Classroom Climate and Culture: Effective Teaching for the 21st-Century Learner

Updated: Mar 24, 2021

An effective teacher must master the professional skills necessary to deliver a high-quality 21st-century education to their students. In this blog post, I will discuss the importance of classroom climate and culture.

A positive school climate and culture are fundamental components to high teaching and learning levels because they set the stage for achievement. In schools with healthy climates and cultures, students and staff are genuinely engaged, have better attendance, higher student achievement, and have fewer disciplinary problems, as Harvard education professor Roland Barth points out. “A school’s culture has more influence on life and learning in the schoolhouse than the president of the country, the state department of education, the superintendent, the school board, or even the principal, teachers, and parents can ever have.” For this reason, building a strong school climate and culture is so crucial in providing a 21st-century education.


Frequently the words school climate and culture are used interchangeably in describing the school’s milieu. However, they mean different things. School climate is challenging to define because it can mean other things to different people, but according to Freiberg and Stein (1999), school climate is "the heart and soul of the school." The climate causes students and teachers to engage in the school and want to attend with pride. It results from policies and actions put in place by principals and teachers and describes a school's "feel." The National School Climate Center points out that climate is based on the patterns of people's school life experiences; it reflects the norms, goals, values, interpersonal relationships, teaching, learning and leadership practices, and organizational structures that comprise school life (2009). In other words, a school's climate is what makes students and teachers eager to come to school. It is the emotional tone set by the principal and teachers and helps students feel socially, emotionally, and physically safe in schools. Often the school’s climate is taken for granted. Still, as a best-selling author, educational leadership, and school climate expert Peter Dewitt explains, “There are people what will say ‘We don’t have time for school climate because we have so much on our plate.’ And my philosophy is school climate is the plate that everything else has to go on.”


School culture refers to a school's unique persona. It's that feeling one gets when walking into a school and knowing that something special is happening there. According to education reformer Michael Fullan (2007), "school culture may be defined as the guiding beliefs and expectations evident in the way a school operates." In other words, school culture is the way things get done in a school. It is an enduring pattern of meaning and practice that profoundly affects faculty and staff attitudes and approaches. A helpful way to think about positive school culture is to consider what it is not. A school’s culture often operates under the conscious awareness of students and staff, so unlike climate, a school's culture is durable and long-lasting. In the book Shaping School Culture: The Heart of Leadership, authors Terrence Deal and Kent Peterson point out, “School cultures are complex webs of traditions and rituals that have been built up over time as teachers, students, parents, and administrators work together and deal with crises and accomplishments. Cultural patterns are highly enduring, have a powerful impact on performance, and shape the ways people think, act and feel.”


School culture is built with all school staff members' contributions to include the administration, teachers, support staff, parents, and the greater community. As the African proverb states, "It takes a village to raise a child." According to Bill Dagett, founder of the International Center for Leadership in Education, school culture matters. When Dagett analyzed the top-performing schools in America, he found that the top 1% of the highest performing schools had one thing in common, a positive school culture. A recent study indicates that when teachers build safe and supportive school and classroom cultures that engage all learners, they facilitate their students’ academic success and social and emotional wellbeing (Ohlson, Swanson, Adams-Manning, & Byrd, 2016). Negative or “toxic” cultures do just the opposite. They are characterized by, among other things, a school staff that is fragmented, frustrated, and feels a sense of hopelessness. A School in which the purpose of serving students' needs has become a secondary consideration to the needs and wants of adults.


Just as schools have climates and cultures, individual classrooms do too. And it is just as important, if not more so, for teachers to build and maintain a positive environment from which all students can learn. Research indicates that children thrive in classrooms where students are expected to contribute and where everyone is valued. There are several ways that teachers can build positive classroom cultures. The most important is for teachers to develop positive relationships with their students. All students should feel safe, connected, and engaged at school. For example, a study of behaviorally at-risk African-American students indicated that when teachers built supportive relationships with their students, there were measurable increases in the students’ positive social outcomes and overall academic achievement (Decker, Dona, & Christenson, 2007). Unfortunately, building strong relationships, especially with marginalized populations, is not always achieved. A study conducted by the EdWeek Research Center indicated that teachers believe almost a third of marginalized students feel very or somewhat uncomfortable at their school. 29% for Black students, 34% for LGBTQ students, 29% for immigrant students, and 26% for students from low-income families. Strong teacher-student relationships can reduce students’ feelings of isolation and alienation and may help students build resilience to help them cope with childhood trauma. John Hattie, in his book Visible Learning: A Synthesis of Over 800 Meta-Analyses Relating to Achievement, writes that “Having teachers who care, that take time to listen, possess empathy, and demonstrate a positive regard for others, have a greater impact on student achievement than those who do not (Hattie, 2010, p. 118). Additionally, teachers should facilitate positive relationships between students. One way to do this is to have clear, consistent, and mutually agreed upon classroom rules and procedures. Students crave structure and predictability despite their protestations to the contrary. When classrooms are well managed and students are on task, there are fewer opportunities for students to engage in disruptive behaviors. As the old saying goes, “idle hands are the devil’s workshop.” Just like adults, when students respect and adhere to social norms and expectations, they are more likely to live and work together in harmony.

Just as it is crucial to build strong relationships with students and between students, it is equally important to foster positive collaborative relationships with their families and communities. In other words, teachers should invite input from various stakeholders in making assorted decisions that impact the classroom, such as curriculum, instruction, enrichment activities, resources, celebrations, and recognitions. Teachers can do this by maintaining open lines of communication through digital technologies such as creating a classroom website, emails, digital newsletters, and social media posts. It is essential to meet stakeholders where they are, understanding that not every family has access to the internet and should employ traditional communication methods such as phone calls, handbills, and snail-mail when appropriate. Additionally, teachers should consider parents’ work schedules and the primary language spoken because it is crucial to make all family members feel included and appreciated. Not everyone has the luxury of working “banker’s hours,” and teachers must be flexible in meeting all families' needs.


Another thing teachers can do to build positive classroom climates and cultures is to have high expectations of all students. Student achievement is a self-fulling prophecy. When teachers sincerely believe their students can achieve academic success, they usually do (more on this later). Celebrate accomplishments by offering praise and recognition that is specific and genuine. Blanket statements like “good job” or “well done” spoken to the class are not enough. Target individual students for compliments and be descriptive of the exact behavior that warrants the recognition. For example, “Rosa, I enjoyed reading your essay. Your research and writing have improved dramatically since the beginning of the years.” Better yet, teach students to praise one another when they experience success. Soon the classroom will be overflowing with positive vibes. Maintain a clean and organized classroom that reflects the diversity of the students who learn there. Research indicates that the symbolic environment, such as wall color and décor, and objects displayed in the classroom powerfully affect classroom culture (Cheryan, Ziegler, Plaut, & Meltzoff, 2014). Maintain a positive attitude, even during difficult times. As best-selling author Jeff Keller points out, “attitude is everything,” and students are watching how you handle difficult or tense situations. Using humor is an excellent way to deal with challenging circumstances or frustration. Don’t take yourself too seriously. Abraham Lincoln was famous for his self-deprecating humor. For example, during one of his debates with Stephen Douglas for the U.S. Senate seat in Illinois, Douglas accused Lincoln of being two-faced. Lincoln calmly retorted, “I leave it to my audience: If I had two faces, would I be wearing this one?”

One of my favorite education quotes come from John Dewey’s book Experience and Education (1938) in which he writes, "What avail is it to win prescribed amounts of information about geography and history, to win the ability to read and write, if in the process the individual loses his own soul?" (p. 49). Schools should not be soulless places. They should instead be places of great joy, because learning should be a joyful endeavor. Students should look forward to coming to school because they know that it is a place where adults care about them, and want them to be successful. This is the kind of culture that we should strive to build in our schools.

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