With the new Every Student Succeeds ACT (ESSA) spelling out that every state must include non-academic factors (such as school climate) in how school success is measured, schools are now more than ever focusing their attention on creating a positive school culture. This shift in focus is also a result of the national move away from the strictest forms of “no excuses” discipline models and a growing awareness in ensuring students’ civil rights are honored in all contexts.
A good school climate is a real element all schools must cultivate. Seemingly, the better everyone feels, the better the results will be, right? In the article from nprEd “How A Happy School Can Help Students Succeed,” Kat Lonsdorf outlines how one elementary school works to ensure kids feel happy – and they’re seeing attendance and punctuality rates, as well as teacher retention rates, go up, as a result! Kudos to them. Everyone would love to have results like this.
But heed this warning: Focusing too much on making sure everyone feels good could compromise expectations and rigor (and ultimately, student achievement).
Hard work should make students sweat. They’re not always going to be smiling and dancing their way through it. High expectations and rigor should push kids to the edge of their potential without making learning so difficult they can’t latch on. How, then, do we get kids to be authentically happy in those moments? That’s a real outcome we want to achieve, too. I imagine, though, when realistically implemented, every kid might not realize the value of the hard work until after the fact. They might, in fact, resent being pushed in the moment – but, should that make us stop so they don’t feel badly?
During my graduate studies at Harvard, I conducted an action research project on classroom climate in a public school in Dorchester, Massachusetts. I studied four classrooms for the entire year and administered tailored surveys regarding how kids and teachers perceived their classroom climate, measuring those perceptions over time across the four classes. The findings were fascinating (and some of them very common sense). The classrooms with the best classroom climate, obviously, demonstrated strong relationships between students and teachers.
However, my findings indicated the classroom with the most positive climate as perceived by the students and teachers actually had the lowest achievement. In my observations, I noticed that while the teacher and students truly respected each other, enjoyed being together and functioned like a tight community, the teacher’s pacing and delivery of instruction were slow and mostly an afterthought as she worked to ensure everyone felt good. It was standard for the class to spend at least 20 minutes off topic during a typical 45-minute lesson. They were happy, though!
Time, which is the rare resource schools must work to maximize, was being used in other ways than on content instruction. Sure, everyone felt good. Kids were happy. They loved and respected their teacher. They were kind to their classmates. They even took their shoes off before going to sit on the rug. It was a gentle, loving, harmonious classroom all day long – one I very much enjoyed being in. But, when the student assessment results came back, the fact was that happy class had the scores to prove they had spent far less time on content. They were the worst performing class of the four I had studied – yet their classroom climate scores were the best by far.
Of course we want our kids to be happy in school! Creating a school culture that cultivates true joy and community among everyone is an ideal we should always continue to strive for as we lead schools.
Leaders, though, must be mindful that they are giving as much attention to high expectations and rigor as they are to positive climate - and not replacing those high standards with simply making everyone feel good. Lowering the bar to make staff and students happy is a subconscious action many times in schools. No leader wants to do that intentionally, I don’t believe. But, sometimes, when the backlash from pushing folks to their potential gets to be too much, it’s an easy place to go to start deciding to make everything a little easier – to make everyone a little happier. And, so the slippery slope goes…
Let us not over correct so much that our prioritization of happiness puts the rigorous work of learning on the back burner. The best outcomes, in my opinion, will come from a school that honors both always. Even better, when a school helps kids to realize that those moments when they’re sweating and struggling to get to understand their content are actually happy moments – blessings – that’s when we've achieved real school climate nirvana.