Building Positive School Climate: Needed Today More Than Ever
By: Eileen Kugler
Are you seeing increased tensions among students? Do you hear name calling and see bullying more this year than ever before?
These are challenging times, where students hear hurtful comments in the media, or maybe at home as well. Since schools reflect our broader society, it makes sense that we are experiencing more hurtful interactions at school.
Creating positive school climate, where all students feel welcome and respected, takes intentionality. It’s more than a friendly hello as students arrive and welcoming signs around the building.
Of course, the first thing that must happen is to deal with any hurtful interaction on the spot. Christine Butson with Catholic Charities of West Tennessee advises teachers to talk with students as soon as they hear “things that aren’t right.” In her workshops for teachers, she says, “When you get punched, you say ‘ouch.’ That creates a pause and then you can talk about it.” She urges teachers to do the same when they see children emotionally in pain – take a moment and then begin a conversation.” *
But dealing with incidents is only a stop-gap. The underpinning of positive school climate is an understanding that the student body is made up of individuals with different ideas, perspectives and beliefs – and that’s a good thing. We need to do more than emphasize how we are alike, which can be easy and comfortable. Sometimes, we need to get a little uncomfortable – helping students see that their perspective may not be the only “right” one, learning to value difference and moving away from disrespect, blame or pity.
We need to teach students to not only accept difference, but actually seek it out so they can learn from others. We need to teach them how to engage in dialogue where their goal is not to convince someone else that they are right, but to listen and learn from someone with a different perspective. That’s how students develop critical thinking skills. That’s how students learn to collaborate.
One of my least favorite classroom demonstrations – often coming up during Black History Month – is what I call the “egg activity.” A teacher cracks open a white egg and a brown egg, showing students that the inside of the eggs are the same. But is that the lesson we want to teach? I think that simplistic lesson focuses on the wrong message. We need to be willing to look for how we are different, and see that as an opportunity to learn from each other. More in my short video
Even at an early age, students can learn to think beyond stereotypes and myths that permeate our society. Intentionally choosing books with anti-bias content is important. As Louise Derman-Sparks writes in her article on selecting anti-bias children’s books for Teaching for Change, children’s books “reflect the attitudes in our society about diversity, power relationships among different groups of people, and various social identities (e.g., racial, ethnic, gender, economic class, sexual orientation, and disability). The visual and verbal messages young children absorb from books (and other media) heavily influence their ideas about themselves and others.”
Rather than steering away from classroom discussions on topics that may be controversial, it is essential for our schools to create an environment where students learn to exchange diverse views that are based in facts. For example, far too few students learn about the complexities of immigration today, often leaving school with little more than a limited view based on stories of Ellis Island. Share My Lesson has excellent free resources on immigration for students at all levels, including a range of lessons from Teach Immigration. These can lead to rich and thoughtful classroom discussions.
Tolerance.org provides many resources, including a searchable library of diverse short texts, including informational and literary nonfiction texts, literature, photographs, political cartoons, interviews, infographics and more. Selections range from an excerpt from a book by Virginia Woolf, to speeches by Martin Luther King, Jr., to an article about Kennedy Nganga from Kenya who paints from a wheelchair. https://www.tolerance.org/classroom-resources/texts
Positive school culture is not an aside to academics, it is at the foundation of students’ ability to feel welcome and connected to school, and to their learning. In these days, it is even more important to help all students feel they are valued members of the school community who treat other members of that community with respect.
* More from Christine and other experts in my article in Educational Leadership, “Supporting Families in a Time of Fear”
Eileen Kugler is a global speaker, trainer and award-winning author on diversity and equity in education.