Cultivating a Culture of Belonging in Our School

Focusing on opportunities for students and staff to shape a positive school environment

Oftentimes the terms culture and climate are bandied about as an inseparable pair in school settings. Rarely in my experience are they broken down into their respective domains to parse out their specific purpose and value. According to INcompassing Education, “Culture is comprised of the values and norms of the school while climate is viewed as behavior.” Taking these definitions into account, it is imperative to consider how long the behaviors of a school climate will take to settle in to become the values or norms of the school culture.

It has been my experience as a school administrator that a negative climate element runs the risk of becoming a negative culture element if it goes unchecked for approximately three school years. Armed with this timeline or whatever timeline you adhere to for climate becoming culture, a school can use this to their advantage to knowingly set out to improve their school culture.

Being a middle school administrator in the same building for 13 years gives insight regarding the culture of the school. Over a decade ago at our school, it was not uncommon for students to share that they did not want to come to our school each day due to feeling unsafe or unwelcome. Our school culture included no sense of belonging or security and was seldom viewed as a place for safe failing or growing. Our climate included student-on-student physical and verbal assault. Our students often disrupted the learning environment and disrespected each other and their teachers. Through the implementation of a robust PBIS program that states explicit behavior expectations and includes direct teaching of desired behaviors, students’ behavior became more positive, creating a safer school that students wanted to attend.

Later we addressed how the adults in our building interacted with our students. We studied differentiation and the idea of establishing a welcoming classroom and knowledge of students beyond academics. We next adopted progressive grading practices that built students up by celebrating their strengths while determining areas to grow. These changes in how we interacted with students deepened students’ desire to come to their school each day.

I Belong Campaign

Today you would see a completely different school because of this work by the dedicated staff and the children who changed our school culture. But like anything that has improved, we wanted to make our culture even stronger. We wanted to increase the connection to our school for our students and our teachers, while strengthening messages to our community. Sinanis and Sanfelippo, in The Power of Branding: Telling Your School’s Story, stress the importance of controlling a school’s image: “The idea of branding schools isn’t about selling kids or making false promises, it’s about promoting the things happening in our schools for those who don’t have the opportunity to experience them on a daily basis.” We knew we were doing great things but might not be great at framing that story for our stakeholders. We were insufficiently representing what we do and how we want to be seen.

Our school’s branding efforts began with an emphasis on building a connection to our school. We wanted everyone to see Blackhawk Middle School as their school—thus was born the I Belong @blackhawk_ms branding campaign. This concept purposely played off our school’s Twitter handle that we were simultaneously hoping to promote as a means of communicating the positive things we were doing while working to build community. We started the campaign with bumper stickers, pencils, and t-shirts with this slogan emblazoned on them. All students were given this pencil to start the year. Bumper stickers were at times mailed home with student schedules or report cards and always available at family or community events. Over our previous changes to student-centered instruction and behavior management, we layered these purposeful actions designed to elevate our school climate to be a desirable, worthwhile school where everyone belonged.

Fostering Belonging

In order to build the foundation of belonging in our school, we needed to create opportunities for students and staff to have voice and purpose. We needed to strengthen the bond to our school beyond the classrooms with the hope of strengthening the student performance within our classrooms. We wanted to increase our support for students throughout the learning process whether they hit the mark or not. We also wanted to continue to build the capacity of our staff to support the social-emotional development of our students.

Establishing welcoming routines for children to start their day is a vital component of a burgeoning climate. Adult greeters every morning at entry doors, adults saying hello to students in the hall, and staff telling students that they are happy to see them, in time, builds a culture of belonging. Periodic celebration rituals like our Student Recognition Breakfasts promote connections and pride in belonging to our school. Beyond celebrating students, our PBIS program employs students to teach desired behaviors as well as many other invaluable services that empower students and give them voice. When students do struggle with meeting behavioral expectations, one of our strategies is to increase the school connection with these students. Students who have repeatedly received traditional discipline consequences are asked to select an extra-curricular club or sport to demonstrate that they belong to our school.

To further connect our teachers to our school, we increased their capacity to meet the social-emotional demands of middle school students. Working off the theory that providing teachers with options for better connecting with students builds teacher efficacy, we hoped to increase our teachers’ bond to our school. We read, discussed, and implemented trauma-sensitive strategies to build upon our work with differentiated instruction and standards-based assessment. Being fortunate enough to have a daily advisory class, we created social stories and taught students problem solving strategies and conflict resolution techniques. We further introduced staff to restorative practices in place of heavy-handed traditional discipline practices—all designed to increase mindfulness and decrease frustration for students and teachers.

Measuring Belonging

Our students are asked to share their perceptions about our school using different surveys and focus groups throughout the year. Through an Illinois state mandated survey, students, teachers, and parents are asked to share views on our school. This data and our local student surveys inform the work we do to set the desired climate in our school. Be aware that self reporting survey data has potential limits, and caution should be taken when interpreting such normative survey data. In School Culture Rewired: How to Define, Assess, and Transform It, Gruenert and Whitaker maintain, “It’s easy, but misleading, to compare one school’s culture to another’s. This is not a beauty contest, and cultures are not best assessed using normative analyses. There’s no one-size-fits-all recipe for ensuring a positive school culture…”

Classroom observations, visits to the cafeteria, walking the halls of a school are all equally valuable methods for gathering data to measure stakeholder connections to a school. According to Thomas R. Hoerr in his book The Formative Five: Fostering Grit, Empathy and Other Success Skills Every Student Needs, he states, “When we visit a school, we can feel its culture within a few minutes. When we enter the front doors of a school, walk through the halls, and observe the interactions among adults and children, we are feeling the school’s culture.”

Sustaining Belonging

How can we take our current climate efforts and turn them into our school’s culture? This can be done by building on the good work our students and staff have already done in this arena. This year we plan to increase our I Belong branding to include I Belong days. Currently students can enter a raffle to win an I Belong @blackhawk_ms t-shirt. This year we are celebrating belonging by offering prizes for students who wear these shirts on I Belong days. Beyond this, we are also asking staff to share a sentence or two that describes why they belong to our school. These statements are shared on weekly announcement slides that are broadcast on screens throughout the school. After our staff modeled how to express how they belong to our school, we began to include students’ statements in these announcement slides each week too.

We have set out to actionize how different stakeholders express how they belong to our school. Time will tell if this climate of belonging we have been working to develop becomes our actual school culture. If it is not, climate and culture aren’t fate. They are conditions that can be nurtured and massaged to create the environment that benefits students and that furthers and supports learning. That of course is our ultimate goal.