Guest view: In school, a positive atmosphere is key
The atmosphere in a school is one of the most influential factors in student achievement. We have all had that teacher we loved, and because of that, we worked harder in that class. The same holds true of entire school systems.
To create a positive atmosphere, we first make sure we have great teachers in the system. Teachers set the tone for their classroom. As parents, we should expect our children to give and get respect in class. We want teachers who are consistently positive, motivational, and inspirational in their classrooms. Nothing improves student learning faster than a supportive or kind word from a teacher.
I recall a particular incident from my first year in the classroom. I was a young science teacher and prided myself in how much students enjoyed my classes. However, one young man, Aaron, consistently performed below expectations. It did not seem to matter what activity I tried, he and I simply did not connect, and his grades suffered. In frustration, I approached the counselor and asked for his guidance about how I could get Aaron more engaged in my class. Initially I thought his advice crazy, but I committed to giving it a try. From then on, I met Aaron at the door, said "Hi," asked about his day, and listened as he described his daily ups and downs. That was it. My entire strategy for helping this kid learn more was saying hello and listening; just being friendly. I didn't do anything else differently. But Aaron's grades and involvement began to improve. By the end of the semester, he was one of the top students in the class.
The memory of that incident serves as a reminder of the importance of making our entire school system friendly and inviting to everyone. The research bears out my observations from watching Aaron improve. Schools at which students know the adults care invariably have higher achievement. In districts where the administration listens to staff, students and parents, learning soars. Where kids feel safe and trusted, they behave and perform better. When parents and schools communicate constantly and openly, students thrive. If rules are clear and consistently enforced, students recognize the inherent fairness of the system, and poor behavior drops. Where expectations are high, achievement is high.
There was a period of testing mania within the educational community. But most educational leaders have learned to pay attention to more than scores. Without the right teachers and school leaders creating a positive learning environment, all of the other things we do to improve learning will be much less effective.
Aaron friended me on a social networking site a few years back. He is a successful young family man with kids of his own. He works in a field totally unrelated to either science or education. But I often think of him as one of my greatest successes as a teacher. And I am thankful to him for helping me realize, very early in my career, the overwhelming importance of creating the right kind of learning environment.
— Dwayne K. Newman is the superintendent of the Colusa Unified School District.