As a coach assisting teachers with technology integration and personalized learning, I notice patterns arising from teacher to teacher. One pattern that I have noticed is that a teacher, no matter how strong they are, hits a wall when it comes to progressing to the next level. In every situation I’ve encountered the reason is the same: absence of a positive climate and culture. Although I didn’t see it early on, I see it clearly now. The importance of climate and culture in a classroom and across a school are imperative to successful technology integration, personalized learning, and empowered learning. Here are some ideas on how to improve climate and culture both in the classroom and school-wide.
Climate & Culture at the Classroom Level
How a person feels is paramount to achievement. If a person does not feel safe, appreciated, or successful, they likely will not be motivated to work hard. They will not want to come to school at all let alone spend 6-8 hours there. On the flip side, a person who feels appreciated and feels success will work harder to continue feeling successful. It is a cycle that can be reset, and some schools are already trying to do that through PBIS and Capturing Kids’ Hearts. However, that is not enough. Students must feel that they are part of a classroom family and a larger school family. They need to feel responsible for the successes and failures in the classroom. One successful catalyst to changes in student behavior and empowerment is the Code of Cooperation as seen in the sample above. Self-control, organization, accountability, and respect are four powerful pillars to start from. Students are tasked with self-reflection and self-evaluation. Even the youngest learners can be successful doing this.
In addition to the Code of Cooperation, students often need to drill down and work on respecting one another. Often, they need to learn how to speak to one another politely and have civil discourse in a safe environment. Classroom teachers can help facilitate that through the introduction of sentence stems, blogging, and Socratic seminars. With the opportunity to use positive sentence stems, students can change the climate and culture in their schools, and this should be celebrated! (More on that here.)
In addition to treating one another with respect, each person should be celebrated at his own level with high expectations in place. Expectations is a generic term that encompasses so much: behavior, soft skills, achievement, etc. How can we do that with so many different levels in our classes? The answer is by personalizing learning and allowing students to set goals for themselves. As with yoga, we all start in different places, and we grow at our own pace. For too long, students have been passive learners sitting and getting instead of digging in and getting their hands dirty. Making decisions is a skill of which we have deprived our students. Ownership in learning is key to academic and personal growth. This can be accomplished through student goal-setting, tracking, and reflection. Too often, students don’t know where they stand in a class because the teacher controls the grade. What if the student decides what his goals for the class are based on his long-term goals for his life? What if students are given time to reflect upon their learning, failures, and successes? Ownership provides students the opportunity to care about, get involved in, and be active in their own growth.
Ownership goes beyond the individual as well. There are rules in a school that contributes to culture. How schools deal with behavioral issues is changing. Research shows that many behavior problems are merely reactions to boredom or frustration. The former, boredom, arises when students are not being challenged. As a result, they act out. At the classroom level, personalized learning, which is not possible without a positive climate and culture, encourages a student to set his own goals for achievement and move at his own pace, thus mitigating boredom. The latter, at the other end of the spectrum, reflects the low-skilled student who feels so overwhelmed and frustrated because of skill gaps. At the classroom level, the incorporation of blended and personalized learning is key to filling these gaps. Students are allowed the time needed to master a skill with support during station rotation or targeted instruction. However, climate and culture within the classroom are not enough.
Administrators Supporting Climate & Culture
How do positive classroom changes extend into the rest of school? Sometimes students make bad choices and are not focused on their personal learning goals. Some student actions will warrant an office referral. How are they dealt with there? Are classroom teachers 100% responsible for climate and culture? The answer, obviously, is no. So how does an administrator contribute to climate and culture? What if student goals are reviewed during disciplinary discussions? What if someone takes the time to talk the student through how their actions are affecting their attainment, or lack thereof, of their goals? What if the student-owned their actions and tried to decide whether they wanted to avoid the situation in the future and work to develop a coping mechanism for future incidents? This would take goals to a whole new level and deal with a student more holistically and on a personalized level. There would still be consequences, and the student would be involved in a fair, transparent process.
Leading By Example
A vital factor to all-school change is the administration. In business, the people at the top sell the product by their enthusiasm and belief in the product, not by ordering everyone else to walk the walk. As a result, the administrative team must be trained and believe in the change and walk the walk. Training admins in climate and culture and having them set goals empowers them to lead by example.
As a leader interested in changing the climate and culture in your school, here are some steps you can consider trying out:
- Create a tool to measure success before you start, i.e. backward design. Get feedback from teachers and admin to identify the change you want to see.
- Present the WHY with examples behind building a school-wide climate and culture that promotes student ownership, agency, and empowerment to all schools. WIIFM: What’s In It For Me is important to stress at this stage.
- Poll teachers and admin to measure interest and create a pilot or cohort group to support for the year.
- If you are a district leader, target schools that show interest in modifying school-wide climate and culture.
- Create a focus group made up of the schools with the most interest.
- Create a Climate and Culture Team at each school made up of teachers AND administrators who are invested and passionate about creating change.
- Create school-wide initiatives with the Climate and Culture Team coupled with classroom initiatives to be shared with the faculty throughout the year.
- Use the train-the-trainer model and give intense training to building-level instructional coaches who will be available for support, too.
- Track data all year with celebrations and share-outs. Recognition and healthy competition are true motivators.
- Digital Badging
- Professional Development Bingo boards for the freedom to jump in at your own level (see below)
- Incentives at each grade or building level
As society moves forward with technology, we in education need to lasso the opportunities available for support. Here are some ideas for how technology can help us help ourselves:
- Virtual trainings and webinars – you can create screencasts for asynchronous trainings that can be uploaded to EdPuzzle.com with multiple choice questions, comments, and thought questions embedded. EdPuzzle also allows us to track who has watched the video and evaluate their answers
- Teachers can videotape events in their room to share with support leaders or the Culture and Climate Team for analysis and debriefing
- Teachers can be coached virtually via Google Hangout or InMeetings.com
- Travel for teachers can be minimized by holding online meetings or webinars for teachers to share out their questions and successes
- Like students, teachers would set goals for themselves dealing with climate and culture and how they relate to achievement and behavior. The measurement tool will come in handy here, so teachers can measure their growth.
Scaling Out Positive Climate and Culture
As you try to scale out the positive changes you see, be aware of the business model dealing with adopters: Innovators, Early Majority, Late Majority, Laggards. Use this model to avoid getting discouraged. Figure out where each person in your school falls, and pull them onboard based on his/her category. Round one participants are the Innovators: not afraid of change, like to be first to try out new things, adaptable and open personalities. As they share their successes, the second level adopters will encompass the Early Majority: those who want to know it works and needs a purpose for a change. This group will be larger than the first, so additional support & resources will be needed. The third level/year will encompass the Late Majority: those who want the kinks ironed out for them and want to be absolutely sure this is not just another “flavor of the year” that will be gone in 2 years. The final group (year 4) consists of the Laggards who will either retire, leave education, or adopt only when forced.
Change is difficult for most people, and education seems to draw that personality; however, teachers historically will do anything it takes to help their students. If you can make this change about the students and not about referrals or school report cards, it will work. If you want your teachers to create a student-centered atmosphere in their classrooms, you need to revamp everything you do at your level. If you do that well, the rest will follow.
Eileen Fernandez-Parker is an Innovation and Digital Learning Coach in Charleston County School District, SC. She has over 28 years experience in public education spanning grades 4 through graduate level classes. She has a BA in English and Secondary Ed, an Elementary Certificate, and a Master’s in Educational Technology. Eileen has been a technology mentor and technology specialist for 20 years, and she is passionate about helping revolutionize education through personalization, engagement, and empowerment. Recently, Eileen has been a presenter for local and state conferences including SC ED Tech and EdTechTeam Summits. You can connect with Eileen on Twitter at @EFPTech.