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May 1, 2002
Vol. 59
No. 8

A View from the Classroom

A survey of teachers reveals which behaviors they most value in a principal for creating a positive school climate.

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Our university class in administrative theory for principals-in-training was coming to a close. During the course, we had reviewed literature that supported the importance of creating a positive school climate (National Association of Secondary School Principals, 1996) and had discussed the role of the principal in creating that climate (Blase & Kirby, 2000; Freiberg, 1998). As we wrapped up our discussion, a class member made a suggestion: “I think we need to see what teachers would say about what the principals do at their schools to create and encourage this positive school environment.”
We organized a study to survey 123 teachers enrolled in a principal preparation program at a regional university and asked the teachers to respond to this question: Reflecting on principal behaviors that you have observed, describe the most effective thing that the principal does for students at your school to contribute to a positive school climate. The teachers participating in the survey represented all grade levels, K–12, and taught in schools ranging in size from 250 to 1,000 students. Three themes emerged from the responses: respecting students, communicating with students, and supporting students.

Respecting Students

The teachers responding to the survey noted that principals establish a positive climate on their campuses by treating students fairly and equally. For example, one principal tells “students up front what [the] school's expectations are” and then shows respect “by expecting [the students] to live up to” those expectations. Other principals demonstrated respect for students by handling student behavior problems “privately, rather than in front of other students.”
Several teachers cited treating students equally as an important aspect of creating a positive school environment. One principal demonstrated this approach when her own daughter got in trouble at the school. According to the teacher surveyed, “She [the daughter] received the same punishment as all the others involved in the prank.” In a similar case, a teacher reported that a principal “would not change a punishment for a student based on who his parents are.” The teacher wrote, “Students see this as a sign of respect for all students.” Another teacher summed up this behavior by saying that principals treat students equally when they “do not see ethnicity or wealth.”

Communicating with Students

Effective principals both talk to and listen to students to learn more about them and “their educational needs, plans, hopes, and dreams” (Beck, 1994, p. 82). The teachers participating in the survey commented on such behaviors as making eye contact and following through on student concerns. Some of the principals eat in the lunchroom with invited student leaders to hear their concerns. One principal sits at different lunch tables throughout the year and listens “carefully not just to what they say, but how they say it.”
Others principals interact with students in the hallways between classes or greet students as they enter and leave the building. An elementary school principal has a “Play with the Principal” time. The teachers also listed sending personalized birthday cards and notes recognizing student achievement as valuable ways to increase communication with students. For example, one teacher e-mailed her principal about her at-risk 8th graders at the beginning of the school year. Throughout the year, the principal e-mailed each of these students with encouraging messages. According to the teacher, the students “rush to my room to see if they have mail. I print each response and give it to the student. Most of them punch holes in [the messages] and put them in their notebooks; not one student has thrown the mail away.”

Supporting Students

According to Noddings (1992), “schools, like families, are multipurpose institutions” (p. 66). Although academics are the focus of schools, “students need . . . adults to care” about their personal interests (p. 69). To meet this need, the principal can be accessible to students; reward them; be an advocate for them; and provide them with a safe, secure learning environment.
Principals who are accessible to the students—for example, by having an open-door policy—contribute to a positive climate for students. One teacher said that her principal “encourages students to come to him if there are any serious issues.” Walking the campus is also important. Teachers commented that when principals want to be “invited to class celebrations, class plays, and other activities, the principals become more visible to the students.”
The teachers also pointed out that principals who take extra time to praise students for their achievements over the intercom, in the newspaper, or with personal notes and e-mails create a positive school climate. Principals can also use such rewards as extending lunch time, sponsoring field trips, letting students eat lunch outside, and hosting awards assemblies. One principal created a gift store to reward student achievement. Students accumulate points for academic achievements and then use the points to purchase items from the store. Another principal has a “Wall of Fame” where he places students' photos with descriptions of their achievements.
The surveyed teachers also mentioned that being an advocate for students is a necessary aspect of creating a positive environment. Examples of such advocacy included providing motivational speakers and allowing students flexibility in their schedules to accommodate college visits and other needs. One teacher described how her principal works with students one-on-one to set goals and learning plans. Another teacher noted that her principal provides such physical needs as clothes, glasses, and shoes for low-income students.
In addition to meeting students' emotional needs, supportive principals provide a safe and secure environment in which the students can learn. The surveyed teachers cited such behaviors as enforcing the rules and dealing with conflict immediately. One teacher commented that the principal “checks daily for anything and everything that might lead to conflict among students.”

Modeling Caring Behaviors

Principals who treat students with respect, communicate with students, and support students emphasize behaviors that create a positive school climate. After reviewing these survey results, the future principals in our class agreed that although these behaviors are natural for some, others need to learn to act in ways that build a better climate for learning. As Judith Azzara, a mentor principal in Fairfax County (Virginia) Public Schools, wrote, “Learning, after all, is what educators believe in” (2000/2001, p. 64).

Azzara, J. (2000/2001). The heart of school leadership. Educational Leadership, 58(4), 62–64.

Beck, L. (1994). Reclaiming educational administration as a caring profession. New York: Teachers College Press.

Blase, J., & Kirby, P. (2000). Bringing out the best in teachers: What effective principals do. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

Freiberg, J. (1998). Measuring school climate: Let me count the ways. Educational Leadership, 56(1), 22–27.

National Association of Secondary School Principals. (1996). Breaking ranks: Changing an American institution. Reston, VA: Author.

Noddings, N. (1992). The challenge to care in schools. New York: Teachers College Press.

Sandra Lowery has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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