ClassroomCultureAaah, May. The time of year when many of us look at our students with a sigh of “what could I have done better?” At my school, we have only five class meetings left, and while I am doing the best I can with the time we have, I have found myself focusing on how to do a better job with classroom culture next year. We sometimes inadvertently forget, with all of the curriculum, testing, reform, meetings, policy changes and behavioral struggles, that these faces in front of us are people with feelings and stories that can get as frustrated as we do with this crazy system we exist within.

For the new teachers and veterans who need a kick in the pants like I do, here are four strategies you can use to establish and maintain a positive class culture and boost your students’ self-esteem early in the year:

1. Use circles. While they are part of a larger system of restorative practices better defined and explained by the International Institute of Restorative Practices (IIRP) themselves, circles are a powerful foundation for classroom culture. The idea is simple: everyone sits or stands in a circle and the facilitator poses a question. Using a talking piece, each student answers the question and then passes it to the person next to them. Questions can be about anything (start with these or these if you need suggestions), and once you move beyond the getting-to-know-you phase, you can go deeper and even use them to help solve problems that arise. They are also fantastic ways to deliver content and hold a discussion where everyone participates. Set your own rules regarding whether students can pass on answering and involve the students in creating norms/rules for circle time. Most importantly, though, do circles on a regular basis, especially early in the year. Yes, this is a practice that is “about feelings” and takes time our of your instructional periods. But anyone who has made it a practice–even some of the initially-most-vocal opponents–are flabbergasted at how much instructional time circles save in the long run.

2. Early in the year make a few calls home with praise. This absolutely works wonders. Within the first month of my second year as a teacher, I chose five students who I felt would be important allies that year. These students were truly off to a good start (you definitely don’t want to make things up in this scenario, but try to find things you can genuinely praise). One of the calls I made was to the parents of a student who struggled with anger and substance abuse. He had been a vocal but very productive member of class so far, and I told his mom he was off to great start. She was thrilled, he was thrilled, and we had a great relationship for the rest of the year. When I did need to call home out of concern later on, the conversation was much easier and more productive since I had already established respect with the student and parent.

3. Compliment the worst-behaved kids as much as you possibly can. As I’ve addressed before with regards to classroom management, compliments are really important. They can be very difficult, though, especially when you are trying to compliment students who genuinely get under your skin. Privately set yourself a compliment goal: You could try to compliment a potentially difficult student early in class. Hand out six compliments to different students in the first twenty minutes. Pull two students into the hall this week to praise their behavior in a more in-depth way. Whatever the goal, you’ll be surprised how easy it can be to find something–from “Thank you for picking that up!” to “You’re doing so much better with homework lately!” to (privately, of course) “I’m so impressed with how well you have been doing, even though you told me last week that you were kicked out of your house.” Sometimes, students who know they irritate you (and who try hard to keep doing it!) will be taken aback, flattered, and more respectful from then on.

4. Don’t talk down to students. So many teachers patronize students and use every opportunity to lecture them, “teach them a lesson”, or be the “wise one” in the conversation. We do it out of a genuine desire to have a positive influence, but it can really make students feel small. Take a minute to examine the tone you use when you have a conversation with a student. Sure, sometimes you need to assert yourself as the adult, especially in discipline situations. But in most conversations, are you speaking to students as if you know better–or are better–than they are. Try making a conscious effort to use the same tone and body language–but not necessarily the same subject matter!–as if you were talking to a peer. Students will respect you even more and it will help them feel validated and invited to share their thoughts.

You probably have lots of goals for next year, but don’t overlook classroom culture. A good foundation is so important and can make your instructional time more productive, positive and enjoyable for the rest of the year.

What about you? What culture tips can you share? What will your goals be for next fall?


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