In teaching and for learning relationships are everything.
This is one of those statements that cannot be overstated, it is true now, it has always been true.
For our students to learn before all else they must feel that they are in a positive and supportive environment where they are known and cared for. Maslow identified this back in 1943 when he published his well-known hierarchy of needs. At the base of Maslow’s pyramid sit our most fundamental physiological needs, those we require to maintain life. Above these sit our ‘safety’ needs including well-being needs and above these our need for a sense of belonging and love.
Maslow understood that before we are able to turn our personal capacities towards the pursuit of other goals such as esteem and self-actualisation, before we can engage in learning, we must have our fundamental needs met. Maslow’s hierarchy shows clearly the importance of establishing a safe and supportive environment if learning is to become a possibility.
In more recent times this environment has become associated with the notion of 'school climate’. A school’s climate according to the NSW Association of Independent Schools (AISNSW), 'is a holistic concept which encompasses four domains: safety, interpersonal relationships, teaching and learning, and the school environment.’ These factors together create the conditions within which the learner becomes immersed. By developing an awareness of these factors and by manipulating them to achieve positive impacts schools can establish a climate that is supportive of student success.
A recent study by the US Department of Education has thrown weight behind our understanding of the importance of school climate. “The study found that middle schools with higher levels of positive student-reported school climate exhibited higher levels of academic performance; increases in a school’s level of positive student-reported school climate were associated with simultaneous increases in that school’s academic achievement."
The benefits of a positive school climate are broad and impact both students and teachers. The AISNSW reports positive effects on academic performance, school attendance, emotional health and wellbeing, self-esteem and self-efficacy for students and job satisfaction, resilience and wellbeing for teachers. Indeed, a positive school climate is shown to reduce teacher burnout and increase retention rates, two significant challenges facing the teaching profession.
At the heart of a positive school climate are the relationships we build; those between students and teachers, between students, between teachers and between the school and its community including importantly its parents. These relationships are built on the visible foundations of the school’s mission, vision and values but more importantly they are constructed and sustained by the everyday actions taken at every point of contact between stakeholders. It needs to be understood that the friendly welcome our students receive as they enter the school each day is as significant a factor in their academic growth as any lesson they will ever attend.
In an environment where the teacher’s role was to deliver knowledge into the memories of the student, the key attribute of the relationship between teacher and student was one of basic trust. The learner needed to trust that the teacher and the knowledge they held was trustworthy. With few competing sources of information, this was an easy relationship to establish and it was maintained by the authority of the teacher, the school and indeed the privileged position of educational institutions.
In contemporary times a positive school climate built through caring and supportive relationships is perhaps more critical than ever. As the focus of schools moves towards models of learning centred on creativity and critical thinking, when we want students to be the drivers of their learning who take risks and learn from failure, we must establish a school climate where this is achievable. If we want our students to bring their passions into the classrooms, if we hope that they will seek out new challenges and be prepared to learn from failure they must know that they are doing these things within an environment where they are safe.
All schools will espouse that they aim to create a positive school climate. All teachers will share that they know and care for their students, encourage responsible risk taking, creativity and learning from mistakes. Where this falls down is in the broader mix of messaging systems that are at play. We might encourage risk-taking in our conversation with students, but does our grading system reward it or punish students who tried an alternative path? Do we acknowledge students who tried a new idea and failed or do we only acknowledge first place? Do we claim to care for our students’ emotional needs but focus on the neatness of their uniforms more so than the mere fact that they have arrived at school at all and almost on time? Do we move straight onto the content of our lessons or do we take time for conversation? Do we stop on our way to the staffroom to check in on a student or are we too busy?
The challenge confronting those hoping to construct a positive school climate (a challenge that applies also for changes to school culture) is that it is shaped by everything we do and every choice we make and it is confounded doubly so by every misstep we make. To craft a truly positive school climate demands our fullest attention to every detail of every relationship we build but the effort is well worth it.
By Nigel Coutts