by Crystal Ladwig, Ph.D. and Joanne Harrison, Ed.D.
What is your favorite season? Perhaps it’s spring when flowers are in full bloom. Or fall, as most people begin to feel some relief from the heat of summer. Of course, some may respond to that question with a favorite holiday and all that comes with it. We also talk about seasons more globally, such as a season of life.
There are seasons, too, within our schools. For example, there are global seasons like elementary, middle, and high school, seasons within a school surrounding a particular principal and their time in leadership, and seasons of educational policies impacting the day-to-day functioning of instruction.
Our school years are seasonal as well. For example, the excitement starts in summer when ads roll out for back-to-school shopping. In the fall, you hear the marching bands roar as Friday nights are devoted to football. Coming back from winter break, students are immersed in their academics. By the time the spring blossoms bloom, students, families, and staff are planning graduations and end-of-the-year celebrations. The work of school leaders follows as they plan for each season’s activities.
Seasons of Schooling
There are also seasons within seasons. These micro-seasons are where educators live every day. They are where we collaborate, lead, plan, and teach. And, just like seasons of the year or seasons of life, they come and go through a somewhat circular process. What we do during these Seasons of Schooling is critical. Our actions determine if a school will have a strong, positive culture. These actions include how families, staff, and students are valued, how and what students will learn, who will teach and where, and allocating funds to support learning. What we do in school each season, guided by our vision and mission, reinforces our values and beliefs, creating a positive school culture for learning.
The School Environment
Each season includes a series of tasks and decisions that must be made, each of which has the potential to impact the school environment positively or negatively. These traditional activities can transform a school’s culture. Research shows that when schools have a strong and positive school culture, which we’ll call the school environment, everyone wins (Mapp et al., 2022). Students achieve more. Families are more engaged and empowered. There is greater support for teachers leading to increased staff morale. And there are higher rates of student and teacher retention.
How can education leaders take traditional work activities done in schools and use them to build or transform a school environment? The truth is that the shared values, behaviors, and “the way we do things around here” guide people within organizations, including schools. Building or transforming a school environment is tricky; honestly, it takes time and effort. (Shafer, 2018) It is communicated and reinforced through various methods, ultimately shaping family, staff, and teacher perceptions, behaviors, and understanding.
Characteristics of a Strong School Environment
One thing is clear: a robust and positive school environment is a powerful attractor. In a recent study, nearly half of the employees surveyed said they would leave their current jobs for a lower-paying one with a better culture (AP, 2019). So, how can you develop and nurture the organizational structure you want within your school? It starts by being clear about the values, expectations, and practices that guide and inform the actions of all team members. Those are best communicated through daily activities that align with a school’s mission and vision and are implemented through strong relationships at all levels.
A strong school environment is characterized by relationships. Strong relationships breed collaboration, loyalty, resilience, and growth. As each member of the school environment is nurtured, they become strong, more intertwined, and healthier. Like the tallest trees, the roots they form link with one another and support them. To ensure that every member of the school community grows and thrives, there must be an emphasis on creating an environmental structure to build strong and lasting relationships.
Relationships between the district and the school. After National and state policies work their way down to districts, it becomes the responsibility of individual district leaders to interpret and implement the guidance they receive from state and federal governments. The relationship between schools and the district greatly influences how easily these policies are implemented at the school level. District administrators who consider the demands placed on school-level administrators and teachers, as well as those who seek school input in district decisions, demonstrate their respect and concern for those working at the school level. When school leaders have positive relationships and believe that their concerns, experiences, and ideas are valued, then the implementation of policies becomes more consistent, and there is greater buy-in at the school level,
Relationships between school administrators and teachers. School-level relationships provide the foundation for all other relationships at the school. When school administrators, staff, and teachers know they are heard, valued, and respected, they naturally develop stronger relationships leading to better communication and collaboration. When they feel free to offer ideas and concerns, then each school becomes better equipped to face the challenges of a typical school year. This includes involving teachers and other school staff in decision-making processes and leadership teams. A significant aspect of these relationships is the consideration of the demands placed on each party. While all educators know that more and more gets added to our plates each year, being part of the decision-making process and seeing how demands are balanced help school employees support one another as they manage their own responsibilities.
Relationships between teachers. Teachers frequently feel isolated and overwhelmed, often leading to compassion fatigue. Positive relationships between teachers provide an internal support system to help teachers learn from one another, support one another, and grow together. Some teachers (e.g., those within a grade level or subject team or special and general educators working together around a specific child) must learn to work together and collaborate. Having a positive relationship with each other facilitates effective and efficient collaboration and communication, ultimately increasing teacher satisfaction and student outcomes. Particular attention should also be paid to the relationships between new and veteran teachers, with experienced teachers taking on leadership roles as they mentor those new to the school or new to the profession. This is especially critical given the rates of novice teachers leaving the profession within the first five years (Dai, 2023).
Relationships between teachers and families. Positive relationships between teachers and families are the cornerstone of student success. An exhaustive body of research highlights the benefits of family engagement at school, including positive outcomes for students, families, schools, districts, and communities (Mapp, et al., 2022). Creating positive relationships between teachers and families requires consistent, open, and honest communication. Families and teachers should be clear about what they expect of each other and of themselves. The emphasis should be on respecting the expertise of individual family members and teachers as they work together to ensure each child succeeds. Opportunities for collaboration and relationship-building should be frequent, flexible, and varied to accommodate each family’s unique needs, skills, and abilities.
Relationships between teachers and students. The relationships between teachers and students are perhaps the most complex of all. Teachers’ leadership roles, both as an adult and as a teacher, define the relationship. How teachers challenge students while nurturing their interests and respecting them as individuals is perhaps the most important factor in developing a positive relationship between teachers and students. Similarly, the values, attitudes, and respect that students show their teachers is an important dynamic. When you have the combined positive relationships between students, families, and teachers, students see the adults in their lives have shared values about the importance of their education.
As we enter Spring, consider what you can do to build relationships at all levels as you perform various tasks. How can you adapt planned activities to support relationships and student success? What do you need to do to nurture and refine those activities? How will you focus on activities highlighting the growth and outcomes of all your hard work?
AP (2019). Culture & cash connection: New report ties revenue growth to companies with healthy cultures. AP News. https://apnews.com/article/business-chicago-financial-performance-7c779ac701724a4686ce454d5b33ccba?isid=enterprisehub_us&ikw=enterprisehub_us_lead%2Fbuild-great-organizational-culture_textlink_https%3A%2F%2Fapnews.com%2Fpress-release%2Fpr-businesswire%2F7c779ac701724a4686ce454d5b33ccba
Dai, J. (2023). New teachers are leaving the profession: How can school leadership make a difference? 2022 International conference on educational science and social culture. SHS Web Conference, 157. https://doi.org/10.1051/shsconf/202315701002
Deal, T.E. and Kennedy, A.A. (1982) Corporate Cultures: The Rites and Rituals of Corporate Life. Addison Wesley Publishing Company, Reading, 126.
Mapp, K.L., Henderson, A.T., Cuevas, S., Franco, M.C., & Ewert, S. (2022). Everyone wins: The evidence for family-school partnerships & implications for practice. Scholastic: New York.
Shafer, L (2019, July 23), What makes a good school culture? Usable Knowledge, Harvard Graduate School of Education. https://www.gse.harvard.edu/news/uk/18/07/what-makes-good-school-culture