Creating a healthy school culture and climate is the most important job that any school leader can do. Research is clear that those students who are meaningfully connected with mentor adults (parent, guardian, or teacher) in childhood and throughout adolescence are far less likely to engage in risky behaviour, face mental health challenges, and experience violence (Center for Disease Control, 2019). If our goal as educators is to set our students up for success, then the establishment of a safe and caring school environment is pivotal.
When I first accepted the position as principal of an online K-12 school, I almost immediately identified that culture and climate was our school’s most pressing need. Being in an online setting where all staff and most students work from home, the physical space between us felt like an obstacle to the type of interactions that facilitate healthy relationships between students and staff. Over the past three years, we have been able to band together and change the culture and climate of our school significantly. We are still on this journey of development, but here are some things we have learned thus far:
- Change starts from the core and works outwards. If you see that culture and climate is an area in which your school has room for improvement, start with the staff members first. Create opportunities to enjoy recreational activities with your staff members. Foster relationships with each one. Once the staff members feel more connected, they will be better able to meet the need for connection in their students. In our case, we started doing a yearly staff retreat and weekly staff meetings to foster the environment we were looking to create. We found the opportunity to collaborate and bond in person to be an essential step in the process.
- Use data to establish what needs to change. It is scary to ask for honest feedback from stakeholders (staff, parents, students, and other community partners), but in order to become better equipped to serve, it is absolutely essential. Try using a survey program (Google Forms works great and is free!) to ask honest questions about how your school is doing in meeting students’ and staff members’ social and emotional needs. If you do this annually, you will be able to celebrate statistical successes along the journey to improvement, even when there is still room to grow!
- Use what you already have going for you. Before making any changes, identify what is already working for your school culture and climate. Guard these elements of your school, because they are the most established areas of strength. Specifically in an online setting, use the technology you have at your fingertips as a facilitator of connection, rather than an obstacle.
As Christian school leaders (teachers, office staff, administrators), our most important job is to reflect Jesus’s love to our students through our interactions with them. Beyond what we know about the importance of connection in child development, our ultimate goal is to inspire our students to seek out a relationship with Jesus. This is a wonderful motivator to modeling healthy relationships and establishing a caring environment in our schools. As we establish connection with our students as the ultimate priority, they will see Jesus’ desire for relationship with each student modeled in us. May this fact frame our thinking and dictate our decision-making, each and every day, so that our schools might become a taste of our eternal home in Heaven, where we will be perfectly connected with each other and with Jesus forever.
Steiner RJ, Sheremenko G, Lesesne C, et al. Adolescent Connectedness and Adult Health Outcomes. Pediatrics. 2019;144(1):e20183766
Kann, L., McManus, T., Harris, W. A., et al. (2018). Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance—United States, 2017. MMWR Surveillance Summary, 67(8), 1-479.