This is the first of an ongoing series about “School Climate.”

On the first day of first grade in my daughter’s school, the school bus came back without my daughter in it. Fortunately, we did manage to go pick her up right away. But the damage was done. Thereafter, she needed to be persuaded to board the school bus. I think a red flag went up in her head, and every time something went wrong at school, those red flags began adding up. The classrooms were poorly lit, the teacher didn’t have a place to sit so she stood the entire 4-5 hours, classmates trampled on school bags, the benches were narrow so half the notebook would hang off the edge. The complaints were endless.

The last straw was an incident that persists in my daughter’s memory, despite the passage of 7 odd years- the harassed teacher tying a disruptive student to his chair. That was my daughter’s last day in that elementary school.

A growing body of research demonstrates that a positive school climate is not just critical for the safety of students, but also for academic achievement, school success and even retention of teachers.

Children (and adults!) need safe physical and psychological spaces to stretch their minds and build awareness of themselves and their abilities. If you had the opportunity to create an ideal learning space, how would you define it?

An ideal school climate where students feel engaged and where they can take ownership of their learning?

To answer that question effectively, we first need to understand the nature of an ideal school climate. 

To permit learning at one’s pace.

A student I tutored struggled, really struggled, to grasp the concept of equal fractions. Any amount of explaining did not help. What did peak his curiosity and his attention was a hands-on activity which demonstrated how 1/2 is equal to 2/4 is equal to 4/8 etc. It was as if a spark had fired all his neurons and everything fell into place in his head. Thereafter he picked up operations on fractions relatively quickly.

This child was allowed the luxury of time because of the context (home) and one-on-one guidance.  In a mainstream school, it is almost impossible to pause- whether to understand a concept, to struggle on their own or to try different approaches to learning. This is because BoE enforced outcomes are too comprehensive to be covered in one academic year which forces teachers to move through the syllabus at a fast pace.  

To allow space between learning aka cud chewing.

For any teacher, the end goal is to get the students to “be able to do” a.k.a skill building.

For eg. The student must be able to apply the algorithm to multiply a 2 digit number by another 2 digit number with a carry-over.

Some of these skills often take an entire academic year because, in my experience, skill building is laborious and non-linear. Students frequently take cognitive leaps while learning new concepts, and then seemingly backslide where it seems as though everything learned is forgotten. But that isn’t the case. We build memories through association. Sort of like a mind map, if you will. This process demands adequate time which ideally is built-in into the schooling year.  

If this process of information movement from short-term into long-term memory is hastened, memory becomes so fragile that a trigger or a lack thereof can cause disastrous (or comic!) results. As students, we had to memorise long answers in history. All I needed to remember the whole answer was the first sentence of the passage for the entire passage to tumble out. I reached the limits of my memory the day I forgot the first sentence and…you can guess where this is going.

There is a third alternative to encouraging action towards a favorable goal. “Prerna”.i.e Inspiration.

To inspire and be inspired.

A retired DIET Principal gave an interesting response to the question of teacher absenteeism issue in government schools. He  said “Bhaya or Bhakti.” He explained that if people are not dedicated to their vocation/job/work they can only be coerced into compliance. I.e. Motivation arises from an intrinsic drive or coercion (fear). In my experience, external force and pressure are only temporary motivators that produce half-hearted efforts and unsatisfactory outcomes.

There is a third alternative to encouraging action towards a favorable goal. “Prerna”.i.e Inspiration.

Case in point: Reading. Very few children in India read for pleasure. Motivational beliefs with regards to reading range from lack of time to lack of resources or interest.

But, reading is critical to knowledge building. Cognitive psychologists and educators have put reading at the top of the list of factors that impact school achievement.

Also Read: Raise a Book Lover: 10 Breezy ways to beat the deluge of distractions!

My daughter’s class teacher in 3rd grade motivated her students by reading a book aloud in class, chapter by chapter and discussing it. She also handed out stars to students who would go beyond classroom reading which many students did. A resounding success by all parameters.

“I never teach my pupils. I only attempt to provide the conditions in which they can learn”- Albert Einstein.

Consider a situation where you’re hunting, or shopping, for a good school. Notwithstanding the loaded adjective, what’s on your mental checklist to look for in a school?

Here are 5 practical ideas to quickly assess school climate: 

1. Get your hands on the school textbooks

Teachers who are receptive to their students’ needs will always have a bunch of textbooks on hand. Run in the opposite direction if the school uses only one single textbook for all students.

2. Observe the classrooms

Are the classrooms dark, gloomy necessitating artificial lighting? Self-explanatory. When children spend 8 hours of daylight indoors in artificial or poorly lit rooms, mental health and vision are likely to be negatively affected.

3. Observe the school aura

Is the structure of the school prison like? The school next street from my home in a safe neighborhood has horizontal bars on every vertical space- doors, windows, corridor, entryway. Almost as if it were meant to keep students locked in, so to speak, with no opportunity of escape. Nothing can be a better representation of the school climate than these visual cues. 

4. Find out about the culture of the school

If possible, talk to a few teachers as they are often the cultural representatives of a school. By culture, I mean practices, habits, values. Observe their behaviour with other students. Ask them about school routines and homework.

5. Observe the student cohort.

Does the overall student body seem engaged? Lively? One school I visited for my daughter on two separate occasions had students who seemed stressed. Grim facial expressions, lack of friendly chatter between classes, ominous silence during school hours.

Also Read: A Homeschooler Shares Her Journey

After the fateful morning when my daughter refused to go to school, we took the decision to homeschool her for the 1st and 2nd grade.  The learning environment of our home allowed her to experience learning at her own pace, allow spaces between learning and seek inspiration when needed. Two years later, she went back to school in 3rd grade with her love for learning intact and anchored by a sense of purpose.

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