Connecting for Common Purpose: How to Create a Supportive School Climate

Jewish day schools are increasingly embracing efforts in social and emotional learning (SEL), with the pandemic and associated mental health concerns strengthening the urgency of this trend. Through SEL, values such as kehillah (community), kavod (honor or respect) and the like become woven into the fabric of interactions in a school. And while the focus is often on how to build trusting and positive relationships between teacher and student, an SEL approach emphasizes the importance of all relationships in a school. This means that the quality of the relationships between colleagues and among those in leadership and the staff are of paramount concern. 

When teachers experience positive relationships with their peers and supervisors, they feel better about the work they do, report reduced stress, and have a greater commitment to their own and their peers’ productivity and professional growth and success. This comes as no surprise. Think about your own journey as an educator. Are you able to identify principals, supervisors or colleagues who helped you achieve your full potential not only in the classroom, but also contributed to your overall sense of well-being? We suspect, based on having asked this question countless times, that your answer is “yes.”

Business and political settings have embraced relationship-oriented leadership. A 2018 Forbes article concludes that “relational leadership can be incredibly successful, particularly when it is authentic, empathetic, reinforced through gestures of friendship and embedded in the culture of a team.”

As such, principals’ and educators’ social and emotional competencies can profoundly impact everyone's experience, as well as the school climate, and to a large extent, determine how relationships develop among the staff. While all social and emotional competencies play a significant role in the development of relationships and school climate, self- and social awareness seem particularly important. Leaders and teachers who possess these competencies have an increased awareness of the effect their emotions have on others, as well as a deepened understanding of their colleagues’ and staffs’ emotions. Equally important, socially and emotionally competent principals and teachers can manage their emotions under challenging situations and understand that their handling of these situations affects their relationships with others and directly influences classroom and school climate. 

When positive relationships exist, teachers feel safe to share their struggles and concerns. In these kinds of trusting relationships, principals validate the emotions and issues shared, and they respond to them. Teachers feel accepted and appreciated, leading to more open communication and trust. When teachers perceive their principals as supportive and caring, they are also more likely to seek counsel when confronting difficult situations and feel sufficiently brave to try new things and ask questions. 

School Climate

It has been recognized for some time that school climate affects everyone in the building and influences teacher and student performance as well as mental and physical health. School climate refers to the quality and consistency of interpersonal interactions within the school community, which influence the children’s and staffs’ cognitive, social and psychological development. A positive school climate begins with the social and emotional competencies of the principal. Principals are at the forefront of constructing and shaping the context in which their teachers teach and students learn and, therefore, have a direct influence on the school climate. 

Principals who have strong social and emotional competencies are able to bring these competencies into the school, resulting in an environment that supports the development of positive relationships with their staff. They are more likely to design professional learning that is collaborative in nature. They also recognize and develop their staffs’ strengths and guide them through solving conflicts constructively and successfully. This creates an optimal school climate in which everyone benefits. Teachers like to be in a working environment built on cooperation, respectful communication and trust, where expressions and sharing of emotions are welcomed and acknowledged, and principals are supportive and responsive to each individual teacher’s needs. As a result, in such environments, teachers report feeling safe emotionally and physically, and are able to thrive. And they are less likely to leave.

Sense of Purpose, Source of Strength

One of the most important steps that school leaders can take to strengthen school climate for staff and students is to establish the core values of the school. All members of the school community should be able to find commonalities among their answers to questions such as, Why are we here? What is our purpose?

Educators acknowledge that trauma and stress accompany students and staff into school with them every day. This creates added tension in relationships and can drain motivation and focus. 

Yet as Viktor Frankl found under the most extreme conditions and William Damon and others have found more normatively, possessing a sense of constructive purpose can offset many other difficulties. It can galvanize positive energies and organize and focus actions in ways that improve and deepen relationships. When students and educators come together in common cause, great accomplishments can take place. As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks has said, “If you believe you are here for a purpose, your energies will be focused. A sense of mission will give you strength. You will do remarkable things.”

One distinctive feature of a Jewish school is that the students are not there only for themselves and their own advancement. They are there for one another and to foster accomplishments that will make the lives of their classmates, schoolmates, community and the world better. Tikkun Olam is not something abstract; it’s a part of everyday life, an expectation for everyone to fulfill. When skills are not linked to virtues, these skills can be deployed in various ways, not necessarily constructively. Nor is a school climate helped by having cliques and hierarchies. The strongest path to an optimal school climate is when every student (and staff member) feels like a genuine shareholder in an entity that is bigger than any one person or group within the school.

Making Meetings Matter

Many of us have feelings about meetings. And oftentimes those feelings are negative. A quick search of quotes on the internet turned up gems such as these: “Your meeting is a high priority if there’s free food.” “Any simple problem can be made worse if enough meetings are held to discuss it.” “The longer the meeting, the less is accomplished.” (The latter attributed to Tim Cook of Apple.) However, when properly designed, meetings can provide opportunities for relationship building and can contribute toward a positive school climate.

Start the meeting with emotional intelligence. Begin with a welcome and by letting everyone know why they are there and what you hope will be accomplished as a result of this meeting. Open with a fun question to set a tone of congeniality. Take time to build relationships among staff; to build empathy; to teach and practice SE skills. With limited time for meetings, we often rush to “get down to business.” Instead, provide time for participants to listen to one another without always trying to problem-solve and offer time for staff to get to know each other. 

Provide opportunities to share emotions. Checking in with educators sends a message of caring. Just like athletes huddle before a game, principals can offer time for educators to come together and share their heart and head space at the beginning of the day. This also can be a time for educators to pause, check in with themselves and breathe before entering the classroom. Transitions can be hard for educators, too.

Create collaborative norms. Many educators set up classroom rules so that optimal learning can take place. Articulating what each student needs in order to do their best learning builds self- and social awareness and a classroom climate in which everyone can thrive. Why, then, do we not do this for our educators, as well? Whether it is during a staff meeting, team project or a causal interaction in the hallway, educators can benefit from reflecting on their own needs as well as the needs of their colleagues. Working together and articulating norms of engagement as a group recognizes that people’s needs and actions matter in creating a safe and brave space for everyone. This also builds a sense of caring and trust that leads to a positive working environment where everyone can do their best work. 

Create opportunities for staff to share expertise. While outside experts and “top-down” instruction have their places, staff members benefit from being able to contribute to and draw from the collective wisdom of practice. Ask teachers to showcase their innovative work. Provide opportunities for peer-to-peer consultations when someone gets stuck. 

There is much that can be done to enhance the school climate as perceived by staff members. For a leader, caring doesn’t need to be costly in terms of time or resources. The little things matter: a quick check-in at the beginning and/or end of the day, an expression of support for challenges both personal and professional, frequent reminders about the community’s common purpose. Together, these add up to a place where teachers thrive.

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HaYidion Spring 2023: Relationships
Spring 2023