The importance of school climate and culture
Katrina Daniels-Samasa suggests that if a school does not actively cultivate its climate, it will drift and when it drifts, avoidable problems will arise.
Has the importance of cultivating a school’s ‘culture’ and ‘climate’ been forgotten in these challenging times? Perhaps the basic premise of education is that our young people can learn in an environment that is emotionally safe and values their presence. This also has to be true for all members of the school community. Emotional safety within the school is paramount is promoting the ultimate goal of student success.
Maintaining climate when under pressure
As Covid hit, maintaining the culture and climate of a school undoubtedly came under pressure. This is important: our shared culture and school climate dictates how we respond to adverse situations in a multitude of small situations. It is the difference between asking “Why didn’t you do your homework yesterday?” and “Are you okay – because you didn’t do your homework this time?” How can international schools develop and/or reinforce their positive climate and culture as while going through difficult times?
While coping and managing education through the pandemic, the death of George Floyd precipitated a worldwide movement to address the issues of Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Justice within the workplace. International schools weren’t excluded from these discussions. Some international schools had to acknowledge systems that reinforced the marginalization and exclusion of some students and staff. The overarching question is how can schools navigate the sensitive issues of DEI?
Why this is important
If the community isn’t clear on who they are, how they operate and neglect creating an environment that is inclusive for all, students suffer emotionally and academically. Proactive schools with a climate and culture that reflects positivity know how to respond to issues as they occur, while reactive schools wait on the problems and waste precious time searching for solutions or a position. In the midst of this reactive chaos are the students who are well aware of the chaos. We must know how to be proactive in setting the example for our students, especially if our shared goal is to perpetuate an atmosphere of collaboration and cooperation that fosters empathy.
Maintaining the temperature
What is the temperature of your school and what metric are you using to measure it? As new members are added to the community (students, staff, parents) how should they become acCLIMATEd to your school community identity – without stifling new voices – so that they understand the school’s commitment to a positive culture and are willing to reinforce it?
Cultivating a positive climate can begin with creating a moniker or tagline as an identifier. Are you a kind school, respectful, inclusive, etc.? This doesn’t necessarily solidify the climate, but can help in the articulation of it. Word dense and verbose statements hidden on websites alongside beautifully marketed photos aren’t how the community actually experiences the climate. The ultimate metric is how each member of the community feels based on how the school operates. It is also necessary to isolate the data to evaluate the responses of the separate entities within a given demographic. If climate is solely measured based on how the largest segment of the community responds, then the results can be misunderstood and understanding the climate, why it changes, and how to maintain a positive climate is key during these challenging times.
The importance of a shared culture
Who are you exactly? Many international schools allow their culture to develop ‘organically’. While the accidental creation of school culture has been the norm, it eventually leads to confusion as the school grows. Even in small, homogeneous communities, there should be intention regarding shared and agreed cultural norms of the school, but in international schools where people of various religions, nationalities, ethnic groups, genders, etc. are brought together, this is especially important. The direction of the culture should be cultivated as international schools have the advantage of diversity (whether in staff or students) and it is essential to use that diversity to extract from various cultural norms a unique, shared identity. Accidental climate that is developed through what some deem to be ‘common sense’ can negatively qualify cultural norms and practices if they don’t fit into the ambiguous definition of ‘common sense’. Create a shared school culture and allow for flexibility in updating it when necessary, but always make the shared values and norms clear.
Climate, culture and DEI
What does this mean for adding the layer of DEI work within schools? If the climate of the school is negative/toxic or the culture is not clear, the work to promote DEI is more difficult overall and progress is impeded, if not completely halted. It becomes the core of arguments amongst the community instead of uniting it. If DEI leaders are being asked to implement and reinforce policies and practices in school communities that are toxic with an unclear culture, there will be real difficulties. This impedes the process. If the work environment is positive and inclusive, the issues of DEI can be assessed and addressed easier because that is the overarching goal.
Next steps for international schools
For the sake of all community members, it is so important to be proactive in developing a positive climate and culture. In these times, students need to know that school will not only be a place of academic learning, but a place where they know that everyone is valuable. The goals of the IB to “develop inquiring, knowledgeable and caring young people who help to create a better and more peaceful world through intercultural understanding and respect” might seem impossible, but if we commit to being the role models they need, it is plausible.
Katrina Daniels-Samasa is DEI Co-Chair and teaches English at the North London Collegiate school in Jeju, Korea.
She is the founder of Black Americans Living Abroad.
Feature Image by: geralt on Pixabay