School Cultures That Support Optimism, Learning, and Achievement


In order to successfully foster student achievement, a school’s culture must cultivate optimism and the sense of a bright future within each student.  Equally important, every student must feel physically and emotionally safe as well as valued and included. A third crucial factor consists of teaching and modeling skills and strategies necessary for success and achievement.  Problem-solving, collaboration, conflict resolution, goal setting, resiliency, and solution-making strategies comprise several of the skills that must be regularly taught, modeled, and experienced if students are to consistently achieve.

A Place to Go; Belief in a Bright Future

Human beings need to feel a sense of self-value and hopefulness.  Students come to our schools with every possible degree of optimism, emotional health, and spirituality. Though we can interact with parents and provide guidance, educators have relatively limited influence over what happens in the home, but tremendous collective influence over the school culture where students spend most of their waking hours.  A student who believes s/he has a bright future is likely to develop an “eyes on the prize” philosophy about schooling.  That student will view education as life-changing and worth the effort.  Without a sense of hope and a bright future, students will lack aspirations; and without aspirations, there is little reason to put an effort into academics (Benard, 2005; Deal & Peterson, 2016) As we all know, effort is a non-negotiable aspect of achievement.

People to Go With; Safety, Security, and Connectedness

Shakespeare’s Macbeth lived his final weeks in perpetual fear and came to believe that life signified nothing.  Macbeth’s situation was of his own making, whereas our students’ home and school cultures are largely created by others.  Humans are both carnal and spiritual beings with a need for safe surroundings and a desire to be connected to a greater purpose. Safe surroundings begin with the physical plant but do not end there.  Students will not thrive unless they feel emotionally safe in the learning environment.  This includes freedom from fear of bullying, exclusion, shame, negative discipline techniques, and put-downs from adults and peers.  Emotionally and spiritually, people want to play a role in something larger than ourselves and to know that our lives make a difference.  A state of the art campus and top-tier curriculum are great to have, but they will not inspire a child who is afraid or one who feels that life signifies nothing but a tale told by an idiot.  The philosophy and research behind Harvard’s Making Caring Common program indicate that safety, caring, and respect on campus are essential to teaching and learning. Other research indicates that a culture of “kindness” is essential to bullying prevention in schools (Currie, 2014). A recent study on New York City schools found that a safe and caring school culture produces learning gains equivalent to an additional six weeks of Math instruction per year (Zimmerman, 2016).

A Way to Get There; Skills and Strategies for Success

Hope is not a strategy and, of course, schools need to be more than safe havens where students learn healthy self-esteem and optimism.  Students need to be immersed in a culture where they will learn resiliency, how to set and attain goals, how to build and maintain relationships, as well as other important life skills. The school must teach, promote, and model essential skills and strategies for success and achievement including conflict resolution models, SMART goal-setting, collaboration, and solution-making.  Everyday life in the school has to involve intentional modeling of the skills that are necessary for achievement in school and in life.  When problems arise, teachers seize them as learning and teaching opportunities.  Goals are often set and pursued publicly—- milestones and successes are publicly celebrated and setbacks are seen as opportunities to problem-solve and learn rather than failures.


Benard, B. (2005). What Is It About Tribes? The Research-Based Componenets of the Developmental Process of Tribes Learning Communities. Windsor, CA: CenterSource Systems.

Caring Schools. (n.d.) Retrieved October 13, 2016, from

Currie, L. (2014). Why Teaching Kindness in Schools Is Essential to Reduce Bullying. Retrieved October 12, 2016 from

Deal, T.E., & Peterson, K.D. (2016). Shaping school culture: Pitfalls, paradoxes, and promises. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.

Zimmerman, B.A. (2016). School conditions matter for student achievement, new research confirms. Retrieved October 11, 2016 from