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Keeping Schools Safe, Happy Places for All Students

A positive climate boosts morale and achievement

When you walk into school in the morning, you want the climate to be happy, welcoming, and supportive. But what if you are unable to feel any of those things? In some schools, hostilities seethe under the surface and boil over into bullying and fights. Rather than connection there’s a sense of alienation that hangs over the school like a storm cloud. In schools with negative school climates, achievement and attendance drop, and teacher churn begins to rise.

Following the tumultuous events of 2016, our schools and our young people are determined more than ever to create positive school climates. Indeed, events from last year—including a factious presidential election—highlighted the importance of a positive school climate, where everyone in the school community feels a sense of safety, belonging, and well-being.

To learn more about school climate and what some schools are doing to improve it, NEA Today talked to Maureen Costello, Director of Teaching Tolerance, a program of the Southern Poverty Law Center.

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There are a lot of them—Not In Our School, No Place for Hate, Day of Silence, and one of our programs, Speak Up at School, to name a few. These are all programs that encourage students to be “upstanders” rather than bystanders and to confront bullying and bias when they hear it. Another way to improve school climate is through restorative justice and classroom circles, where students and staff sit in a circle and talk through conflicts to reach mutually agreed upon resolutions. The programs are fairly easily adopted by getting the materials online or getting just one person to go to a training and then lead a training for the rest of the staff. Another great place to look is Welcoming Schools, which has lots of material online that help promote welcoming, inclusive school climates. The key, however, is not necessarily what program you adopt, but how to get everyone on board. A positive school climate must be a top priority for everyone—from the leadership of the school, to the teaching staff, to the education support professionals who work with students on the buses and in the cafeterias and in the hallways. Everyone should have high expectations of the community. Everyone needs to pay attention and keep their ears to the ground. And everyone should make it clear that any student can safely come forward if they’ve experienced or witnessed bullying or bias.

You emphasize that everyone needs to be on board. How do  you involve those who don’t believe that school climate needs to be a top priority?

School climate is always important because we all do better in places we like to be. Adults do better in jobs where they feel good walking in each morning. We do better in places that welcome us, acknowledge who we are, see our strengths, and allow us to be ourselves and do our best. All of that is school climate. We should always talk about that kind of vision. It’s not about a negative, like we don’t condone bullying. It’s positive. It’s about giving students the room to develop their potential. That’s what schools are supposed to do. You achieve the best by having the best conditions. If you walk in and feel hostility, you’re not going to be your best.

After the presidential election, there were lots of news reports about students being harassed by other young people using the rhetoric of the campaign. In these areas, the school climate plunged to all-time lows and vulnerable students dreaded going back each day. However, many denied the veracity of the reports. How would you respond to that claim?

We’ve heard from some saying that we are overreacting to the election and creating “drama” by focusing on school climate when there isn’t a problem. We conducted a survey last November, and I read tens of thousands of comments that essentially said we should get over it because nothing of the sort is happening at my school. This is what is called a “fallacy of composition,” an error of assuming that what is true of a member of a group is true for the group as a whole. They figured that if it’s not happening in the place where they are, it can’t be happening  anywhere. Unfortunately, in schools with large populations of vulnerable students, there is fear and anxiety. We can’t ignore or dismiss it as overeacting. Schools play an enormous role in children’s lives. There are certainly many schools with wonderful school climates that have really made an effort over the years to have open, inclusive schools. And I say more power to them! Other schools are so homogenous that most members of the community feel no threats of any kind. They just want to move on. And that’s great if you can do that. But please don’t deny that there are people in some communities who are really struggling.

Sometimes, some of the harassment and bullying has been characterized as teasing. The students don’t intend to do real harm, they’re only teasing. But even if the intention isn’t always bad, we have to look at the impact. It’s the impact that counts. You might not have meant it to be hurtful, but someone gets hurt nonetheless. If someone steps on your foot and says, well, I didn’t mean for it to hurt, it doesn’t eliminate the pain. It still hurts. We must acknowledge the impact.

What are students doing to lift up their school climate?

I see them really standing up for each other. Educators are reporting that non-threatened students have come forward asking how they can help their fellow students who are worried about deportation. Often the students of Gay Straight Alliances (GSAs) are leading this. For years GSAs have dealt with bringing people together—that’s their whole mission. In many schools they have stepped up. 

In other schools, signs have gone up that students and teachers have worked on to promote positive messaging, like “Everyone is Welcome Here.” There have been assemblies to bring together students and talk about their connectedness and support for one another. In high schools, we’ve seen a lot of classes creating 100-day plans to improve their school community. We’ve seen an uptick in social activism projects to improve the surrounding community as well. Civil Rights and Diversity teams are being formed or expanding their work and involving more students to take informed action.

What can educators do to advocate for school climate?

The best possible scenario is to get your administrators on board. What educators and NEA members can do is find teams schoolwide or build a core group of five or six educators who meet regularly and look at the school climate resources that I previously mentioned and then agree on some practices they are going to put in place. I recommend that they start small. One teacher can’t do it, but six can. Once the team starts racking up successes, then it’s time to spread the message and bring more teachers in. It’s about capacity building. 

The core team might get conversations going about difficult topics like race or Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Questioning (LGBTQ) issues. They will be the ones students come to talk to; they’ll be conduits for that information and support for students who have questions or struggles. 

Another simple way to build positivity is to stay connected to students and to each other. Know your colleagues and know the kids. Stop and chat with them in the halls. Stand outside your door as they enter and say hello. If enough educators start doing that, everyone starts feeling peer pressure to do it and then students are always greeted with a friendly hello in class. 

I also recommend educating school boards. Press them to pass a resolution to support social emotional learning. Get them in favor of school climate, convince them it’s something they should pay attention to. Too often they are looking at budgets and test scores, but they need to learn that school climate is an indicator they should be interested in. Ask them to endorse a resolution to conduct bullying surveys every year. Give surveys to students, teachers, and parents and look at results and see where the gaps are. Get them to act locally and recognize that school climate and social and emotional learning are important and yield huge gains.

On a state legislative level, there will be a lot of opportunity with Every Student Succeeds Act. States must adopt at least one nonacademic indicator of school success. Lobby your state to adopt school climate. 

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Schools should be havens. But many of our students are scared, anxious, and feeling nervous. In recent weeks, NEA has heard from students and educators who are encountering hostile, hateful environments on their campuses and in their communities, with reports of fake deportation notices being handed out and swastikas drawn in bathrooms. Nooses. Racist graffiti. Threats to LGBTQ students. There is no place for this in our schools. 

Educators know that this isn’t about politics, but simply that every student needs and deserves a safe, welcoming, affirming learning environment. In fact, research shows that learning is stunted when the most basic need to feel safe and respected is not met. The 3 million members of NEA, and our allies, are here to say: you are safe with me.

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I will stand up and I will speak up for my students, so that they all have a safe and affirming learning environment. I will take action with NEA so that EVERY student feels welcome and safe at school.

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