The terms climate and culture are often used interchangeably, but their meanings hold differences that drive our intentionality (Gruenert, 2008). The climate of a school is the overall attitude of the people within. It is defined by the atmosphere felt when walking through the doors and interacting with the members. The climate is the energy behind the culture of a school. The culture, on the other hand, is more about the ideologies and beliefs that make the school an effective learning institution.
What creates the climate in a school? Climate is determined by the reactions to events and the surroundings of the school. We might consider it the personality of the school. It changes according to the factors to which we respond. The building itself helps shape the climate. The surroundings of our environment make us feel a certain way. Colors of walls, textiles throughout the building, choices of lighting, and furniture style are just a few of the factors to which we subconsciously respond. Outside factors are also inadvertently brought into the schools, and they change the climate.
The energy of the students, faculty, and staff all help create the climate of the school. Students who come to school clean, well-rested, and well-fed are ready to learn, and they add to a positive climate. Conversely, students who are overly tired and hungry are easily agitated and are unable to learn. A faculty member who has had a difficult weekend with a family member may bring disappointment, hurt, and fatigue into the classroom. The climate may not change every day, but shifts in the climate of a school can occur within a short period of time.
Culture, on the other hand, is the deeper grounding of the school—its character. It refers to choices made in terms of educational paradigms and ideologies. The culture of a school is created by the beliefs of the faculty as a whole. To what kind of education does the school subscribe? Is the instruction more teacher-directed or is it student-directed? Is there more lecture or more self-discovery in instruction? Is the educational mindset that of perfection, or do the students feel safe to make mistakes? Is the teacher teaching a curriculum or teaching students? Is the chosen curriculum being taught with fidelity? A consistent methodology within any given school building sets the culture.
Various educational elements contribute to both climate and culture. Discipline is one such element. Students and teachers can feel freedom by the structure of discipline, creating a positive climate. Or, students and teachers can feel oppressed by the structure of discipline, creating a negative climate. In a school where the student body encourages peer positivity, the climate is light and liberating, because they don’t need negative reinforcements. A school in which discipline is lax may have students who are bullying classmates or even teachers. This is not conducive to high educational standards, as too much time is spent managing behaviors. A school that is too heavy handed with discipline feels too militant and creates a culture of fear. High expectations and consistency of those expectations allows for optimal learning under manageable circumstances. A balanced culture, in turn, helps to define a more positive climate.
Be the Change
Does your school need a shift in culture or climate? The change in culture can begin with just one person. It can be as simple as sharing a box of donuts with coworkers. How about sending notes of encouragement to struggling students? Maybe you could create a bright and cheerful bulletin board with names of good citizens. Offering positive words to a coworker or a student in the hallway can brighten someone’s day. Opening the blinds or even a window in your classroom to let in sunlight and fresh air can brighten the climate of the day. Do you have a flower garden at home? Sharing a small arrangement of flowers with the administrative assistant can brighten her day as well as anyone who walks by.
Cultural change is more complicated and time consuming than climate change. However, if you want to change the culture in your corner of the school, do so by being more assertive in your professional development and implementing the changes you can. You cannot be responsible for changing the culture of the entire school, but imagine what could happen if you create a spark that will ignite that kind of cultural shift. Teachers can be more innovative, students can be more motivated, and parents can revel in their children’s thirst for education.
No school, no day, no teacher, no student, no administrator is perfect. But each of us can look within and plan for better climate and culture. Where will you start?
By Nancy K. Harrison
Ms. Harrison served for five years as the Assistant Head of School for a small, private school in central Virginia that serves students with learning, attention, and emotional differences. Currently, she is teaching special education in a public elementary school. She holds a master’s in Curriculum and Instruction and a master’s in Special Education, both from the University of Lynchburg, where she is currently enrolled in the master’s in Education in PK-12 Administration and Supervision.
Gruenert, S. (2008). School culture, school climate: They are not the same thing. Principal, 87(4), 56–59.