What’s in a school ‘climate’?

Thursday, 17 Jun 2021


I have always been keen on reading literature about business / organisational / school cultures / climate (which often share the same characteristics).  In fact, it is the school climate that is most appealing to Mount Sinai parents. This is also often referred to as ‘ethos’ or something similar. The recent Wellbeing News from the AIS states that school climate is a holistic concept which encompasses four domains: 

  • safety 
  • interpersonal relationships 
  • teaching and learning 
  • the school environment 

Improvement across these domains positively impacts student academic outcomes, and the mental health and wellbeing of the whole school community. It is a result of relationships between students, school staff, parents and the community. School climate is a major factor in student achievement, and mental health and wellbeing. For students this includes prosocial behaviour, social inclusion, attendance, belonging and connectedness; and for educators, job satisfaction, retention, self-efficacy and wellbeing. Research continues to recognise the integral role of school climate in supporting successful outcomes at all levels of a school. Evidence based school improvement efforts that include explicit attention to school climate are more likely to create environments where all stakeholders flourish.

I would also add the importance of distributed leadership in creating a healthy school climate. I reference the need for distributed leadership (that is leadership spread throughout the school in various ways as at Mount Sinai) since: 

‘We are in a world of amazing complexity and complex organizations that just require too much from those few people up top. They don’t have the intellectual diversity, the bandwidth, the time to really make all these critical decisions. There’s a reason that, so often in organizations, change is belated, it is infrequent, it is convulsive. Because, typically, in those traditional structures, by the time a small team at the top realizes there’s a need for fundamental change, by the time a problem is big enough or an opportunity clear enough that it prompts action, that it breaks through all the levels, commands the attention of these extraordinarily busy people up top—it’s too late. So if we want to build truly adaptable organizations, we have to syndicate the work of leadership more broadly.’ (Hamel)

Our positive climate exists because we have so many competent decision makers. Leadership also acts as the catalyst for all the elements listed above whether that be a business or school. (As an aside, sadly, leadership is now a massive industry spurring books, seminars and courses. According to Jeffrey Pfeffer, author of Leadership BS, the leadership industry is worth conservatively $20 billion - in the US - and yet the country has never been so poorly served by leadership at every level. People are still gravitating toward leaders who are lying narcissists). Hear: 

http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/bestpractice/the-leadership-industry/7369824 ). 

School cultures are never static as they respond to various ebbs and flows. School leaders have to navigate competently and confidently between comfort and change – between ‘servants of what is’ and the ‘shapers of what might be’.

In my time as Principal, there have been many changes to the education landscape and some of these have no doubt contributed to the change in school climate.

‘We’re living in a time of competing philosophies regarding how organizations function. It’s a quiet clash happening gradually but steadily beneath the surface. It’s a tectonic shift in how we identify with work and relate to the workplace. It’s a tension between achievement and purpose, between competencies and calling, between the systems we create and the humanity we embody. It’s a shift from a 20th-century industrial paradigm to a 21st-century network paradigm, enabled by technology and accelerated by the outlook of new generations rising into the workforce.’ Doucette

However, it is the Jewish nature of the school that gives it the immutable, rock solid stability and the culture/climate consistency. That’s’ what honouring tradition, embracing change means. This is what binds and keeps us on an even keel. Given the seismic changes that sweep through schools influencing cultures and climates, there is one fundamental that remains profoundly familiar to us all and builds the connectedness that is at the heart of our Jewish school. This is what the alumni note when they return. Whilst they can’t always put it into words, I know that for them, it is like returning to a ‘family home’ – a loving, Jewish family home. And that’s what supports a great climate. 

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