It was the end of a particularly difficult week. Mr. Thomas and his staff were gathered in the library for their regular weekly celebration. He looked out on the faces of all his staff—teachers, para-professionals, counselors, office and maintenance people. They were tired. He asked the weekly invitation that had become a tradition in his school. “Let’s celebrate!”
People started to share good news ranging from the improvement of an individual student to less office referrals to students showing more respect for the building. They shared about positive contact with a parent and trying a new instructional strategy that worked. Each time someone share the group applauded.
In short, they took inventory of the good that had happened during the week, even a difficult week. By the end of the 10 minutes celebration tired faces were smiling facing and there was a little extra spring in their step as they left the building.
The power of a positive culture
Three years ago, it had been a different story. The school had been listed as an underperforming school and it had been placed on a list of potential state takeovers. Student performance had been spiraling downward.
Mr. Thomas knew if he was going to turn the school around he would need help. He put together a team of his school leaders and they tackled the issue by first identifying problems and challenges. They identified several issues, but chief among them was a negative culture. People felt like they worked hard, but were getting nowhere. They felt no sense of accomplishment. They felt under attack and underappreciated. Teachers left the school (and sometimes the teaching field) and those that stayed were not especially motivated. They did feel any pride. They were hurting.
The group did some investigating and discovered the following information*:
- Students achieve higher scores on standardized tests in schools with healthy learning environments.
- A positive school climate is recognized as an important target for school reform and improving behavioral, academic, and mental health outcomes for students (Thapa et al., 2012).
- Schools with positive climates tend to have less student discipline problems (Thapa et al., 2013) and aggressive and violent behavior (Gregory et al., 2010), and fewer high school suspensions (Lee et al., 2011).
- Research has also shown associations between school climate and lower levels of alcohol and drug use (LaRusso et al., 2008), bullying (Meyer-Adams & Conner, 2008; Bradshaw et al., 2009), and harassment (Attar-Schwartz, 2009).
- School climate can promote positive youth development. Favorable school climate has been linked with higher student academic motivation and engagement (Eccles et al., 1993), as well as elevated psychological well-being (Ruus et al., 2007; Shochet et al., 2006).
- Schools promoting engaging learning environments tend to have fewer student absences (Gottfredson et al., 2005) and increased improvements in academic achievement across grade levels (Brand et al., 2003; Stewart, 2008).
- Schools where educators openly communicate with one another, feel supported by their peers and administration, and establish strong student-educator relationships tend to have better student academic and behavioral outcomes (Brown & Medway, 2007).
- School climate efforts also have the potential of increasing job satisfaction and teacher retention, which is a major concern given the high rate of turnover in the field of education (Boe et al., 2008; Kaiser, 2011).
Mr. Thomas working alongside his team explored different ideas to improve school culture. Their answer: Celebrating
The power of celebration!
Working together the idea of a weekly celebration took form. Here were some of the factors they uncovered. Celebrations:
- Unite people
- Keep a focus on the positive and nurture a sense of pride
- Recognize the achievement and growth of individuals and the group
- Creates a sense of belonging
- Allows time to review progress toward goals and objectives
- Celebrate workand develop an “culture of gratitude”
- Build enthusiasm—it helps people stay determined and optimistic
- Keep people energized
- Develop staff resilience
- Provide an opportunity to relax and unwind
- Improve productivity
- Promote loyalty and job satisfaction
- Break down barriers among staff and builds an appreciation of diversity
Mr. Thomas and his team introduced the idea of celebrations to the school and implemented the weekly celebration. Results were not immediate, but over time the culture changed. People began to keep “celebration journals” and track of all their good work. People were motivated. Pride grew and spread.
Mr. Thomas understood that the challenges facing his school were complex and that no one strategy would be a panacea. He knew that as they worked on creating a positive culture, other new ideas needed to be explored, researched and introduced. Strategies to improve instruction, use data more effectively, manage behavior, and engage families all had to be implemented correctly.
School culture and celebrations were a good place to start!
* National Education Association IMPORTANCE OF SCHOOL CLIMATE RESEARCH BRIEF (Lindsey O’Brennan & Catherine Bradshaw, Johns Hopkins Center for the Prevention of Youth Violence)