Planning for the Long Term

You’ve debriefed, discussing the lessons learned. Now is the time to put those lessons to work. 

Pull together a committee of effective, collaborative-minded people from among students, faculty, staff, parents and caregivers, and members of the larger community to create a school climate task force. Task force members should include not just traditional student leaders but representatives of multiple identity groups within the school.

A school climate coordinator can handle day-to-day planning and management of the task force, but committed leadership from the school’s top administrator is essential for success. The top administrator should promote the group strongly, reassure the school community that this is not just a feel-good exercise, and then back up the words with concrete actions.

Resources also must be provided, otherwise it will appear to be an empty effort. Support for these efforts is growing; increasingly, states are looking at school climate as a vital element in students’ ability to learn as well as teachers’ ability to teach.

“When schools improve school climate, they are safer,” said Dr. Jonathan Cohen, executive director of the National School Climate Center, a web-based resource founded in 1996 as the Center for Social and Emotional Education. “They have more positive outcomes, lower dropout rates and violence goes down.”

Of course, there are pitfalls. Here are some issues to anticipate:

Cynics and naysayers. 

Someone, likely more than one someone, will grumble and ask, “What’s another task force going to do?” Steer conversations to more constructive topics. Ask those who speak negatively about the effort to identify for you what they want to change in the school climate. Engage them in the effort in whatever way you can.

Finger-pointing and blaming. 

Shift negative or pessimistic comments toward a more constructive path, identifying opportunities for improvement and constructive changes in the school community.

Too much information. 

You risk getting bogged down by a lengthy list, with individuals championing pet projects. Create a process for prioritization that involves group input. Aim for a short list of high-priority changes.

One step at a time. 

Attempting to change a whole system can be paralyzing. Aim to identify individual changes that have the most potential impact. Take one step, then see what comes next.

Perception gaps. 

Teachers say the school is safe, but students say it isn’t. Or parents see bias-based bullying as a bigger problem than you do. These are areas where more discussion and more understanding are needed. Don’t dismiss the views you disagree with; take time to explore them, and be open to adjusting your outlook.

Work to navigate these pitfalls, but don’t allow them to derail the process. Give this effort time.

“School leaders don’t spend enough time in the action-planning stage; they want to measure it and move right away to implementing,” said Dr. Jonathan Cohen of the National School Climate Center. “That’s understandable, but it gives short shrift to essential planning.”