By Peter DeWitt
This week, ASCD is focusing Connected Educator Month resources on a school culture subtheme. Today on Inservice, Peter DeWitt and Sean Slade, co-authors of School Climate Change: How do I build a positive environment for learning? are writing about the four critical elements to school climate and why they’re essential to a thriving school culture. In this post, DeWitt addresses equity and engagement, and Slade’s post this afternoon turns attention to empowerment and environment.
A Story About Equity
I recently sat on a panel for our NBC affiliate in Albany, New York. The discussion was supposed to focus on the Common Core State Standards and special education. A parent, the director of special education from the New York State Education Department, and I would be the three panelists. The director backed out and the discussion shifted from how to help students with disabilities negotiate their way through the Common Core Standards to a session that encouraged each parent to talk about how negative their experience was when dealing with special education committees.
The stories were horrible. One by one, speakers stood up to talk about how long and complicated the process was to get their children the help they needed. They portrayed the school leaders as dismissive and the teachers as combative. As a former school principal and inclusion teacher it did not sound like the process I was used to, but perhaps I’d always worn rose-colored glasses?
I know there are three sides to most stories—his, hers, and the truth—but could schools be so vastly different in their approaches? As the night went on, and I became increasingly uncomfortable with the tone of the event, I tried to explain that some of these examples were issues of equity. Schools, and their resources, are not created equally.
In School Climate Change: How do I build a positive environment for learning? (2014) Sean Slade and I wrote about equity issues in schools:
Issues of equity that continue to confront our schools vary from school to school and from state to state. For example, counselor caseloads are a huge issue in states such as California: “The American School Counselor Association recommends one counselor to 250 students. However, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, California schools had one counselor for every 810 students in 2009–2010 (Tasci, 2011, para. 5).”
We know that equity isn’t just different from state to state but also from school to school within states. And the thing I took from the panel discussion was that equity is hurting the relationship between schools and parents. If those schools who came up in the discussion, or any other for that matter, dismiss parents from the conversation about students’ learning, one way or another parents will (and should) get their voices heard.
How Engaging is Your School?
When it comes to parents, students, or any stakeholder in the school community, engagement is something else that schools need to constantly work on. Whether it’s making sure marginalized populations such as LGBT students are included in the school dialogue or reaching out to parents using the flipped leadership method, engaging the school community is a never-ending job.
In Student Voice: The Instrument of Change (2014), Russell Quaglia and Michael Corso explain why student engagement is so important in the learning process:
Students who value themselves and their abilities are likely to both take more away from and contribute more to the school community than those who do not. When students feel accepted for who they are, when they have adults and peers they respect and can turn to as needed, and when they are recognized for their efforts as well as their outcomes, they develop the capacity to excel in school and life. Believing in one’s self is necessary if one is to aspire and succeed, yet it is not enough. The goal of improving the educational system is not to create self-assured, ignorant graduates. If students are to achieve their aspirations and not just dream about them, they must be actively engaged in the learning process. (p. 79)
The Hard Work that Makes it Work
Equity is sometimes harder to address than engagement. How do you meet the needs of students and parents when the cards (i.e., budget, resources, parent engagement, transiency, etc.) seemed stacked against you? Some days keeping your head above water is an accomplishment.
I believe that school leaders can address equity, engagement, and the other parts of school climate in five ways:
1. Get out of your office—It sounds easy but it’s not. Leaders get caught up in phone calls, e-mails, and other paper work that seem to act as an anchor to their desk.
Here are a few ways to spend the non-office time:
- Morning/afternoon ambassador: No matter what level of students you work with, be there to greet them as they get off or on the bus.
- Visit classrooms daily: Leaders always hear they need to be visible. Step it up a notch! Leaders need to be more than visible. They need to be engaged in the classroom experience.
- Pay attention to the main office: A negative secretary can sink your school climate because they are the first person visitors see.
2. Have authentic conversations—Too many leaders deliver a monologue instead of engaging in dialogue. Listen—really listen—to students, staff, and parents. You may not always be able to meet their needs, but listen more than you talk.
3. Encourage student voice—Russell Quaglia says that students use their voice in numerous ways, and many times it doesn’t involve talking. They use their voice through their body language, and we can learn a lot from that alone. Sadly, there are students who leave school every day without talking to even a single peer. That shouldn’t be happening. Imagine what we are missing because some students don’t feel like they can talk in school.
4. Engage with parents—Other than conversations in person, nothing is better than picking up the phone to communicate with a parent. However, leaders can also stand in the front of the school as parents are dropping their children off. In addition, make the school newsletter one page and then start flipping your parent communication. Done correctly, flipped communication can increase dialogue, cut down on one-way conversations, and open up the school walls in a whole new way.
5. Flip your faculty meetings—To successfully flip a meeting, leaders need to provide the information ahead of time so they go deeper into a topic with staff. The topic needs to be something both the leader and staff agree upon and buy into—or not everyone will watch the video and show up prepared. Be sure to engage with staff at the faculty meeting. Too many leaders want to walk in, deliver information, and walk out. Stop the madness! Bring in topics and then discuss, debate, and dissect them.
If we take it upon ourselves to make these things happen, we can foster more involvement and hopefully encounter less anger at the next panel discussion.
Read more from Connected Educator Month.
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Peter DeWitt is a former K–5 public school principal, presenter, and author. He is a trainer for Visible Learning, a professional-development program for teachers and school leaders based on the work of John Hattie. Learn more on his Education Week blog, Finding Common Ground, and at www.petermdewitt.com. He is on Twitter @PeterMDeWitt.