Key Contributors to School Climate

Include the building’s classified staff in communicating school values

Topics: Professional Development, School Culture and Climate, School Management

Everyone is a teacher at East Gresham Elementary School in Hillsboro, Oregon. The cafeteria staff praise children for saying “please” and “thank you.” The custodian notices when a child cleans her own space. Here, classified staff are key players in embedding the school climate with kindness and learning.

“Everybody has something of value to share with the children,” says Kimberly Miles, principal.

As experienced principals know, classified staff serving in nonteaching roles are crucial to school operations. But support personnel also play a key role in school climate—that ecosphere of culture, the building’s physical aspects, characteristics of individuals, and social systems of relationships mentioned in “How Principals Affect Students and Schools: A Systemic Synthesis of Two Decades of Research,” a research review commissioned by The Wallace Foundation.

Veteran principals take strategic steps to include classified staff in the rites and rituals that emphasize school values. Just who are these invaluable but often overlooked players on the school team?

They are:

  • Paraprofessionals, secretaries, bus drivers, cooks, lunch monitors, janitors, maintenance personnel, and everyone else who keeps your school functioning smoothly.
  • More than half of a building’s staff, in many cases. They might be the first and last school-based adults students encounter every day.
  • The people living the climate and culture that you inspire, setting an example for students to follow.

Consider the following strategies for supporting the support staff in order to foster a positive climate that infuses joy into every school day.

Inviting Inclusion

Effective principals focus on building a sense of school community. That includes showing respect for every member of the school community; creating a solutions-oriented, “no-blame” environment; and involving staff and students in a variety of activities.

Veteran principals take deliberate steps to incorporate nonteaching staff in that inclusionary worldview:

  • Meet with all staff one-on-one, and get to know their interests and talents. Put the pieces together, and you’ll see how they make the puzzle whole. Effective principals invest in learning their staff’s expertise, needs, and personalities, according to a 2018 study, “Initiating Conversations and Opening Doors: How Principals Establish a Positive Building Culture to Sustain School Improvement Efforts” by Liz Hollingworth, et al.
  • Share internal communications with every adult in the building. Don’t be stingy about who gets your updates. Are there school-age child care providers on the premises or academic coaches who rotate through district schools? Sharing emails makes them feel like part of the community and school culture.
  • Invite, invite, invite. Bring classified staff into faculty meetings, and include them on school committees. People need repeated invitations to participate in a new school culture, according to “The Role of Organizational Climate and Culture in the School Improvement Process,” a 2017 research review by Ronald Lindahl.
  • When you don’t hear from a classified staffer, make sure they hear from you. Approach them with specific questions that demonstrate your empathy: “Are you being respected? Is there anything you need? Have you had lunch today?”
  • Seek out ideas for addressing the needs of the individual children. If you have a solution in mind, keep it to yourself at first. Let the staff person consider what the child needs and how to provide it. For example, a lunch monitor might have insights into a student’s aggressive behavior.
  • What you do for teaching staff, do for all. Include classified personnel in teacher appreciation days. Bake cookies for lunch monitors and janitors. Invite all building personnel to join in a monthly shared reading.

Why it matters: Inclusionary practices trickle down to students, who will also feel included and learn to treat each other with respect. Even non­teaching staff can teach prosocial behavior. Kids see caring in action and learn by example that everyone should have an opportunity to contribute.

Professional Learning for All

The effective principal builds a productive school climate with practices that “encourage a school environment marked by trust, efficacy, teamwork, engagement with data, organizational learning, and continuous improvement,” states the “How Principals Affect Students and Schools” report.

Here’s your chance to make your school a place of learning and growth for classified staff as well as students and teachers:

  • Extend professional learning opportunities to support staff. A veteran principal might invite paraeducators to attend scheduled professional development sessions specific to their needs or addressing student social-emotional learning. Professional learning can equip classified staff with the capabilities to build relationships that reinforce learning and behavior standards.
  • Take discussions with classified staff to the individual student level. They are part of the strategy to help students succeed in the areas where they struggle.
  • Leverage the practice of individualized student learning into the broader quest for equity. Direct educational assistants to review data and discuss student behavior strategies monthly. Then, scrutinize the data for signs of bias, and work with staff to devise ways to make sure the child is approached in a way that’s safe and respected.
  • Extend professional learning opportunities to classified staff to deepen the pool of trusted adults that students can approach with questions and concerns. With the proper supports, your custodian can feel comfortable pulling kids aside to say, “I saw that. How can we do something different?”

Why it matters: When classified staff members have the tools to maintain control, you won’t be pulled away from instructional leadership when things go wrong, and the students in staff care won’t be sent to your office. Your time is better used, and the student is learning, focused, and enjoying school.

Creating a System

Even in high-need schools, strong climates can become self-​sustaining, says the 2017 study “Sustaining School Improvement in a High-Need School,” by Nathern Okilwa and Bruce Barnett. That thriving ecosystem begins with a well-run office:

  • Empower staff to act independently so you can attend conferences to sharpen your practices. Strive for the time when the day flows so smoothly that nobody notices your absence.
  • Think of secretaries, registrars, and parent liaisons as more than the people who manage details on your behalf. Elevate that perspective by trusting office staff to make decisions. As “How Principals Affect Students and Schools” summarizes the research, trust “is an essential part of school climate because it directly facilitates school improvement, positive student beliefs, and positive student behavior.”
  • Work “on the system, not in the system.” That means tweaking any glitches but getting out of the way so office staff can do their jobs. As one principal notes, when the office is humming along, he can concentrate on the instructional leadership he was hired to provide.
  • Hire good listeners. You can role-play parent interactions and give office staff the training and tools to manage encounters effectively, but good listeners have the superpower of deescalating potentially heated situations.

Why it matters: The calming effect of capable office staff can help “bring down the temperature” by the time you talk with a parent, making for a more productive conversation. When you empower office staff, they are actually empowering you to do a better job.

Instilling the School Philosophy

Software and professional learning programs can help classified staff build capacity, but the most important thing you can give them is the gift of time together to collaborate, celebrate, and hone their questions and suggestions.

As a result, an all-inclusive climate creates an even keel for learning turnarounds and school improvement. The students feel ownership of their school, and that comes from the love emanating from every adult. No matter what else is going on in their lives, your school is a safe space staffed in every hallway, classroom, gym, and lunchroom with people who care and know how to show it.

Special thanks to these principals for their expertise: Edward Cosentino, Clemens Crossing Elementary School, Columbia, Maryland; Verle Gilbert, Hahn Intermediate School, Davison, Michigan; Kimberly Miles, East Gresham Elementary School, Hillsboro, Oregon; Melissa Reams, Randolph Elementary School, Crozier, Virginia; Jonathon Wennstrom, Riley Upper Elementary School, Livonia, Michigan; and Jaclyn Wright, Brewbaker Primary School, Montgomery, Alabama.