School Climate and Culture

by Chuck Saufler, M.Ed. © 2005
This article is chapter 1 in the publication Maine's Best Practices in Bullying and Harassment Prevention.

School climate is the key factor that determines whether young people will be bullied or not. In the first few minutes of entering any school, you will develop a "feel" for the school. What you see on the walls will influence your feeling. Are there displays of student works, pro-social slogans pasted everywhere, posters announcing upcoming community building events? Or are the walls devoid of student work and instead there is a poster with 15 rules of conduct displayed? Does each begin with the word, "Don't"? How you are greeted (or not) by students and adults in the hallway impacts your "feel" for the school. Are they helpful and interested in whom you are and how to help you get where you want? Or do they walk by trying not to make eye contact? This "feel" you develop is indicative of the school climate.

A new student on his first day of classes walks into his homeroom, looks across the aisle and says to another student, "What's this place like?" The other student proceeds to tell the new kid who the nice teachers are, who the mean teachers are, areas of the school to avoid, which cliques are in power, what events are fun to attend, and what the sports program is like. He is describing the school culture to an outsider. The strongest influence on how young people treat each other is the culture of the school.

School climate and school culture are two distinct but highly interrelated and interactive dimensions of school life. School climate is created by the attitudes, beliefs, values, and norms that underlie the instructional practices, the level of academic achievement and the operation of a school. School climate is driven by how well, and how fairly the adults in a school create, implement, model and enforce these attitudes, beliefs, values, and norms. Climate is largely created by the adults in a school and has been described as the "feel" of a school's general atmosphere. In schools with strong school climate the adults model behaviors that strengthen climate, such as learning student names and greeting them by name. Adults showing a genuine concern for individual students and consistently reinforcing them positively and responding to negative behaviors in a respectful manner also strengthens the climate. The product of good school climate is a strong school culture. School culture is "the way we do that here", or the way "we don't do that here. The "that" can reflect any attitude, belief, value, norm, procedure or routine including "how we do relationships at this school". In a school with strong culture any staff or student will be able to explain and demonstrate "how we do that here".

Culture and climate are aspects of an interactive system, in that changes in one produce changes in the other. For example, two schools can have the same stated rules, values and norms. However, the school cultures may be very different because of how the adults in these schools enact those rules, values, and norms. If, in one school, adults demonstrate that all students are valued and academic expectations are high, and the other school demonstrates a lack of caring and concern for some students, the school cultures will differ tremendously and have different effects on the respective school climates. School culture feeds back to climate and climate to culture. Climate is established by the actions of the adults and sets the "tone or feel" of the school. Culture is how students and staff behave in the context of the climate created by the adults.

One example of how this is played out in many schools has to do with harassment. All schools have a policy forbidding sexual harassment by students. If a student reports harassment to one adult at school they may get a wide variety of responses from the adult including being told to, "Ignore it", or "Tell them to stop", or worse, "Boys will be boys". Or, if they report to another adult they may get a swift, direct response including intervention with the perpetrator and protection for the victim from further abuse. Inconsistency or lack of staff response creates a climate of uncertainty and undermines trust between students and staff. This message is instilled in the school culture. Undermining trust affects the culture by creating a less dependable environment and less trust between students and staff.

Another example that is all too common in middle schools and high schools is differential behavior on the part of staff toward different subgroups or cliques of students. This is often exemplified by permissiveness on the part of staff toward athletes or other "preferred" students and lack of tolerance and rigid adherence to the "letter of the law" with less "valued" students. This unfair treatment does not go unnoticed by students and has a powerful detrimental effect on school culture. It reinforces the belief that some students are more valued and privileged than others and its okay to treat less valued students unfairly.

As damaging to school climate as these examples are there is another adult behavior that is worse. That behavior is to not respond to obvious aggression. Whenever an adult in school walks past an obvious act of verbal or physical aggression and does not respond, three very clear messages are sent into the school environment. First, the targeted student is devalued as someone who does not deserve the protection of the adult. Second, the aggressor is given tacit approval by the unresponsive adult thereby empowering the aggressor even more. Third, any bystanders or witnesses to the event are made to feel that school is unsafe because the adults allow aggression and don't protect the students. This lack of response on the part of adults destroys a positive school culture.

The only thing worse than an unresponsive adult is a bullying adult. Adults bullying students is defined as a pattern of conduct, rooted in a power differential, that threatens, harms, humiliates, induces fear, or causes students substantial emotional distress. Adults modeling this kind of behavior in school create a climate of fear and disrespect. It takes a whole school commitment to a set of common values, with a persistently vigilant and proactive staff, to prevent these dynamics from developing in the school climate or to correct them if they already exist.

At the heart of school culture are the relationships that exist in three specific domains: staff to staff, staff to student and student to student. The nature and quality of these relationships defines the school culture and significantly impacts school climate. If any of these relationship domains are dysfunctional or negatively compromised by climatic issues, the impact reverberates throughout the entire culture of the school, negatively affecting the school climate. This negative cycle is self-perpetuating and requires proactive staff involvement to correct.

This process does not operate in a vacuum. It is part of a larger system that is impacted by (among other things) community norms, values, attitudes and beliefs. Community impact on school climate and culture cannot be left out of this equation. When a community demonstrates that it values students and education, it can have a very positive effect on climate and culture in the school. Likewise, when community values and norms differ from those of the adults in the school building it creates dynamics that make it harder to produce a positive school climate.

Effective schools exert positive influences on student behavior despite conditions in the home, community, social status, gender, race, or ethnicity. This is the influence of positive school climate on school culture and is the responsibility of the adults. When this happens it actually has the potential to plant the seeds of cultural change back into the community because students from the school culture interact with the community culture when they are not.

A part of the bigger picture is the influence of state and national politics on school climate and ultimately school culture. When there are legislatively imposed processes that many adults in school find intrusive and personally demeaning it affects their attitudes about working in education in negative ways. Chart of School CultureAttitudes drive behavior and in some cases may impact a person's general demeanor and affect their relationships with other staff and students in negative ways that effect the school culture and climate simultaneously. It takes strong leadership to maintain a positive staff outlook in the face of such impacts from outside of school.

It is important that we understand the interrelatedness of school climate and culture and their association to a larger system of positive and/or negative influences. None of this happens in isolation from other system dynamics. Strong school climate acts as a buffer between school culture and local, national and state cultural issues which could affect it. Just as school climate can buffer a school's culture from negative community influences a community's culture can protect the school climate from negative national and state influences. The interrelatedness of these factors must be recognized and addressed in order to create effective system's interventions.