This is part two of the summer PD series, based on the requests I received from the elementary level teachers that I work with. Part one, which is here, is about common mental health conditions seen in children who may come into your class.
Maya Angelou was once quoted as saying, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” When educators make an effort to focus on classroom culture, they take this quote to heart. Many, in the process, find that they also help students make more academic gains as well.
Towards the end of last school year, several staff members came to me requesting any input I might have into establishing, or reestablishing a positive classroom culture. At times things just get out of sync and they were noticing things like decreased effort and increased inappropriate behaviors and as such they were feeling frazzled and were worried about the impact it would have on the lessons that they were trying to teach. When I started looking into classroom culture, I expected to see tons of material available about how teachers can create an environment that supports the learning of all students. Searching for a checklist of sorts that shows educators how to provide structure and allow for individuality and personal attention did not produce many results. Most of what I found about classroom setup was related to classroom discipline, the physical setup of the classroom, and organization. Furthermore, with all the attention given to curriculum and instructional methods it continues to surprise me that minimal attention is given to emotional connection within the classroom, especially given the research that supports the importance of school culture and improved outcomes.
Some of the outcomes that can be directly linked to strong school culture are:
- Increases student engagement
- Decreases teacher frustration and burnout
- Improves student outcomes
Additional benefits like more collaborative relationships between parents and teachers are also common. The question is, how do schools and individual teachers bring the somewhat abstract concept of school culture into more tangible action points? Some schools who’ve been successful lead us in the right direction.
In his book, Connecting in Your Classroom, Neal Starkman highlighted five teacher attitudes that supported connection between them and their students. He said teachers need to be trusting, engaging, asset-building, caring, and hard-working. These traits really are just the foundation. They assure that teachers are in the best possible position to establish strong attachment with students.
One definition of culture, according to the Oxford Dictionary, is “the attitudes and behavior characteristics of a particular social group.” Supporting the development of a shared system of attitudes and behaviors between students in your classroom, who often come to school with a set of beliefs all their own, can be a tall order for educators also trying to help students have academic success. If you’re not sure what attitudes or behaviors you really want to focus on for the year, here are a few questions to get your juices flowing:
- What feeling do I want my students to have when they are in my classroom?
- What kind of relationships do I want my students to have with each other?
- If my students could only learn one thing this year, what would I want that one thing to be?
Once you’ve focused on these questions and even brainstormed a few key words that can become the anchor of your classroom culture, then you can look at ways to link these with what I believe are the core principles of a strong classroom culture.
The first core principle is relationships. Relationships between teachers and students and students with each other can either create healthy or defective classroom culture. Like any relationship, connection takes time, but there are some immediate actions that support positive attachment. It is important that we seek first to understand, then to be understood, which can be difficult with 25+ students in a room. But establishing a pattern of spending a little time at least weekly—but possibly daily—on getting to know each other is a good place to start. One technique I encourage is for teachers to give students the love language test by Dr. Gary Chapman. Similar data can be gained from forced choice surveys which force students to pick from two options, like whether they want free time or to have their paper used as a positive example in front of the class. But what this does is allow for praise that is effective for students, and not superficial. These also give students a deeper way of connecting with each other. Maybe you have a group of kids whose love language is all quality time, so perhaps you plan to have an individual lunch with each of them through the course of the semester. For some kids, this might feel like a punishment, but by being intentional you strike a deeper connection.
Challenge Question: Having daily emotional connection is critical. Does your class have a check-in, check out system? Look for a quick and easy way to have students let you know how they feel. Whether you have a Twitter board that allows older kids to add a tweet for the day, or smiley faces that younger kids can customize to show what they are feeling, allowing for that safe expression really does help build relationship.
The second principle is structure. This includes things like classroom routines and discipline policies which should be easily accessible and understood by all. Falling under this category includes how students can be expected to learn and relearn content whether it be curricular or behavioral. It’s important to note that structure is not about the teacher being in control, but more about the teacher providing a framework of boundaries, and allowing students some freedom and autonomy within that framework. In my book, Drag ‘Em Kicking and Screaming: Your 7 Step Action Plan to At-Risk Student Success, my co-authors and I describe practicing the art of facilitation, which is more about guiding and directing than it is about control. Kids need to know that you are there to oversee and maintain order, but they also need to know that they are empowered to handle some challenges on their own. As a wonderful bonus, this also helps to keep you from constantly breaking up disputes.
Challenge Question: What are three areas of your classroom structure where you can give your students some control? If you’re feeling a little uneasy about this one, push yourself and come up with a couple ideas and then let the students choose between two options you already approve of. Ideally, you want them to take some ownership, but giving them a vote between two choices also moves things in the right direction.
The third principle, which I like to call the Magic School Bus principle, is about an intentional focus on the process of learning and not the outcomes. I know this can be hard, given the attention to data and common core standards, but students who only care about the grade, particularly when they struggle with grades, can quickly become disenfranchised by academics when they do not reach the achievement that they desire and subsequently throw the classroom dynamics into upheaval. Marcus Lemonis, of the television show, The Profit, uses a tagline about his business interests being about people, process, and product. Make sure that in your classroom, your attention goes in that order. Grades are the product. Sometimes practice on the process takes longer than we would hope, but keeping your students’ attention on learning, making, messing, and allowing for mistakes assures that even when they don’t achieve perfection they don’t discount the journey.
Challenge Question: How can you recognize, and potentially reward, your student’s attention to the process and not the outcomes in your classroom? Can you recognize the amount of time they spend reading and not the score on the reading test? Think of three ways and choose one or two to use regularly.
So this sounds easy, right? I know that all of these are all characteristics that teachers naturally strive to have. One might even say that some of these strategies and values are even prerequisites to aspiring to a career in teaching. However, with the attention given to quantitative instructional practices, these traits can unfortunately take a back seat in most of the schools in the country. Intentionally considering these traits, and devoting attention to incorporating them effectively and efficiently is a wonderful beginning for creating a classroom culture that supports student success.