A Warm and Inviting School Climate
By Jill Jenkins
Creating a positive school climate is complex because it involves keeping teachers and staff happy, keeping parents and guardians happy and keeping students both happy and challenged. The administrators have to juggle all of the groups and maintain fair and reasonable rules of procedure all while appearing to be the as happy and inviting as a used-car salesman. This is not an easy task. Civility is the first order of business. Teachers have to model civility to students and parents and administrators need to treat everyone with civility. The only way students learn good manners and civility is to be treated that way. Equity is the second key to keeping everyone happy. Procedures and rules need to be administrated consistently. Finally recognizing quality performance in students, faculty and staff is key to keeping everyone happy.
Most parents want their child to have every opportunity and to be treated fairly. They want their child to be held accountable, but not treated too severely. They want their child to perform well academically, but to not be overwhelmed. These are the good parents who want to be kept abreast of upcoming assignments, skills their child needs help with and get an occasional pat on the back for being a good parent, but they aren’t the only parents you will encounter as a teacher or a principal. When administrators enforce rules consistently, parents and students usually accept the consequences, but if there is even one breach in modus operandi, some parents will begin fishing for that loop hole.
For example, one set of parents who did just that kind fishing did not want their son sent to in-school suspension regardless of the number of classes in which he was tardy. It didn’t matter to them what the school policy was; tardiness didn’t matter. One vice principal beaten down by their endless assaults relented and everyone suffered. When their son, Bob, was found by the school police officer at the nearby 7-11 when he was assigned to be in my Language Arts class, they were mortified to learn from the vice principal that the school policy required that he serve one day suspension for his Ferris Buehler one period holiday, and that he would not be allowed to make up any tests or assignments he missed during that class period, they assured the vice principal that it was the school officer’s fault that he was absent. Their son had called his mother from 7-11 and told her that he was only there to pick up a snack before returning to my class to take his test. Therefore, it was the school officer’s fault that he missed the class. He would have only been late, but instead he was sent to the vice principal’s office, so it wasn’t his fault.
When the vice principal, would not accept her explanation, Bob’s mother called me. It was just as I was leaving school, and I stupidly picked up the telephone. Bob’s mother began her harangue for about thirty minutes and whenever I tried to intervene, she would ask me to stop interrupting her. Finally, I was desperate, because I had already spent almost ten hours at school and I had to pick up my husband (teachers have lives too), but she hadn’t let up. It occurred to me that her technique for getting her son excused from in-school suspensions was to simply become so difficult that it was easier to give in to her. This woman was a bully, but she had just met the immovable force. Yes, I could have saved time and just let her son take the test. It probably would have no bearing on his grade since he rarely paid attention or studied, but if Anne Sullivan had given in to Helen Keller and take the easy road as her parents had, Anne would never had become the person she became, so I decided to hold strong and I hoped the principal would back me. I said, “I’m sorry that you don’t agree with the policy, but I’m only a teacher. My job is to enforce the policy. If you want the policy changed, you will have to talk to the principal. Good bye.” I hung up the phone and left.
The next morning the principal thanked me because the mother immediately called her and told her I had hung up on her, but I said goodbye first. The principal had to stay an extra hour to pacify this parent that had gone from a little heated to irate, even livid. The principal had not given into her, but she had spent a considerable amount of time placating this parent. She said the trick was to let parents vent. Another principal tells me that the trick is to let the calls go to voice mail, listen to their angry tirade, collect all the facts and call them back. Still another principal tells me the trick is to let it go to voice mail, listen to their angry tirade, collect all the facts and call them back when you know they aren’t going to be there and leave a voice message. (If only I had known these tricks before I picked up that phone.) Regardless of the method a principal chooses to use to deal with difficult parents, please deal with them. As a teacher when you deal with a difficult parent, collect all the facts and give them to the administrators so they aren’t blindsided by an irritated parent with a phone. Parents like this are especially difficult when they appear in your room unannounced just as first period is beginning and your class is looking hopelessly as they parade past the parent's tirade or when they appear at your door while you are teaching and try to wave you into the hallway. Administrators need to take a firm stand with parents that they are not allowed to interrupt a teacher during class time.
Keeping the faculty and staff happy is easy. First, feed them at meetings. Second, stick to an agenda, keep meetings short and to the point; don’t waste their time. Third, treat all of the faculty members the same. If a teacher isn’t doing his/her job, missing meetings, or isn’t working as a team player, don’t hesitate to call him/her in and tell him/her. If a teacher is doing a great job, don’t hesitate to call him/her in and tell him/her. Fourth, keep organized and communicate all upcoming events to teachers and staff. No one wants to be surprised with last minute a schedule change. Everyone is the school is planning lessons and activities, so it is important to give them enough time that if they need to change their classroom schedule, they can. Fifth and most importantly, handle the difficult parents and students. No matter how skilled your teaching staff is there are going to be unreasonable parents and destructive students. Make sure your staff knows that “you’ve got their back.” This also means that when a principal uses a short cut to relieve himself of a teacher he perceives as incompetent, the rest of the faculty becomes very insecure, even when he may be justified. In most school, there is a long procedure for relieving a school of an incompetent teacher. Some principals will merely transfer those teachers from one school to another when they become overstaffed. This means they are sharing their grief with another school, not solving the problem. Regardless of how long and cumbersome the process is, the principal should follow it. When a faculty learns that a principal is placing notes in a teacher’s mail box suggesting they transfer to another school that has an opening or when a principal reduces an experienced teacher’s schedule to part-time while keeping less experienced teacher full time, he is sending a message to his entire faculty that “you could be next.” Instead of sharpening teacher’s game, it builds mistrust. All teachers need to be treated fairly even if the procedure is time-consuming. Procedures are designed to protect teachers from unfair prejudice of an administrator while still identifying incompetent teachers. By following those procedures, the faculty feels that treating everyone fairly is a priority of the principal. Sixth, listen to your teachers. One principal create a board of directors who met with him for lunch once a month. He was able to keep abreast of the teachers’ frustrations and problems. This allowed him to solve problems and it made the faculty feel like they had a voice.
Keeping the students happy is not that difficult. First, most students get bored in school because many classes are not interactive enough. Look at this research down by a veteran teacher who shadowed two students for a day: “Granted and thoughts on education” by Grant Wiggins Encourage your teachers through workshops to make their teaching more interactive. Second, most students like to hear when they have done something well. In the 1990’s I presented my principal with the idea of giving students cards when we caught them doing something well. The program is still in effect today, but it has improved. When the students receives what we originally called PAWS pass, they take to the office and receive a piece of candy and the put their card with their name on it into a drawing. At the end of the week, several tickets are selected for larger prizes. The teacher who gave out the most Paws Passes gets a prize too (usually a $5.00 gift card to a local café.) Another way, to give students recognition is to encourage them to participate in contests: PTA Reflections, writing contests, arts contest, school contests like Chalk the Walk and athletic teams. When a team or an individual wins announce it. Hang the pictures of students in the hall. For example to encourage reading, I used to take my camera and wander Reading and Language Arts classes to snap pictures of students reading during their Silent Sustained Reading time (S.S.R.), or their Drop Everything and Read Time (D.EA.R.). We hung these in the hallway. Everyone likes to feel like a winner.
Keeping a positive school climate is not easy and it is not accomplished in one step. It really takes buy-in from your faculty and staff. Administrators need to go the extra mile to recognize the teachers and students who make a difference. When everyone works together to make the school a more pleasant place to work, everyone wins. Start by greeting your staff and faculty as they arrive in the morning. Persuade your staff to stand in the hall and greet their students as they come into class. Remember encourage them to think positively about their students. Start a campaign to say something positive to each student as they enter a classroom. Send positive postcards home to students. Treat everyone with respect and dignity. Positive attitudes of administrators and staff can become contagious. Invite parents to serve on committees, participate in activities, and in the classroom. The more they feel involved the more they support the school. Support the teachers for the few parents and students who don’t catch the bug. Spread good will.