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 expectation cascade onto schools like torrential rain.

While Principals and leadership groups are able to analyse, synthesise and consider ways in which the schools might accommodate demands from without, proportion and perspective can become lost. The flood of seemingly insatiable demands rained on schools, can be destabilising.

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. Knee jerk reactions cause inner disquiet for 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 these demands, 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 leap from one pad to the next and do a dunk into the water. I believe like a duck, we need to do a lot more deep diving to ascertain what rich life there is at the bottom of the pond. Too often school leaders are urged and in turn urge 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. That depth learning can be overlooked through rapid movement 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. Staff become ‘focussed by worry’ and internalise feelings of discomfit about what and how they are doing. They wonder whether they are valued and appreciated. While staff members may not talk about feelings of insecurity 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. ‘Deep diving’ into learning, whereby children and students are offered the opportunity of holistic development needs to be 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 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.

* 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.

Tone 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 feel that the atmosphere of a school, which grows from the tone and harmony within, is best expressed as a weather map which superimposes on that school. Once, I had a rather clever member of my staff take an aerial photograph of ‘our place’ and photoshop a weather map over our school 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.

Atmospheric Challenge

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 lifted by awareness and relationships building efforts.

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 recommend the wisdom of building spirit within our schools.

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