Making a Difference, in One Way or Another

David Osher is Vice President at the American Institutes for Research and an international expert on school climate, social emotional learning, and student support. Below David shares an interesting perspective about making a difference through school climate.


Schools are communities where everyone’s actions affect others.  So the question is not whether we make a difference, but whether the difference is positive or negative, intentional or unintentional, miniscule or large.

Schools are communities, and each of us is a member of that community. Community can be healthy or unhealthy.  Schools can make every last person feel:

  • safe (both emotionally and physically)
  • supported by others who have their back
  • included
  • valued by all and even cherished by some
  • respected for who they are
  • visible
  • invited or expected to contribute

Or the school community can make some members feel:

  • unsafe
  • vulnerable
  • excluded
  • unappreciated
  • rejected
  • invisible
  • uninvited or expected to observe not act.

What you do can affect each of these dimensions. 

Safety provides an example.  One thing you can do to help others feel safe and diminish their feelings of vulnerably is to think about how they feel and avoid things that embarrass them or make them feel exposed.  For example, students in a focus group told me how important it was for teachers to find out what embarrasses every one of their students and to avoid doing it.

You can also stand up when others are being victimized or teased or placed at risk—whether as individuals or as members of a group, and whether they are students or adults. When you stand by silently when someone uses the R word, bashes youth who are GLBT, or says derogatory things about people because of their racial, ethnic, cultural, or linguistic background or their looks and abilities, you may reinforce prejudiced behavior or contribute to others feeling vulnerable.

Individual acts are important, but they don’t directly reach out to all members of the school community.  Whether you are a student, a staff member, a family member, or a member of the greater community you can support policies, programs, and practices that ensure everyone feels safe, supported, included, valued, respected, visible, and expected to contribute.  For example in the case of safety, schools can:

  • Survey students anonymously to see if students feel safe and supported; disaggregate the data to see particular groups of students that feel less safe or supported; use this data to identify needs and plan interventions; and treat this information seriously – just like that treat standardized test scores.  You can promote the use of these surveys, take them seriously, and participate in planning that is based upon these surveys. For information about how to create, analyze, report out, and use surveys go to .
  • Implement programs and practices that enable students and adults to learn to understand each other and empathize with other people.  Examples of this include social emotional learning (SEL) programs that help students learn to manage their emotions and handle relations in a productive manner. Some of these programs include class meetings, which can be good ways of including everyone and giving all students a voice. Other programs use literature, history, and service learning. A good place to find out about these programs is . A good place to see them in action is
  • Support activities that bring people together such as gay straight alliances, Project UNIFY, and inclusive approaches to service learning that are designed to invite and support, not only the inclusion, but also the engagement of all members of the school community.

So there are many things you do and can do, both as individuals and as members of the school community.  Ideally, each of us will do both — with intentionality, persistence, and at a magnitude that will make a big difference.

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