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The Distinction Between School Climate and School Culture

Updated: Jun 18

The Distinction Between School Climate and School Culture

Here at INcompassing Education, we believe that building positive school culture and school climate largely depends on the quality of relationships. It requires consistency and commitment from administrators, teachers, and students. Through professional development and educational consulting, we can help struggling schools turn things around.


School Climate VS. School Culture

  • School climates are shared perceptions of norms that draw students and teachers to love the school and make them want to be part of it. It refers to the school’s effect on students, including diversity, teaching practices, and the relationship among administrators, teachers, parents, and students.

  • School culture refers to how the school and teachers work together and the set of values, beliefs, and assumptions they share. Positive school culture and climate improve students’ ability to learn.

There is a distinction between the two, with school culture being viewed from an anthropological perspective and school climate being seen from a psychological standpoint. Culture is comprised of the values and norms of the school while climate is viewed as behavior.


Toxic versus Positive School Culture/Climate

Schools that promote high academic standards, leadership, and cooperation provide a climate conducive to student achievement and success. In a positive school culture, a caring atmosphere exists, and teachers have a sense of responsibility for student learning. Administrators and staff believe in their ability to achieve their goals.

On the other hand, unhealthy schools have teachers who are unhappy with their jobs. Both teachers and students are not academically motivated, causing poor academic achievement. Schools with a toxic culture don’t have a clear sense of purpose, blame students for poor achievement, and have norms that reinforce inaction. In addition, it discourages collaboration and often has hostile relations among staff.

Schools with a healthy culture have a good sense of community. Meanwhile, in a toxic school environment, a negative attitude prevails, teacher relationships are conflictual, and the staff doubts the ability of students to succeed.


What Can Administrators do to Foster a Positive School Culture and Climate?

Leadership is important in creating good schools. The principal influences the relationships that shape both culture and climate. By evaluating and assessing the status quo, areas that need improvement can be identified. Although the school principal doesn’t affect student achievement directly, he or she indirectly affects learning by having an impact on the school climate.


A positive school climate means:

  • Norms and values which support social, emotional, and physical safety

  • Teachers, students, and families develop a shared school vision

  • Teachers nurture attitudes that accentuate the benefits gained from learning

  • Each person contributes to the care and orderly operation of the school

  • Educators and students are engaged and respected


How will you know that a positive school climate exists? Two things – observe how people in the school interact and look at the school’s physical environment. Do the teachers and students look happy to be at school? Are they treating each other with respect? Is the school’s premises clean and orderly? Are the students attentive and engaged during class?

Administrators need to evaluate their school culture and answer these questions: What aspects of the school culture are positive and should be reinforced? What aspects of the school culture are negative and should be changed?


Principals can nurture the positive aspects by:

  • Celebrating successes in meetings and ceremonies

  • Collaborating with staff members whenever there’s an opportunity

  • Having a strong commitment to staff learning through professional development

To overcome a toxic or negative culture, administrators and teachers should assess the school’s underlying norms and values and as a group activity, try to change them to have a more supportive, positive culture.


How to Improve School Climate

1. Creating democratic communities

Many schools give importance to the students’ reading, science, and math scores. Of course, those are important. But, the learning process encompasses not just the intellectual aspect, but the social, civic, and emotional aspects as well. The essential elements of democracy are liberty, equality, justice, common good, diversity, and truth.


2. Supporting students and teachers

When we assess school climate, we evaluate the extent to which students and teachers feel supported. Several factors can create barriers that impair student learning, and these obstacles are grounded on needs that were not met. By understanding their situation and providing support, teachers can make a difference in these students’ lives.

Students are not the only ones who necessitate support; teachers also do. A teacher should feel comfortable enough to tell colleagues his or her grievances. Also, if teachers could share and exchange best practices in a nonjudgmental forum, it can have a positive impact on the school climate.


3. Ensuring safe schools

According to a survey, almost 50% of middle and high school students don’t feel safe in school. To achieve a positive school climate, both students and teachers need to feel emotionally and physically safe. If a person feels unsafe, he or she won’t appreciate and enjoy school.

To promote safe schools, school personnel, students, and parents should become up-standers – people who respond to bullying in socially responsible ways. What often happens is that, when a bystander sees an incident of bullying, he reacts passively (does nothing). People who witness bullying can do something to mitigate the situation. They can let the target of bullying know that they noticed, understand how hard it is and that they care. Teachers can also educate students how to properly respond to bullying.


4. Promoting student engagement

As much as half of the students say that don’t enjoy being in school, and almost the same number of students report being bored. To counteract this, schools should promote student engagement. When students are engaged, they feel more empowered to foster positive change in the school community.

Emotions are contagious. When teachers and students respect each other, they create safer, engaging, more supportive, and joyful schools! In so doing, schools can revitalize democracy and help students understand their role in improving the school climate.



When administrators and teachers collaborate to attain a positive school culture and climate, everybody will reap the benefits of a thriving, safer, and happier school environment. To learn about Positive Behavior Systems and Supports (PBIS), click here. Here at INcompassing Education, we believe that building positive school culture and school climate largely depends on the quality of relationships. It requires consistency and commitment from administrators, teachers, and students. Through professional development and educational consulting, we can help struggling schools turn things around.




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