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The Unity and Individualism of

Jasmine Gilliam

Article

The Unity and Individualism of Climate and Culture

As we start the new year, let’s start in truth: the climate and culture in many of our schools are crumbling. Students are reporting anxiety in response to the challenges of returning to in-person learning. Tensions between teachers and administrators are at an all time high. Teachers, like many other professions, are participating in what is being called the “Great Resignation,” exacerbating teacher shortages and stretching everyone thin. If climate and culture are the heartbeat of our schools, then many of us need openheart surgery. Unfortunately, while most educators would agree that climate and culture are key to a successful school, these terms are used to describe so many intangible things, from student behavior to staff morale, that it renders the terms almost meaningless. How can schools rally around terms that mean something different for each person?

Before we can work to improve climate and culture, we need to be clear about what they are, and understand that they are not interchangeable. “Climate describes the shared perceptions of the people in a group or organization, while culture includes how people feel

In that moment, all of the relational trust we’d built—and the climate it created for me and others— was lost because that school lacked a culture of teacher leadership.

about the organization and the beliefs, values, and assumptions that provide the identity and set the standards of behavior” (Stolp & Smith, 1995). In simpler terms, climate deals with how people in a school feel, and culture is made up of all the structures that cause them to feel that way. To be successful in building and maintaining a healthy climate and culture, school leaders need to address both simultaneously.

Climate Without Culture

Virtually every school has explored the importance of relational trust. We know the power of trusting relationships with students, colleagues, and leaders in the building, and these individual relationships combine to create a climate of trust. One school I worked in held the concept of relational trust at its core. Administrators there took me under their wings: held 1-on-1’s about my long-term plans and future aspirations, gave me increased responsibility in the day to day operation of the school, offered lots of verbal and written praise, and selected me to represent my school in district level meetings. These encounters built mutual respect and personal regard between me and my administration, so when I was nominated for Golden Apple Teacher of the Year I assumed it would be easy to get a recommendation from my school leaders. Yet my principal denied me a recommendation because I had no formal teacher leadership experience. In that moment, all of the relational trust we’d built—and the climate it created for me and others—was lost because that school lacked a culture of teacher leadership. There was no established pathway for teachers to take on leadership opportunities, and I had no path for professional growth because the school had no standards or expectations about how teachers could develop leadership skills. Without clear structures for growing into a leadership role at the school level—in other words, without an organizational culture supporting professional growth—ultimately the trusting climate I had felt was a mirage.

Culture Without Climate

After realizing I wouldn’t be able to pursue my teacher leadership goals

there, I transferred to a different school and applied for the Teach Plus Change Agent program, which provides training and coaching for teachers leading change efforts in schools. In my first year as a Change Agent, I resolved to build a culture that would provide my team with all the structures and pathways for growth that I myself hadn’t enjoyed. I created documents, spreadsheets, and slide decks full of jargon about how we would approach diverse learner education at our school. I felt really good about the clarity I’d provided, so I was surprised when I read mid-year feedback from my team: “It is too much. Everything is always new. I feel like I can’t get a grapple before she starts something else. Jasmine has great vision, but it is all too much.”

Relationships had always been second nature for me in the classroom. In this new role, though, people trusted the

vision but didn’t necessarily trust me to lead the process, because I was so focused on ensuring that every structure was written out in detail that I took that trust for granted. Halfway through the year, all I had was a bunch of documents and a bunch of blank stares from a clearly divested team. In focusing entirely on building structures to sustain group culture, I’d failed to spend the time on personal trust and relationships that I always did with students, and I’d been as ruinous to the team as my previous boss. I needed to be more intentional about learning my team members’ interests and passions, creating a climate of trust that would enable that lasting team culture to take hold.

Culture and Climate Together

Now, in my third year as a Teach Plus Change Agent, I am able to find a balance between culture and climate—most days. I’ve established routines to maintain relational trust, like dedicating the first 10 minutes of each coaching session I lead to relationship building, and I work to develop a true partnership with each team member as we work toward

The authentic partnerships we’ve built have created a trusting climate, which enables us to work together to create a strong and lasting team culture that sustains trust.

shared goals. I still have my hoard of documents outlining a vision for change and procedures for our team, but now those documents are just the foundation of what we are creating together. When

challenges arise, we use the structures we’ve established to solve them

together. The authentic partnerships we’ve built have created a trusting climate, which enables us to work together to create a strong and lasting team culture that sustains trust.

Moving Forward: Culture and Climate as Dual Priorities

Right now, schools know teachers are struggling, and many acknowledge the underlying external reasons for that. However, while some of the issues we face can’t be helped, there’s still a lot we can do to build the culture and climate of our schools. Team swag, jeans days, gift cards, and donuts are just band-aids; what we really need are lasting changes to the culture of schools that maintain the goodwill and trust that small gifts can’t sustain.

Moving forward, school leaders have to understand how culture and climate operate individually, yet simultaneously, and treat culture and climate as two equally important priorities. To do that, leaders should first examine the culture and climate of their buildings separately and from multiple perspectives. If the climate is healthy, leaders can examine whether cultural factors are sustaining that climate or threatening it; if the

climate is unhealthy, leaders must prioritize restoring trust at the same time as they examine ways to improve structures that will sustain it.

No leader can do that alone. Because a building’s climate is made up of individual perceptions, and cultural structures affect different individuals in different ways, leaders can only understand them well by hearing from a wide group of stakeholders. To ensure a diversity of viewpoints, they should establish a committee of key stakeholders to monitor both culture and climate. An effective climate and culture team can help a school weather outside factors from Covid-19 to increased testing, and from sustaining BIPOC educators to promoting inclusive education practices for all students.

Gathering and empowering the right team to be intentional about building climate and culture is a critical priority for school leaders now, and not just to alleviate stress or make people feel good. Maintaining culture and climate simultaneously is heavy, especially in today’s environment. It’s especially

...great teachers look for schools with strong and equitable cultures and great climates.

critical today as so many schools face staffing shortages, because great teachers look for schools with strong and equitable cultures and great climates. Those schools have a much better chance of not only attracting and retaining great teachers, but empowering them to do more for students and display their own gifts. Success for students starts with ensuring that both the climates and cultures of our schools are understood, monitored, and strengthened. Jasmine Gilliam from Chicago, Illinois, is a teacher-leader in Chicago Public Schools and a Teach Plus Change Agent. She earned a Master’s Degree in educational psychology at the University of WisconsinMadison and bachelor’s degrees in inclusive special education, and political science at Syracuse University. Jasmine is interested in how inclusive community schools can lead the charge in building an equitable education system. Jasmine was nominated for Golden Apple Teacher of the Year, CPS’ Transformative Teacher Cohort, and is a Cahn Fellows Ally. She currently serves as the Director of Student Support at King Academy of Social Justice.