The Principal and School Climate

"When you enter this school, you are scientists, you are explorers, you are important, you are loved, you are respected, you are a friend, you are the reason why we are here, love", - Mason Crest Staff. It is so much more than just a corsage of slogans. These words breathe a spirit of a genuine positive school climate in the elementary school where my children study. It is true that there are gaps that still need to be filled with regard to our knowledge of how to improve school climate but there is no doubt that what happens inside a school affects learning outcomes.

In a recent study published in the Review of Educational Research, Berkowitz and coworkers write:
Educational researchers and practitioners assert that supportive school and classroom climates can positively influence the academic outcomes of students, thus potentially reducing academic achievement gaps between students and schools of different socioeconomic status (SES) backgrounds. Nonetheless, scientific evidence establishing directional links and mechanisms between SES, school climate, and academic performance is inconclusive. This comprehensive review of studies dating back to the year 2000 examined whether a positive climate can successfully disrupt the associations between low SES and poor academic achievement. Positive climate was found to mitigate the negative contribution of weak SES background on academic achievement; however, most studies do not provide a basis for deducing a directional influence and causal relations. Additional research is encouraged to establish the nature of impact positive climate has on academic achievement and a multifaceted body of knowledge regarding the multilevel climate dimensions related to academic achievement.
What is clear is that there is a correlation between school climate and academic achievement. A positive climate is even seen to cancel the bad effects of poverty. What is unclear is how one improves school climate and how such improvement can lead to increased learning. School climate and academic performance are indeed both multifaceted and multilevel, thus, a simple relationship may not be possible. However, one can gauge a school's climate and then correlate this with various factors in school. The first factor that comes to mind is, of course, the school leader, the principal.

Margaret Whitaker wrote her doctoral dissertation on this topic. She found the following characteristics among principals in schools that have a positive climate:
  1. They take school climate as their responsibility.
  2. They are always visible during the day as opposed to spending most of their time doing paperwork in their office.
  3. They are personally concerned and knowledgeable of their teachers' lives.
  4. They communicate motivations and information regularly with their teachers.
  5. They use staff meetings for consensus building and purposedful discussions.
  6. They respect their teachers' strengths and teaching styles.
  7. They serve as role models for teachers and students.
  8. They work to keep the school clean, neat, attractive and student-oriented. 
All of the principals at Mason Crest are always visible. Brian Butler is usually in front of the school greeting children in school buses and cars as they make their way to school. The other day when it was raining, Sherry Shin was busy greeting children as they arrived, holding an umbrella to keep them dry as they walked into school. My daughter finds it very inviting whenever Diane Kerr is in front of the school to greet her. In fact, I have been fortunate enough to have spent a school day with the principals at Mason Crest. I have sat in some of their staff meetings and class observations. Reading the descriptions given by Whitaker in her dissertation therefore makes it seem that she is talking about these principals.

The reason why principals are central to establishing a positive climate in school is actually simple. They are indeed the examples. Teachers take their cue from principals. Students take their cue from their principals and teachers. How this affects learning outcomes should not be a mystery....