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Archive for December, 2014

There are many words that come to mind when the words ‘school climate’ are mentioned: well-being, feel, health, learning environment, safety (physical, emotional, spiritual, social), openness and caring. When I checked the internet and entered the words ‘school climate’ I was faced with more than 5 million matches. When I define the climate of a school I primarily use organic metaphors. I believe that a school is a living organism; that is, it is individuals and relationships writ large and it is developmental in nature [it grows, declines, goes through life stages, can be nurtured and depleted, evolves and devolves, changes and transforms, etc.]. A school climate is also affected by the non-organic – the physical structure itself, the classrooms, the grounds, the parking lots, the amount of light, the non-human noise, chemicals, air quality. This combination of organic and non-organic directly and dramatically affects school climate and as a result the health and dis-ease of the members of the school community [some members are affected directly and others are affected indirectly]. Given all of this, I remain convinced that if there is one key to school climate it is directly related to the quality of relationships [the relationship one has with one’s self and the relationships one has with others and the relationships between the organic and non-organic]; this idea of ‘relationships’ itself is beyond the scope of this brief ‘Climate’ exploration.

If a school community believes in and is committed to continuous improvement, then a healthy climate for the holistic development of the person [Physical, Intellectual, Emotional, Spiritual, Social] is best determined by those in the school community who draw from multiple sources of data and feedback and who respond to urgent issues and ‘aching questions’ [What are ‘aching questions’ – Consider: ‘Aching Questions’ for some it might entail the questions that focus on the tap roots that must be nurtured and sustained in order for all in the school community to be nurtured more than depleted; for one person it might be the question of life after death, for another person it might be the problem of suffering – ‘Why do bad things happen to good people?’ or it might be something deeply personal and immediate. An aching question, a question that is not just a matter of curiosity or a fleeting burst of emotion, cannot be answered with old thought. Possessed by such a question, one is hungry for ideas of a very different order than the familiar categories that usually accompany us throughout our lives].

Healthy ‘Climates’ nurture more than deplete each individual, each relationship and the School Community as a whole (depletion will occur because individuals and relationships are, at best, imperfect). Each individual, each relationship and each School Community has their favorite ways of nurturing and depleting the five dimensions that help define a School Community – the Physical, the Intellectual, the Emotional, the Spirit(ual), and the Social; the P.I.E.S.S.

How do we measure a School’s Climate? Next time we will briefly explore the ways.

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Recently I have been spending significant time reflecting upon ‘education’ and ‘schools.’ These past few days I have been focusing on ‘School Climate’ and I have decided to share with you, gentle reader, some of what has emerged for me. I am not sure how many postings I will make concerning ‘School Climate’ – currently it feels as if it will be two or three. I also invite you to do some ‘translating’ of what I offer us to consider and apply your translation to a non-educational institution you know well..

As I begin, please forgive me for mixing my metaphors. Consider, Culture is the deep tap root that feeds the school community over time [‘Culture Matters’ and it is not our focus at this time]. One Child of ‘Culture’ is Climate – another is ‘Environment.’ Climate is the heart and soul of the school and is nurtured by the culture and by entheos, a sustaining spirit (anyone who has spent time in a school has experienced its nurturing and its depleting ‘spirit’). Climate is that which leads a member of the school community to care about, to love and to look forward to being there each day. School climate is about that quality of a school that affirms that each person has, and feels, worth, dignity and importance and at the same time helps create a sense of belonging to something beyond self. The school climate is a living paradox in that it brings both light and darkness, good and evil, ‘I-Thou’ and ‘I-It’ and hence fosters both growth and depletion and health and dis-ease in the members of the school community. ‘Climate’ is about the special qualities of a school community that are reflected in the voices of its members: ‘This is our home…,’ ‘You have to start with the students…if you can somehow make them feel like they have a place in our world, then they might well want to learn more about how to live in the larger world.’ A number of years ago I was spending time with some middle school students; I was introducing them to Socrates and his method of thinking. One day one of the students showed me what he had written in his journal after a substitute teacher was late in showing up; rather than just sit around, the class had self-organized and begun to learn together: ‘I feel lucky today because the day just started and we have already been trusted in something we have never been trusted on, being alone.’

A mentor of mine more than 40 years ago suggested that when students become ‘citizens,’ rather than ‘tourists’ of the school, then they take responsibility for their actions and those of others; they truly become response-able. The seventh graders noted above had been taking responsibility for the classroom operations for a number of months, and in a sense, were being prepared for the experience of the substitute being late [like good leadership development, they were being prepared without knowing what they were being prepared for and yet, when the situation presented itself they were response-able]. What had occurred in that classroom before the event that said it was all right to take initiative and learn without a teacher being present? What factors supported the students’ decision to embrace a norm that encourages order rather than chaos, that encourages embracing a quality of work rather than just doing enough to get by? I call what had occurred: the development of a certain ‘school climate.’

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Four days ago I was searching for a piece I thought I had posted this past January; I did not find it. What I found instead was the following post I entered on 20 January, 2014. As a follower of Christ I reflect upon the events that occurred so many years ago; events that did, and continue to, deeply affect many, including myself. I am reposting what I posted on 20 January – mainly as a reminder to myself. Perhaps, gentle reader the repost will also provide you something to ponder during this Christmas Season. On 20 January, 2014 I wrote:

I have not read everything AND I have read a great deal. I continue to be intrigued by indigenous cultures (e.g. the Iroquois Confederacy experienced more than 300 years of peace among those in this broad and diverse confederacy). There are a number of commonalities among the indigenous cultures that existed thousands of years ago. Here are two that continue to give me pause and I find myself reflecting upon ‘modern’ cultures and upon my own attitudes and behavior.

First, indigenous cultures often welcomed the stranger. Some ‘vetted’ strangers before they allowed them into the village – a few well framed questions usually sufficed. Some simply opened their doors to the stranger – no questions asked [how would it have changed things if Mary and Joseph had had such an experience].

Second, the food that was available was shared. Even if there was meager fare it was divided so that each person received some (reminds me of the loaves and fishes). ‘Welcoming and Sharing’ were the norm, not the exception.

A number of years ago I walked out of a store and was greeted by a man I judged to be homeless (a bit of profiling on my part). He looked down as he approached. He stopped about 10 feet from me (I interpreted this as a sign to me that he was not a threat). He did not look up. He then spoke: ‘My friend and I have not had a thing to eat in more than a day; there is a ____________ next door. If you give me some money we can get something to eat.’ He did not look at me. He waited. Many reasons passed through me as to why I should not give this guy money; I was – still am – surprised at how quickly they entered into my consciousness. I paused. ‘O.K.’ – I said to myself – ‘This guy is obviously running a scam – just look at him. . .all humble and everything; he has his routine down pat.’ So I decided to reward him for his ‘act’ and I held out a twenty dollar bill. He stepped forward, took the twenty and then he looked up at me. His eyes were full of tears. I found myself tearing up. No words. He then turned and ‘yelled out’ – ‘We have money for food!’ An older man appeared from around the corner and together they bounded into the fast food place.

Even as I sit here this morning, once again remembering this incident my eyes are tearing up and I am thankful that I did offer the man some money for food. I also feel sad because I was not able to welcome the stranger – I was not able to trust him or myself or the ‘universe.’ There have been times since then that I responded with more care, empathy and compassion as I encountered a stranger and there have been times when my harsh judgments motivated me to turn away (or ignore the person or ‘look’ through the person).

I claim to be a follower of Christ. ‘And when was it that [I] saw you a stranger and welcomed you? . . . ‘Truly I tell you [says Christ], just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’

Who are the people in my life that I welcome easily and who are those that give me such pause that I have to stop, step-back and reorient my heart in order to welcome them as I would Christ? How many times a day is my heart challenged in this manner? What are my deep assumptions, beliefs, prejudices, stereotypes, attitudes and values that lead me to be hesitant and fill me with reluctance when it comes to welcome those I dislike, ‘fear’ or want to avoid?

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We do seem to know that what is ‘obvious’ to one or two or three may not be obvious at all to the other one or two or three. What follows are some of what seems obvious to me when it comes to school improvement. I do invite you, gentle reader, to emerge a list of what seems obvious to you as you consider our topic, school improvement.

It seems obvious to me that school improvement entails discerning and then engaging high leverage points rather than spending time, energy, and resources on low leverage points. How often do school improvement efforts put time, energy and resources on low leverage points? Too often I think. A high leverage point more often leads to over-time sustainable improvement; a high leverage point generally takes less over-all effort. A low leverage point generally takes up a great deal of time, energy, and valuable resources with little improvement – much less sustained improvement. In my last post I mentioned the failure of ‘rolling out school-wide programs;’ this is an example of a low leverage initiative. In his stimulating 1990 book, ‘The Fifth Discipline,’ Peter Senge, et al. noted that in their research high leverage points were those that were rooted in small, focused efforts. As I also noted in my last post, rather than rolling out a school-wide initiative there is high leverage – hence more chance for ‘success’ – if a school were to begin small, say with a department or even with an incoming class. At minimum this will take less time, energy and require fewer resources than a school-wide roll out; this alone can be successful for it frees up other folks and their time, energy and resources (say to sustain what is already working).

It seems obvious to me that leader ‘breeds’ followers; the type of follower ‘bred’ is directly connected to the type of leader (e.g. coercive leaders ‘breed’ dependent-fearful followers’ who at best are compliant and are at worse subversive). What is less obvious is that the follower dramatically affects the leader (less obvious in that we don’t seem to pay enough attention to this dynamic). What is less obvious is that ‘leadership’ is a by-product of the relationship between the leader and the led; both are accountable to, both are responsible for, both are challenged to be response-able, and both are entrusted with this relationship and hence with what we call ‘leadership’ is entrusted to both.

It seems obvious that the metaphor for school is ‘organization’ (or in some instances it is ‘a business’). The metaphors we use powerfully determine what we choose. It seems obvious to me that a ‘community metaphor’ will be more helpful (some schools have embraced a ‘family metaphor’ and on the surface this sounds helpful but if we stop and explore the variety of ‘families’ possible the potential conflicts become more obvious). As I continue to reflect upon the metaphor embraced it appears to me that school improvement efforts might be more effective given a community metaphor (e.g. Our school is a learning, working, spirit-filled, serving community).

It seems obvious to me that school improvements that are commitment focused and commitment rooted are more likely to be embraced than school improvements that are not so focused and rooted. Commitments require clear agreements. Commitments require the participants to be trust-worthy. Commitments require the participants to be unconditionally response-able. Commitments require the participants to be critical-thinkers. Commitments require the participants name and discuss the unameable and the undiscussable (how many ‘elephants’ reside hidden in the faculty lounge, for example). There are other commitment requirements, but these will suffice for now.

So, gentle reader, what is obvious to you when it comes to school improvement?

I leave us with the wonderful words of the writer, William Pollard: Without change there is no innovation, creativity, or incentive for improvement. Those who initiate change will have a better opportunity to manage the change that is inevitable.

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Consider this: Schools are notorious for ‘rolling things out.’ This is one reason why school improvement changes are not integrated – some don’t even ‘work’ for the short run. Any school that has attempted to ‘roll out’ a program knows of what I write. There is enough information available to schools which shows that ‘small’ works quite well. ‘Small’ as in a small group, or a class (say the Freshman Class) or in ‘small’ increments. Even though schools operate on a semester (or trimester) schedule and have discrete years (say eight or four) to work with there is still an overwhelming desire to ‘roll things out’ school wide. This has always – and continues to – puzzle me.

I am thinking of a popular school improvement initiative that continues to be ‘rolled out.’ The name for this school improvement initiative is ‘Professional Learning Communities.’ Five or six years ago I was a thought-partner to a high school that had become enamored with the idea. I was asked the approach I would take so that the concept would be ‘accepted’ and ‘integrated’ into the school culture. I offered that there were few, if any, schools that had achieved either of these when they ‘rolled it out’ school-wide. I invited them to consider and explore beginning small. They could ask for a department to volunteer to be the first to embrace the concept or they could begin with two departments or they could begin with the incoming Freshman Class and then add a Class a year.

The three administrators who were ‘sold’ on the concept ‘knew’ they could roll it out for the entire school. Today, almost seven years later this school remains ‘stuck’ – the program has not been embraced and is far from being integrated into the Culture. By the by, this is not the first time that this school has attempted to ‘roll a program out’ without success (success meaning that it was embraced and integrated into the Culture). The Administration’s mantra continues to be: ‘This time it will work!’ This seems to be a common mantra among many educational institutions.

I have been privileged to have been involved in a school improvement initiative that followed the following path: An initial mixed group of 24 instructors spent a year together experiencing the initiative and providing feedback along the way. Then a pilot was developed and this was offered for 9 years. Only then was it considered to be ready to be offered to the wider school community as a ‘program.’ Even then, the initiative was rooted in an invitational model; folks were not coerced into participating.

Invitational initiatives have proven to be highly successful; coercive initiatives not so much (if at all). It continues to puzzle me why a school would not develop school improvement initiatives and then ‘invite’ folks to participate; the rate of ‘success’ is much higher. The rate of failure of coercive-rooted initiatives (that is, ALL must participate) continues to be monumental. At best, these coercive initiatives breed and nurture cynicism among the participants – yet schools continue to embrace them.

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