The School Climate Continuum: 4 Habits That Can Quickly Improve School Culture

Student at Des Moines Public Schools gets at high-five.

By Cheryl Spittler (originally published on LinkedIn)

Several years ago, I read a poem about the two seas in Palestine and a thought came to mind. The poem makes a comparison between the Sea of Galilee and the Dead Sea, drawing a correlation to two kinds of people. I realized that there are also two kinds of schools—and a continuum between the two.

Like the two seas, these two schools have similarities. They share a goal of educating the next generation and preparing learners for their adult roles in the world, whether that be college or career. They are both dealing with funding issues, testing demands, demographic issues, as well as adult behaviors.

But one of these schools is alive with a positive climate that exudes a thriving culture of collaboration and learning, while the other is more like the Dead Sea—lacking life, enthusiasm and creativity.

What kind of school do you have? 

If there were a continuum of school climate with one end being dead and the other thriving, where would your school be located?

School climate has been shown to have a significant impact on various issues like student achievement, teacher retention, student safety, and high-risk behaviors like drug and alcohol use (Klein, Cornell, and Konold, 2012; Cohen, Espelage, Twemlow, Berkowitz, & Comer, 2015; McEvoy & Welker, 2000).

As the school climate improves, so does the culture, which moves a school from dying to thriving.


There are two seas in Palestine.

One is fresh, and fish are in it. Splashes of green adorn its banks. Trees spread their branches over it and stretch out their thirsty roots to sip of its healing waters.

The River Jordan makes this sea with sparkling water from the hills. So, it laughs in the sunshine. And men build their houses near to it, and birds their nests; and every kind of life is happier because it is there.

The River Jordan flows on out into another sea. Here there is no splash of fish, no fluttering leaf, no song of birds, no children’s laughter. Travelers choose another route, unless on urgent business. The air hangs heavy above its water, and neither man nor beast nor fowl will drink.

What makes this mighty difference in these neighbor seas? Not the River Jordan. It empties the same good water into both. Not the soil in which they lie; not in the country round about.

This is the difference.

The Sea of Galilee receives but does not keep the Jordan. For every drop that flows into it another drop flows out. The giving and receiving go on in equal measure. The other sea is shrewder, hoarding its income jealously. It will not be tempted into any generous impulse. Every drop it gets, it keeps.

The Sea of Galilee gives and lives. This other sea gives nothing. It is named Dead. There are two kinds of people in this world. There are two seas in Palestine.

BY BRUCE BARTON (1886 – 1967)


The two kinds people referenced in the poem are like the people who make up our school system. What is your school doing to ensure that it is life giving?

Here are some simple-yet-profound tips that can immediately change your perspective, as well as that of those around you:

  1. Greet individuals in your building with a smile and hello.
  2. Connect with your students! Learn their names and what makes each of them unique; perhaps a hobby they have, a talent, or interest.
  3. Make yourself available; be in the hallway between classes and interact with students.
  4. Pick up trash and model pride in your building.

Be the kind of person who gives life to those around them by intentionally building relationships with everyone you meet. The small habits that you adopt will quickly become contagious and, as a friendlier, more connected climate spreads throughout the school, everyone will benefit from the thriving student-centered learning environment that gives and lives.

Photo courtesy of Des Moines Public Schools

Cheryl Spittler is an experienced professional developer and teacher with 20 years of classroom experience. She has her B.S. in Secondary Education (University of Nebraska-Lincoln), M. Ed. In Curriculum and Instruction (Wayne State University). Currently, she is a Doctoral Candidate in Educational Leadership with an emphasis in K-12 Instruction from Grand Canyon University. Cheryl holds certifications in Franklin Covey’s Speed of Trust, 7 Habits of Highly Effective Teens, AWR 148: Crisis Management for School Based Incidents- Partnering Rural Law Enforcement and the Local School Systems and is an expert in school climate and bullying, behavior and instructional management. Ms. Spittler has years of experience working with high risk youth including Native American youth.

She has served as a lead trainer in the redesign of the Bureau of Indian Education Curriculum integrating the Common Core State Standards. Her curriculum work includes both rural and urban school districts, ranging from single schools to entire districts. In addition to developing curriculum/instructional design, Ms. Spittler has worked as a classroom teacher, university professor of special education, and is an expert in classroom management.

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