I haven’t been teaching long, but there is one thing I learned early on in my career that I am confident rings true for all educators: the number one most important characteristic of a productive classroom is a positive classroom culture. There are about a thousand things that can disrupt or distract in a classroom, which in turn can prevent student learning. However, when students feel a sense of ownership in a classroom that is welcoming and safe, and where mutual respect is expected, I believe that these disruptions can be fewer and further between. If you walk into my classroom on any given day are you guaranteed to see perfect behavior from 100% of my students? No, you aren’t. I have, however, seen increased student learning, due to increased engagement, by focusing my efforts on a few crucial areas: the first month of school, fostering student ownership and choice, and avoiding a traditional rules list.
The First Month
The first month or so of school is absolutely the most important. This is your time to set the stage and communicate expectations for the year. Yes, this does include details such as policies on homework and classroom routines (more on that below); but more importantly, this is your time to communicate how you expect your students to manage themselves and their interactions with others. Students are more likely to respect themselves and the people around them if they feel comfortable and valued. I start the year out by reading two books, The Hundred Dresses by Eleanor Estes and Wonder by R.J. Palacio. It’s obviously not enough to just read the books and hope the messages soak in. My students and I delve deep into the author’s messages of these books that uncover themes of compassion and empathy. With a quick Google or Pinterest search, you’ll find great resources to help plan such a book study. I have found that my relationships with my students grow as we experience the hardships and unjust treatment of the main characters in these books together. I get to know them on a personal level by listening to and discussing their reactions and for the remainder of the year, I can always refer back to these characters and their experiences when having conversations regarding behavior and decision making with my students.
I’ve moved away from the mentality of “my classroom.” I used to say things like, “in my classroom we ____,” or “that kind of behavior is not acceptable in my classroom.” I realized this communicated that the space belonged to me, I made all the decisions that happened within it, and my students were simply visitors for the time being. Once I started to really focus in on community building past just surface level first-day activities, I realized I was sending the wrong message. Not only do I put effort into intentionally communicating that the classroom is a shared learning space that belongs to both my students and I, I put thought each day into how I can offer choice to my students. By providing them with the opportunity to make choices, specifically about their learning, I have seen my students take more pride in their work and in their position as a member of our classroom community. There are hundreds of choices that you can give students each day that don’t impact the integrity of the classroom or interfere with what you are required to teach. As a teacher, I do my best work (and do it happily) when I have a certain level of autonomy and when I feel that I am trusted to make good decisions. Our students work the same way.
Values vs Rules
A shift from a set list of rules, to a broad system of values happened for me when I started working at my current school. I was told during my undergrad program to co-construct rules with students on the first day of school, thus giving them ownership and more buy-in to those rules. Since I was taught this during my pre-service program, I took it as absolute truth and did just that on my first day of my first year of teaching…..and maybe my second and third year as well. You know now that I believe whole-heartedly in student ownership, but unfortunately this activity always led to a LARGE list of many “don’ts” that were frankly overwhelming and negative (you know what I’m talking about- don’t chew gum, don’t run, don’t pull someone’s hair, don’t yell, don’t burp, don’t so on and so on). I knew I needed an effective way to condense these into a small set of ever-encompassing principles or values. When I was hired at my current school, I realized they had done just that, and the “Big 5” came into my life.
- Keep our school a safe place
- Make responsible choices
- Follow all reasonable request
- Respect yourself and others
- Use good manners
Can you think of any negative behavior choice that doesn’t fall under one or more of these principles? Keep in mind, it’s not enough to just post these and expect them to guide student behavior. We talk about what these guidelines look and sound like, in a variety of situations, constantly during the first month of school and I continue to use this language with my students on a daily basis throughout the year.
As I prepare myself for another school year, I like to take time to reflect on what is most important. What do I want my students to be like when they leave me in June? Academics are important, there’s absolutely no doubt about that, but preparing my students to be empathetic and compassionate individuals is just as paramount. Without focus on classroom culture and community, there’s a good chance you’ll spend more of your time putting out fires than teaching content. There are many ways to construct a happy and healthy learning environment, and strategies vary from teacher to teacher. However, I most definitely have found success in focusing on community the first month of school, offering the opportunity of student choice as much as possible, and implementing a short list of values to help guide my students’ decision making. Here’s to a happy and productive school year!