School leaders and practitioners read and hear much about the importance of a positive school climate and culture, and how it is a critical element in school effectiveness and success. Too often, the climate of the school is gaged through student behavior, their interactions with others, and the outcomes of their academic efforts.
In my work as an educational consultant and program evaluator I frequently work in underperforming schools that are characterized by a negative school climate. Students seem to be out of control, teachers aren’t teaching, apathy is the prevalent psycho-social condition of the school, the school appears dirty and not very inviting. In short, the school is an unhealthy environment for all.
Students are an easy target and are most often blamed for the malaise of the school’s atmosphere, both observed and perceived. Why is that so? First of all, students are generally thought to control the character of the school, right? Walking into a school cafeteria where students are loud and unruly, and prone to disrespect each other, along with adults, and their learning environment, one could easily deduct that “these kids are simply out of control” and it becomes easy for the school staff to declare that they would have the perfect school if only the students would stay home. Secondly, students most often stretch the limits of their behavioral boundaries simply because they can, and they don’t see value in maintenance of those boundaries. The philosophical construct in unhealthy school environments is not unlike the culture of prisons where the guards don’t really have an impact on prisoners except to control them. In the world of public education, the tendency for adults is to define respect as compliance.
Therein lays the problem. I suggest it is the result of a toxic “adult culture” that becomes evident long before the students become “out of control”. “A school with a toxic adult culture is a place where teachers are unwilling to change and where the tone is oppositional and acerbic” (Hinde, 2002). These schools are places where negativity, criticism, complaints, and blaming of others, or “looking out the window” are commonplace and dominate interactions, conversations, and meetings. In these schools, administrators are mistrusted and feared, and teachers reject efforts to reform and improve their programs and teaching practices (Preble, 2014). It often begins with the disengagement of the academic teachers in the core classes who are bombarded with demands to increase test scores at the cost of establishing relationships and building a culture of trust and respect. It ends with disrespectful relationships and teaching practices that devalues students and robs them of inspiration and value as individuals who are appreciated for their ideas and contributions. It is operationalized by students losing their individual and collective voice and is evidenced by pages of complex, school policies and disciplinary procedures that suggest a positive school climate is but an extension of obedience and conformity.
So, in the final analysis, it is the adults who are to blame for a negative school climate, not the students who are forced to attend. It’s time as adult educators to “look in the mirror” and accept some responsibility.
~Terry Cash, Edwards Educational Services, Inc. Consultant