Uncovering the hidden link between student behavior, teacher morale, and school culture, according to data from 1,000+ K12 educators.Download the Report
LiveSchool is a platform used by thousands of educators to recognize and reward positive student behavior. Over the course of the COVID pandemic, we have observed major shifts in the challenges and priorities of our partner schools.
In countless conversations with principals, teachers, and school counselors, the term school culture comes up:
“We need to improve our school culture.”
Educators recognize school culture as a tangible, daily driver of student outcomes, both good and bad. So we executed a survey to better understand what it is, who it impacts, and why it’s a priority.
This survey includes responses from 1,068 educators from 48 states, as well as Washington DC. Respondents are, among others, teachers, counselors, paraprofessionals, principals, and deans.
Our survey revealed that improving school culture is the dominant priority for educators because it is closely connected to the greatest challenges they face: student behavior, staff morale, and learning outcomes.
Let's dive into the survey findings.
1. Student behavior is the top challenge facing teachers.
According to 68% of respondents, student behavior was the top-cited challenge facing schools.
2. Teachers label “disrespectful conduct” as the most common challenge; social-emotional skills are a close second.
Over 71% of teachers cited disrespectful conduct as the top behavior challenge. Another 61% cited social-emotional skills.
3. The majority of respondents expect behavior referrals to increase this year.
57% of respondents expect behavior referrals to increase or significantly increase this year as in-person school operations fully resume.
4. Teacher morale is at an all-time low.
99% of teachers ranked teacher morale as low. Interestingly, only 72% of admins ranked teacher morale low, suggesting some disconnect between teacher and admin perspectives.
5. School culture is the top priority.
Administrators overwhelmingly view school culture as their number one priority for next school year, with 80% citing it. Despite their many classroom-level challenges, teachers also view school culture as the top priority next year, with 69% citing it.
What Is School Culture?
School culture encompasses the attitudes, expected behaviors, and values in a school community. Although students are central to school culture, every stakeholder – from parents and teachers to bus drivers and custodians – is part of a school’s culture.
Culture drives the school's behavior and ‘temperament.’ It helps me to create a place where the students and teachers want to be and remain. When the culture is set in a way that each person who comes into the building feels welcome and that they belong, it helps drive the classroom management and discipline...which ensures that learning takes place and the operation of the day moves smoothly.
Dean of Students, Texas
71% of respondents identify school culture as their highest priority in the coming school year, suggesting that school culture isn’t just a nice-to-have – it’s a mission critical priority for student outcomes.
Why Is School Culture Important?
Chart 1: Biggest Challenges Facing Schools
What does this mean? Educators view school culture as a tool to impact the challenges they care most about. There is a recognition that by improving school culture, schools can positively impact a wide range of issues, from student behavior to social-emotional learning.
In the open text responses, we saw examples of how educators view the relationship between culture and other issues:
Without school culture, the rest of the learning won't happen. We need our school to get back to being a WEB school: Where Everybody Belongs. Right now, kids are at each others' throats because of racial tensions, bullying, political beliefs they are parroting from their parents, masking opinions, you name it. They have the emotional and social development of kids two years younger than them, but we are expecting them to perform academically and socially at a middle school level. We need to build that culture to get back on track.
Public School Teacher, Washington
Talk to any educator and student behavior is likely to come up. The survey data aligns with the anecdotes. The average respondent believes that behavior referrals will significantly increase this year, suggesting a widespread belief that the issue is getting worse.
Chart 2: Office Referral Predictions
We asked respondents to identify the most common behavior challenges. Disrespectful behavior and social and emotional skills are the top-cited behavior challenges. Academics, absenteeism, talking out of turn, and anxiety were cited by over one-third of respondents as top behavior challenges
Chart 3: Biggest Behavior Challenges
Our school culture is trying to adopt a ‘together as one’ environment and there seems to be a pervasive attitude that everyone has to feel, and then act, the same way. My goal is to continue reminding everyone that being together is a long-term goal focus and allows kindness and respect to still be necessary for daily interactions.
This drop in teacher morale has significant implications. By some estimates
, over 50% of teachers now plan to leave the profession. Teacher and administrator turnover erodes student learning and community relationships in ways that take time to recover.
It is absolutely imperative that school culture changes so that we can help our students be successful. The only way for this to happen is for the relationship between community and school to be restored to what it once was in years past…We are pushing a massive boulder up a hill now and every day. No one is helping us.
We also asked our respondents to answer what is causing this shift in morale in an open text field. The most common terms included workload, admin support, student behavior, and COVID.
Why School Culture Matters
Given the diverse set of challenges schools are facing, it’s logical that educators are searching for root causes and sustainable solutions. Educators believe school culture is the top priority as they seek to alleviate multiple challenges in their communities. Next, we explore two of the most popular initiatives for improving school culture. As one teacher explained: “We need our school to get back to being a WEB school: Where Everybody Belongs.”
Approaches to School Culture
Changing school culture isn’t about treating the individual problems, but investing in larger structural and community change. It’s about creating a positive vision for students and staff, with frequent feedback, reflection, and celebration.
Chart 4: Behavior Management Approaches
PBIS is a proactive, positive, and school-wide approach to behavior. PBIS uses a tiered system of supports to differentiate the level of support that students receive based on need. PBIS includes a set of school-wide behavior expectations, a universal system for recognizing and rewarding positive student behavior, and the use of data to prioritize resources.
When implemented with fidelity, PBIS impacts both individual student behavior and overall school culture. A PBIS system provides a common language for cultural expectations, which in turn supports more effective communication between students and staff. The rewards systems used to recognize students provide ample opportunities for positive interactions.
Schools often personalize their PBIS system to the pillars of their school culture. This can include incorporating mascots, historical figures, sports teams, and more. These cultural touchpoints further connect the PBIS system to the school’s culture.
Given the extensive research into the efficacy of PBIS, the framework is a natural choice for schools looking to improve their underlying culture in order to address diverse challenges like student behavior, attendance, and teacher morale.
Social and emotional learning is the intentional teaching of skills for emotional awareness, self-regulation, and healthy social relationships. SEL is a powerful tool for rebuilding the skills that were lost during online learning.
The cultural impact of SEL teaching can be profound. School culture is heavily influenced by the relationships between students and staff. SEL, like PBIS, can be used to develop common language across the school building for what’s expected and celebrated within a school community. As one administrator explains:
We have focused greatly on SEL for students and staff. It is part of every day, where in the past it was random at best. Our goals are to instill in the students that they don't have to be perfect, but they need to try their best and show what they know; take school seriously, and be at school regularly. We built a program that the students love and look forward to daily.
Charter School Admin, Arizona
SEL can be used to infuse positivity into daily interactions, which is fundamental to momentum with school culture improvement. The teaching of self-awareness and self-regulation can decrease negative interpersonal interactions between students and staff. Over time, these improvements can compound into significant gains in school culture.
SEL is likely to see continued adoption as schools grapple with the post-COVID challenges facing students and staff. One area to watch is how SEL continues to evolve from an instructional program to a daily practice that is integrated into the cultural life of schools.
Get the School Culture Blueprint
Now that you understand the challenge, what are the solutions? Download the full report to access a 5-step blueprint for committing your school to culture improvement.
The final section of the report, "A Proven Blueprint for School Culture Change" contains lessons from our work with over 1,000 schools across the United States.
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