A seminal meta-analysis of successful and unsuccessful school reform initiatives in the US over 40 years by Seymour Sarason suggested that the key to successful educational leadership and reform lies in challenging and modifying the "existing power relationships" within the system. All too often teachers and school leaders try to "fix the kids" rather than seeing the students as partners for improving schools. The same is sometimes said about fixing teachers. We have seen how powerful it is to work in partnership with students grades 3-12 whenever a school wants to explore and improve school climate and learning. We have also seen the need to explore and openly discuss teacher morale these days and to find ways to breath energy, purpose and life back into teaching.
In our research and work on school safety, school climate, school culture and their relations to respectful, effective teaching, schools and student learning for the past 20 years (Preble & Fitzgerald, 2011; Preble & Gordon, 2011; Preble & Taylor, 2008; Preble & Knowles, 2011, Wessler & Preble, 2003) we have found dramatic differences in the perceptions of students, teachers, and parents about school climate. Students have often told us in interviews that "school climate is what happens when grown-ups are not around." It makes sense then, when we see 20%, 40% and even 70% differences in student and teachers responses to survey questions about school climate and the learning environment in a school, that students and teachers see their schools in very different ways. When data reflecting these different perspectives are shared with teachers and students, we have seen it spark intense and important discussions between students and teachers about the day-to-day experiences and lives of students and teachers in schools.
We have learned over the last 20 years working in schools in ME, NH, VT, TN, MA, CA, AK, WA, and LA that when schools involve their students as partners in school climate improvement it makes all the difference in the world…just a Sarason's research predicted! When schools elect to engage their students as school climate leaders, as school climate experts, researchers, data analysts, and school improvement planners and partners, this process itself will begin to change and improve school climate and learning (Freiberg, H.J.,1998, 1999; Preble & Newman, 2006, Jennings, K., 2010). When students are at the table, we know this also "brings out the best in the adults' which brings us to the important distinction between school climate and school (adult) culture.( Deal & Petterson,1999)
"The culture of an enterprise plays the dominant role in exemplary performance. Highly respected organizations have evolved a shared system of informal folkways and traditions that infuse work with meaning, passion, and purpose." (Deal, 1999).
In many schools, leaders use the terms school climate and culture interchangeably. We believe that this can be a critical mistake. It wasn't until I worked in California schools two years ago as part of their Safe, Supportive, Schools (S3), Race to the Top Initiative that I saw how important the distinction is between school climate and school culture.