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Cultivating Strong School Cultures and Climates through Mindframes for Belonging, Identities, and Equity

When students cross the school gate, they do not leave their culture, sense of belonging, or identities behind. Schools create societies, sometimes mirroring and sometimes in contradiction to the society around them. When we walk into schools, we can often feel the energy, the passion, the care, the sense of an invitation to learn, and the expectations of significant acceleration of learning—or not.

The culture of a school refers to the shared values, beliefs, norms, traditions, and practices that shape the experiences within a school. The culture has been referred to as the “personality” or “health” of the school (Halpin & Croft, 1963; Hoy & Hannum, 1997) and includes the collective identity, attitudes, and behaviors across the school and influences the way individuals (leaders, teachers and students) interact, collaborate, and learn in the school. It often relates to the schools’ lived mission, the acceptance of diversity or privileged groups or identities, and can be defined as the guiding beliefs and values evident in how a school operates (Fullan, 2007).

The climate of the school refers to the emotional and physical atmosphere that students experience everyday. It includes a supportive learning environment, positive social interactions, high academic expectations, as well as, strong relationships with peers and educators. Fortifying interactions promote trust, collaboration, and empathy; all contributing to a strong sense of community within a school without fear or discrimination. These aspects are essential for creating a physically and emotionally safe school that promotes and accelerates learning and social development.

However, a negative climate can lead to stress, bullying, and disengagement impacting not just the individual student, but the entire learning community.

A positive school culture can contribute to a positive school climate, although both are essential for creating a supportive, caring, and inclusive place for all students and educators.  But the culture and climate are not fixed, and they do not eventuate just because it is stated in a mission statement or talked about. Every member of the learning community experiences culture and climate in many different ways. The interplay between climate and culture is dynamic and deeply interconnected, influencing every aspect of a fortifying or negative school experience.

Thus, we need multiple perspectives when considering the culture and climate of the school—from the educators and the students, as their beliefs are very much their lived realities. As argued throughout the Visible Learning books, how we think about the impact of what we do is more important than what we do. Both matter—but it is our thinking, our why,  our purpose, and our beliefs that lead to the climate. These ways of thinking have been called Mindframes, which are more likely to impact student learning and engagement than any particular program, teaching method, lesson plan, and so forth. How we—the leaders, teachers, students, parents—think about these matters is most critical.

School environments that embrace Belonging, Identities and Equity (BIE) dimensions, cultivate fortifying practices to create inclusive, supportive and fair environments that accelerate learning for all students. The dimensions of the BIE Mindframes (Law, et. al, 2024), pertain to all students, including those often marginalized in schools—such as LGBTQIA+, faith, socioeconomic class, family structure, disabilities, race/ethnicity, immigrants, displaced persons, and other similarly disadvantaged groups.

By developing our mindframes around the dimensions of belonging, identities and equity, schools not only enhance educational outcomes for all students but also contribute to the advancement of a more inclusive, equitable, and just society. The three dimensions are the core to a culture and climate that accelerates learning for all.

Inclusive education that creates a sense of belonging is a transformative journey…

Yes, it is a journey!

Some of us may be packing our bags and looking for the roadmap while others may be in the car and staying the course…

Sometimes we have to make a pit stop and make sure that we are not lost…

And sometimes we need to just take a break and switch drivers…

The destination is ensuring that each student feels invited to learn. Fortified teaching and leading practices drive inclusive educational cultures.

  • celebrate diversity
  • believe that differences are a source of strength that fortifies the community.
  • go beyond textbooks
  • enter the personal relevance connected to students’ realities.

From the moment students are dropped off and walk into the school doors, they must become part of a community dedicated to their growth, well-being, social, emotional, and academic success.

This dedication from the community is the fuel that releases the energy that makes acceleration of learning possible for all.

Now that we know, What should we do?

Educators who employ practices to strengthen interpersonal connections, elevate trust, and build empathy mitigate biases in the dimensions of identities that affect student belonging.

Listed in Figure 1.4 are practices that create a sense of belonging and classroom community.

Mindframes for Belonging, Identities, and Equity, Page 17

Reflective Practice:  What might be a next step in cultivating strong school cultures and climates through creating a sense of belonging in your classroom community?

Written by

Nicole Law, PhD, author consultant presents in the areas of leadership, professional learning communities, culturally responsive pedagogy, educating multilingual learners, and multidimensional aspects for Visible Learning. In addition, she has served as a curriculum coordinator for English language learners, cultural responsivity, AVID (Advancement via Individual Determination), district equity, and mathematics and science instruction in the Metropolitan School District of Wayne Township in Indianapolis, Indiana. In this position, Nicole created multilayered and multifaceted professional learning for teachers and administrators covering all aspects of directed programs and curricular areas. In 2008, Nicole received the National Milken Award from the state of Indiana. Prior to her leadership role, Nicole was a science teacher, administrator, and a building principal. She has an MEd in elementary administration and supervision from Butler University and a PhD from Indiana State University. Nicole is the coauthor of Collective Equity: A Movement for Creating Communities Where We Can All Breathe and Comprehension: The Skill, Will, and Thrill of Reading. She is also the coauthor of The Reflective Leader: Implementing a Multidimensional Leadership Performance System. Sonja Hollins-Alexander is the associate vice president, content advisor, and scholar for Corwin Publishing. She has been in the field of education and publishing for thirty years with sixteen of those being in educational leadership at the school, district, and higher education levels, and eight of those being in educational consulting and publishing. During this time, she has served as a school social worker, teacher, assistant principal, principal, coordinator, director of professional learning, and chief of staff, serving in two Metro Atlanta, Georgia, school districts. She continued her profession beyond K–12 as a senior consultant for professional development firms and independently. She has also served on numerous United Way nonprofit boards and served as the board president for Learning Forward Georgia and as a member of the National Affiliate Leadership Council for Learning Forward. She is a Corwin author of Online Professional Development Through Virtual Learning Communities and coauthor of Collective Equity.

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