Abstract: How Do Staff Members Experience School Climate? Investigating How Local Context Influences Theory and Practice in Order to Improve School Climate (Society for Social Work and Research 23rd Annual Conference - Ending Gender Based, Family and Community Violence)

220P How Do Staff Members Experience School Climate? Investigating How Local Context Influences Theory and Practice in Order to Improve School Climate

Friday, January 18, 2019
Continental Parlors 1-3, Ballroom Level (Hilton San Francisco)
* noted as presenting author
Gordon Capp, PhD, Assistant professor, California State University, Fullerton, Fullerton, CA
Ron Astor, Ph.D., Professor, University of Southern California, Los Angeles, CA
Hadass Moore, PhD, Assistant professor, Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Jerusalem, Israel
Background: The majority of school climate research is based on student perspectives and reports of school climate. As a result, research focused on school staff members who are responsible for climate and social and emotional curriculum is scarce. Recent research has highlighted important variations in how staff members experience climate, and that some individuals report much more positive experiences than others. These differences suggest that understanding local contexts is critical for understanding climate. This mixed-methods study addresses this gap by exploring how community socioeconomic status (SES), school districts, and school settings together create positive and negative climate. Specific questions for this study include: How is the quality, or valence, of school climate understood by staff members, school leaders, and the district? How does SES influence staff perceptions of school climate? How do staff members characterize their role regarding school climate (e.g., they create it, it is a shared responsibility, it is a result of school-wide dynamics and interactions)?

Methods: This mixed-methods study used quantitative, statewide results from a latent profile analysis to identify schools with positive and negative climate within one high-SES district and one low-SES district. Based on these findings and interviews with district personnel, four schools were purposively selected for a case study. Qualitative data collection lasted for approximately 6 months and included document review, observations of various school events and meetings, and 20 key informant interviews. Observations and interviews were transcribed and coded. One benefit of this design was extensive opportunity for triangulation between observations, interviews, and quantitative data. Additionally, this design represents using top-down and ground-up data to hone theory and inform practice. 

Results: Findings suggest that the SES of the district and school did not directly dictate the quality of climate in each of the four case study schools. Instead, themes that emerged from case study data showed other key influences on the quality of school climate experienced by school staff members. These included: the principal’s decisions and vision; changes in leadership; the influence of time and history; and the importance of elementary and secondary settings. Findings also show that staff members believe that they create climate, but that they may view climate as an influence in service of students rather than something that also influences their work experiences.

Conclusion: Researchers, practitioners and policy makers continue to seek effective ways to change and improve school climate, both as a way to improve school safety and as a way to facilitate social emotional and academic learning. In contrast to current trends in the literature to focus only on student experiences of climate, this study demonstrates the importance of considering how staff members understand school climate in order to select effective interventions to improve climate, and provides possible pathways for intervention. For instance, staff member reports about the importance of a shared mission, the principal’s influence on climate, and the fact that staff see their efforts in service of student experiences are critical elements to consider when selecting or designing interventions to improve climate in schools.