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Tuesday, July 17, 2012

School Climate: A Non-Critical Variable

School Climate: A Non-Critical Variable
By Dr. Steve Gruenert
Associate Professor and Departmental Chairperson
Department of Educational Leadership
Bayh College of Education
Indiana State University

The mood teachers are in should be irrelevant to the quality of teaching they provide.  Any professional should be doing his/her best job every day regardless of the “type” of day he/she may be having. Imagine sitting in the dentist’s chair and overhearing him brooding about all the issues he has had to deal with lately and how he hopes this next patient doesn’t give him trouble. Or, appearing in traffic court and hearing the judge complain about the lack of support she is getting from the prosecuting attorney, stating “We’ll show him something today!” 

How many teachers feel that their personal issues are excuses for a less-than-great classroom performance? How many principals withdraw their classroom observations when they realize the teacher is having a bad day? At what point did research determine that school leaders needed to insure their teachers were of kindred spirits?

Perhaps I have taken a stance too harsh for many educators to digest. After all, people tend to do better when they are happier, right? That is one of the myths driving this (soft) approach to improving schools: worrying about teachers’ attitudes. To disconfirm intuition, The Power of Positive Thinking can destroy things (Ehrenreich, 2009); there is an overrated concern with the likeability of people as the ideal (Cain, 2012), as the search for happiness cannot be provided by others (Gilbert, 2006), and the criteria can change like the wind. In fact, many great inventions, works of art, and breakthroughs have come to people when they have been under stress (Maisel, 2007).

The real question is not what mood teachers are in or how leaders might be able to manufacture happiness, rather: What in the school system is allowing negatives moods to prevail? Further, Why is it teachers are allowed to take negative attitudes into their classrooms? We should not be concerned with the mood they are in (climate) but how being in that mood is rewarding (culture). People tend to sustain behaviors that have rewards. For some teachers, being in a bad mood feels powerful.

The difference between Mondays and Fridays in a school is evidence of school climate. Yet, it is the school’s culture that allows this difference to occur. Cultures give permission to climates to be as they are. The reason most teachers exhibit the mood they are in is because the prevailing culture rewards it. If the faculty is typically cynical toward parents, it is because the culture demands they be so, that is, if they want to maintain status in the group. If teachers stay after school and work with struggling students, it is usually because the culture makes it cool to do so.

Unwritten rules exist in any school. They can be rules that benefit the students, or they can benefit the teachers. Despite any written policies or handbooks, the unwritten rules (norms) will determine how hard the teachers work, how to dress, and what mood to be in given certain circumstances. To walk into a building and declare everyone to be happy, perhaps by bringing donuts or a motivational speaker, will need to meet the approval of the culture, or it will be energy wasted, if not detrimental.

The takeaway from this, with the primary audience being future principals, is not to sweat over the attitudes of the teachers. If you notice a trend toward negativity, then just like taking a child’s temperature, it is but one of many symptoms that reveal a bigger issue: the culture.

Don’t devote resources to make others happier; spend time researching the values and beliefs that support these attitudes.

If you act like the culture is not there, it will act as though you are not there either.


Cain, S. (2012). Quiet: The power of introverts in a world that can’t stop talking. New York: Crown Publishers.

Ehrenrieich, B. (2009). Bright-sided: How positive thinking is undermining America. New York: Picador Publishers.

Gilbert, D. (2006). Stumbling on happiness. New York: Vintage Books.

Maisel, E. (2007). The Van Gogh blues: The creative person's path through depression. Novato, CA: New World Library.


Dr. Steve Gruenert welcomes your comments, thoughts, opinions, and perspectives; he encourages you to write him if you desire further conversation or wish to debate him about the merits of school climate and its relevance to effective school leadership, at 

1 comment:

  1. Dr. Iqbal AlShammariAugust 12, 2012 at 3:10 AM

    Dr. Gruenert,

    You really hit the point.Culture is the missing link to both students and teachers' significant performance. Once we understand how our school culture functions, and successfully break down the elements of this culture, we can then say that 'we are making a difference'. Before that our efforts will be wated.