations and consequences to address disruptive student behaviors?
  • Does our school have a high level of parental involvement?

A positive school culture and climate is the basis for sustainable learning. Conversely, in a toxic school culture and climate, learning by all will not take place effectively, and what is learned may be sustainably negative and harmful. When a school is a positive place to be, people are happy to be there, do their best, and make their best better. It is not exclusively on the shoulders of the building leader to support the existence of a collaborative school culture it is a shared ownership of all stakeholders in this process. According to Marzano (2003), teachers and school leaders must work together to build norms related to their own work and the school environment. The school climate is part of a culture that aligns with professionalism and collegiality. It is critical that all school staff must trust and act to achieve positive outcomes for students and support each other to sustain a collaborative culture and to achieve common goals (Bryk & Schneider, 2002; Gruenert & Whitaker, 2015).

I am going to leave you with a challenge. Imagine you are in the elevator and in walks a parent looking at houses in your district. It’s a ride with many floors, so you know it’s going to be at least 60 seconds. That parent then says to you, “I understand you are the principal in this district. Tell me what you are proud of with the school culture.”

The elevator door closes, and it’s your turn to speak. What are you going to say? Remember you only have 60 seconds. GO

If you need help –  start by thinking about

  • What is it that you are doing to help students (and staff) feel that this is a positive school, a place they look forward to coming into every day?
  • What is it that we are doing that is discouraging for students, that creates a negative climate?

Good luck – share your elevator story in the comments.


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