SCHOOL ATMOSPHERE – PRECIOUS BUT FRAGILE
Educational organisation within schools is many things to many people. Principals and school leadership teams are motivated and inspired by many different stimuli. The elements and influences which press upon schools are poured into a metaphoric funnel above each place of teaching and learning. Community, hierarchial and government clamor rain caqn come down like the cascade from the end of the funnel onto schools in almost waterfall proportions.
While Principals and leadership groups are able to take, analyse, synthesise and consider the way in which the school can and should accommodate demands from without, it is easy for a sense of proportion and a perspective on reality to become lost. The flood of seemingly insatiable demands heaped on schools can result in destabilisation and disequilibrium.
This is especially the case in situations where Principals and leadership teams feel that everything demanded of the school by the system (and of the system in turn by Government) has to be acceded and put into practice. These reactions, best described as knee jerk, cause an inner disquiet within staff who are often reluctant to change without justification, but are pressured to make and justify those changes anyway.
In metaphoric terms, schools that comply with demands so made, remind me of a frog hopping from lilly pad to lilly pad on a pond’s surface. Sooner or later the frog will miss in its parabolic leap from one pad to the next and do a dunk into the water. I believe we need, like a duck, to do a lot more deep diving to ascertain what rich life there is at the bottom of the pond. Too often we are urged and in turn urge our teachers, to skim the surface of learning without exploring issues with children and students.
Beneath the educational top soil, there are rich substrata of understandings that need to be explored. Too often that depth learning is overlooked. Educators know that depth learning is disregarded because of the imperative that we drive on, moving rapidly from one initiative to the next.
This approach is one that does little to positively enhance the way those working within schools feel about what they are doing. They become ‘focussed on worry’ and internalise feelings of discomfit about what and how they are doing. They can feel both disenfranchised and destabilised. They wonder whether they are valued and appreciated. While they may not talk about feelings of insecurrity in an ‘out there and to everyone’ way, their expressions of concern and disquiet are certainly expressed to trusted colleagues in an ‘under the table’ manner.
Teachers may maintain a brave face to what they are doing, but beneath the surface suffer from self doubt. This leads to them becoming professionals who overly naval gaze, generally in a very self critical manner. Teachers can and often do become professions who feel there is little about which to self-congratulate and rejoice.
Establishing Priorities and Building toward Positive Atmosphere
In this context and against this background it is essential that empathetic school principals and leadership teams offer reassurance and build confidence within their teaching and support staff cohorts. They need to help staff understand that ‘frog hopping’ is not essential and that ‘deep diving’ into learning, whereby children and students are offered the opportunity of holistic development is encouraged.
If this is to happen, Principals need to take account of two very important considerations.
* They need to act in a way that deflects as much downward pressure as possible away from staff. They need, as I have previously written ( ) to be like umbrellas, open to diffuse the torrent of government and systemic expectatiion, keeping change within reasonable boundaries. This will ensure that schools, students and staff are not overwhelmed by cascading waterfalls of macro-expectation. Principals and leadership groups need to maintain as much balance as possible within their schools. In spite of what system leaders may say, random acceptance and blind attempts at implementing every initiative will lead to confusion st school level.
Principals have to have the courage to say ‘no’ to changes which come at them giddyingly and often in a poorly considered manner.
* The second critically important consideration, largely dependent upon the ability of school Principals and leadership groups to be selective in terms of their acceptance of change invitation, is that of school tone, harmony and atmosphere.
The way a school feels is intangible. It cannot be bought as a material resource. Neither can it be lassoed, harnessed or tied down. The ‘feel’ of a school is an intangible and generates from within. It develops as a consequence of feeling generated among those within the organisation.
I often feel that the atmosphere of a school, which grows from the tone and harmony within, is best expressed as a weather may which superimposes on that school. When Principal at Leanyer School I had a rather clever member of my staff take an aerial photograph of ‘our place’ and photoshop a weather map over our campus. This I kept close for it was necessary for me to appreciate the ‘highs’ within our school. I also needed to take account of the ‘lows’, being aware of the fact we needed to make sure they were swiftly moving and not permanently affective of the people within our borders.
Learning about Atmosphere
My awareness of atmosphere did not come about by accident. In 1994 while at Leanyer, I was asked to act as our region’s Superintendent for a period of six months. At that time Leanyer was somewhat struggling when it came to material resources and that was a worry. Other schools seemed to have a lot more in material terms. Although not jealous, an inner aspiration was to be like better resourced schools.
During my tenure in the acting position. I visited each of our region’s schools, some on more than one occasion. I made contact with Principals and took every opportunity to go into classrooms meeting and talking with children and teachers. I also visited Leanyer School but as an ‘outsider’ not as someone presuming ‘insider awareness’. (I wasn’t there; someone else was acting as Principal and I needed to accord leadership space and respect).
The most critically important thing I learned during my time as Superintendent, was appreciation of organisational atmosphere. No matter how good schools looked, no matter how many material resources they held – if they did not ‘feel’ good, they were lacking quite decidedly.
Part of my learning was predicated by appreciation of Leanyer ‘from the outside in’. Having been Principal for two full years at the school before temporary promotion, I was used to viewing the school from the inside out. Opportunity to look at the school from a different perspective along with comparative opportunity, helped me appreciate the blessing and joy abounding within the school. It felt good! The atmosphere within was second no none!!
Organisational atmosphere is both precious and fragile. There is no guarantee that this intrinsic quality will remain constant. The way people within schools act and interact changes regularly.
Within schools are three key groups of people – students, staff and parents. Watching overall is the wider community. Change of personnel and client is common with the arrival and departure of children and staff. Systemic demands and government priorities are hardly constant. This opens schools up as being organisations in a constant state of flux. Just as weather patters change, so too, do pervading atmospherics within schools. Those feeling on a positive ‘high’ today, may find that feeling of well-being eroded by something that unfolds tomorrow. Contrawise, circumstances causing feelings of despondency (‘low’ points) can be changed by circumstances, becoming ‘highs’.
It is up to Principals and leadership teams to ensure that positive atmosphere, precious yet fragile is built and maintained. It is easy to lose the feeling of positivism so necessary if an organisation is to grow and thrive on the basis of its human spirit.
I learned a long time ago about the importance of atmosphere and recommend to readers that we all always work to build the spirit within our schools.