So many pieces go into the puzzle that is a positive classroom environment. While it is challenging, and requires constant effort, it is absolutely critical. A trusting, caring classroom reinforces deep learning and critical thinking. Although I teach classrooms of entirely Korean students, teaching to diversity and building identity-based responses are skills I can always practice. From the first day’s introduction to the closing of a semester, here are some strategies and tips for creating a positive classroom and school culture.
- Get to know your community and students. As we saw in M4U1A1, respectfully and thoughtfully telling your students about yourself can go a long way towards them opening up and trusting you. Consider creating an introductory presentation with personal and professional information. Share amusing stories about yourself. I’ve found that in Korea, gently poking fun at myself goes a long way the students. In addition, make efforts to learn about the school’s community and how it changes. Bring real-world places and people into your lessons. For example, I’m putting together a project in which my 5th graders give us a virtual tour of their community. They’ll take pictures or video and tell us about the important places and people in their lives.
- Give students a major stake in the shaping of their identities and the classroom culture. As the teacher, you are of course the adult in the room and a guide, but students should feel empowered to make choices. Also, take the lead in avoiding and challenging stereotypes. This includes promoting anti-bullying and an ally culture wherever possible.
- Put a lot of thought into your classroom setup: play around with U shape desks, clusters of four or more, and have co-teachers do “audits” of your classroom with an eye for constructive criticism. One thing that I’m considering is instituting a system of student “promotions” involving special tasks or small rewards. I’ll need to be very careful with designing this, as I want it to be fun and a moderate incentive, not something that inspires jealousy and “teacher’s pets.”
- Rethink the meaning of “participation.” When I was in school, I was quite shy and afraid of speaking in front of the class. I wish more of my teachers at the time had allowed for small group discussions, talking circles, and active listening. Promoting good questions, paraphrasing, and listening pauses as part of active listening is something that can be touched on in almost every class.
- Make social and emotional learning (SEL) a part of the class. The benefits of social and emotional learning are huge, and research from Activity 1 showed that better test results follow from curriculum that values SEL. Involve the students in shaping “Classroom Contracts” governing behavior and academics. Try Mix It Up Day at lunch to get them interacting with unfamiliar faces. Also, research has shown that “zero tolerance” is actually less effective than “zero indifference,” in which no instance of bullying or harassment goes unchallenged, but the perpetrators are not automatically suspended or otherwise harshly punished. Work toward establishing a school wide system of restorative justice rather than simply punishment. This will help victims heal and for aggressors to be knit back into the school community fold.
- As professionals, teachers must sharpen the tools they’ve developed over time. PLNs, professional development, and co-teacher feedback are all great ways to keep improving on your classroom culture. Consider using cross-class projects to boost collaboration.
Lastly, using these strategies in addition to the vast multitude of resources available online can help develop the kind of positive, trusting classroom that students excel in. Sharing strategies, especially in school-wide conversations, is also a great resource going forward. Knowing your own limits and areas for improvement is also a great boon. As a white male from the Midwest, there are many cultures I’ve had little to no contact with. Keeping an open mind and being geared toward learning more about diverse groups is an incredible opportunity to grow as a teacher and as a person.
- Tolerance, T. (n.d.). Critical Practices for Anti-Bias Education. Retrieved February 22, 2017, from http://www.tolerance.org/sites/default/files/general/PDA%20Critical%20Practices_0.pdf