School culture vs. school climate: The two are not synonymous

Although these terms have similar characteristics, they express two separate concepts. But it's important for both to be positive in your school.
Matthew X. Joseph
Matthew X. Joseph
Matthew X. Joseph is the director of evaluation, supervision, mentoring, and hiring in Brockton Public Schools. He is also the CEO of X-Factor EDU consulting and publishing.

I know FETC is months away, but it is an honor to be asked to speak as part of the administrator track focused on innovative leadership. My session is titled “Innovative Leadership.” I will discuss innovative school culture and its impact on teachers’ drive to improve. Innovative school culture was my dissertation topic at Boston College, and I am excited to share my thoughts and ideas with other leaders. However, in my current reading, posts on Twitter, and podcasts, I hear and read leaders using “culture” and “climate” interchangeably as they relate to schools. Although these two terms have similar characteristics, they express two separate concepts. Maybe it is just a pet peeve of mine after spending two years researching culture, but even so, I feel it is important to clarify for aspiring or even sitting school leaders so as not to make that same error.

Think about this: If the teacher brings cupcakes in on Monday and puts them in the conference room with a note that says, “Have a great start to your week,” everyone is happy—it’s a great way to have a treat and a happy Monday. Then she does it the next Monday. That’s a good example of how to have a positive climate. This act can turn a bad day into a good one or make coming back from the weekend a little easier. That is the basis of school climate: creating a mood (hopefully positive). However, it can change quickly. What if that teacher doesn’t bring cupcakes on the third Monday? Do teachers say, “Why didn’t she bring in cupcakes?” or “Boy, I was hoping for a treat today… Mondays suck.” If so, you can see the climate changing. 

Culture would be an email going out after the first Monday saying, “Thank you to Ms. Teacher for the treats, next week I am up… Who’s next?” Is this a simplistic way to look at it? Yes. But culture is built and then carried on, not quickly changing.

In my research, a school climate is a group of people’s collective mood or morale. Climate describes the shared perceptions of the people in a group or organization, while culture includes how people feel about the organization and the beliefs, values, and assumptions that provide the identity and set the standards of behavior.

My research findings are directly connected to a positive culture infusing positive motivation and, in turn, higher job satisfaction and increased innovation. Unfortunately, some leaders do not research the most effective strategies for creating a positive school culture….but they are actually trying to create a climate by relying on extrinsic rewards—such as preferred or duty-free lunch or think about the cupcake example. Bringing cupcakes after a weekend may help a few teachers come in on Monday, but this will not affect the culture of the building long term.

I think of climate as “how we are feeling around here” versus culture as “the way we do things.” It may be a very small difference, but the climate is more the mood or attitude of the group, whereas culture is the personality of all staff members. Both climate and culture impact the behaviors of the people in the school, but climate is a narrower concept than culture. Culture goes deeper to include the immediate environment and what people believe and value. Culture is a product of the relationship history in a school, while climate is a function of how current staff perceives those relationships in the present.

Again, a positive climate is essential and is the primary leverage point for any culture, which means that if school leaders want to shape a new culture, they should start with an assessment of the climate. If the culture is ineffective, climate issues were probably missed before they became rooted in the culture.

A school staff develops a common culture to pass on information to the next wave of teachers. In schools, new teachers arrive yearly with their own ideas about how to teach. Through their college classes and practicum, teachers have been immersed in theories of best practices and current methodologies. If the culture of their first job does not embrace these new ideas, the new teachers will soon learn that to fit in; they will need to conform. Because new teachers want to fit in and feel like experienced teachers, they are vulnerable to the school’s culture and all the unwritten rules passed through the years of building a culture. An organization’s culture dictates its collective personality.

So this is all well and good, but how can we move toward assisting current and aspiring leaders in looking at their own school’s culture? First, ask yourself, “What are the foundations of my school’s culture?” 

A few questions I always recommend to assist with this reflection are:

  • Are there collaborative relationships between faculty members?
  • Do I see positive teacher-student interactions?
  • Are there collaborative relationships between the school leader and faculty?
  • Are there collaborative relationships between faculty members?
  • Do our goals focus on learning and high expectations for student achievement?
  • Are students feeling safe, connected and engaged?
  • Do we have policies promoting social, emotional, ethical and intellectual skills?
  • Are there clear, appropriate and consistent expectations and consequences to address disruptive student behaviors?
  • Does our school have a high level of parental involvement?

A positive school culture and climate is the basis for sustainable learning. Conversely, in a toxic school culture and climate, learning by all will not take place effectively, and what is learned may be sustainably harmful. When a school is a positive place to be, people are happy to be there, do their best, and make their best better. It is not exclusively on the shoulders of the building leader to support the existence of a collaborative school culture; it is a shared ownership of all stakeholders in this process. 

I am going to leave you with a challenge. Imagine you are in the elevator and in walks a parent looking at houses in your district. It’s a ride with many floors, so you know it will take at least 60 seconds. That parent then says, “I understand you are the principal in this district. Tell me what you are proud of with the school culture.”

The elevator door closes, and it’s your turn to speak. What are you going to say? Remember, you only have 60 seconds. Go.

If you need help, start by thinking about the following:

  • What are you doing to help students (and staff) feel that this is a positive school, a place they look forward to coming into every day?
  • What is it that we are doing that is discouraging for students and that creates a negative climate?

Good luck. 

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