Creating a School Climate
Like the larger intergenerational social culture, school culture is influenced by conscious and subconscious perceptions, behaviors, practices, values, interactions, and beliefs, and is highly influenced by a school’s specific historical institutional background. Students, parents, teachers, staff members, administrators, and others all contribute to and influence their school’s culture, just as much as other influences like the neighborhood in which they live. This article describes four primary school culture components.
A major school culture factor is the general outlook of the faculty and staff toward the student body, particularly toward students’ external behavior, which includes appropriate dress and grooming standards, academic achievement, schoolwork, attitude, and personality. Many teachers talk to students about their external behaviors with a critical attitude, almost as if criticizing them. Teachers also evaluate teachers themselves on a yearly basis. Most school climate surveys find that teachers give high ratings to students in the schools that they teach in and feel very positive about their classroom environment. These attitudes may result from a long tradition of “tough love” in the schools of abusive families, or a history of physical or sexual abuse.
The second school culture component is found in the climate of the classroom. In a laboratory experiment with college students, psychologist Carol Sparshak set up the scene for a class discussion on American Idol. She had each student stand in front of a mirror and perform some imitation dance steps to a song that she had pre-recorded. While some students were excellent dancers, most fell short. Sparshak found that her subjects’ initial impressions of the class made an important impact on their performance, even if these impressions were not consciously considered in the performance itself.
One school culture factor that teachers and school administrators need to address is the attitudes of staff members toward newcomers and minority children. Some teachers are wary of taking chances on new students, while other staff members are highly offended by the mere presence of some newcomers on the campus. When a teacher challenges this kind of attitude in staff members, or fails to notice this kind of attitude when observing it in colleagues, the impact can be significant.
A third school culture factor that teachers and school leaders need to be aware of is students’ attitudes toward them. One study of middle school students found that the more authoritative a student’s teachers were, the more accepting they were of other students. Another study found that teachers who were authoritative were more accepting of new student behaviors and were more liked by students. The attitudes of staff members and administration are just as influential and powerful as teachers and school leaders.
All school leaders and teachers must be aware of the school culture they create. They must understand what kind of actions and words they will encourage in their classrooms and in their school community. They also need to understand their own attitudes toward these behaviors and reactions. Educators, administrators, school board members, curriculum developers, coaches, librarians, and parents can all help to shape a school culture. In the end, school leaders and teachers will have a great deal to do with the enduring quality and vibrancy of that school culture.