Many teachers know what it’s like to work in a toxic work environment. I had a brief stint as the director of an after-school program, so I’ve been on both sides of the situation. The year I managed those nine after-school educators was a disaster in many ways, but it taught me an unforgettable lesson about the importance of team culture to succeed. It’s not exactly rocket science. Unhappy people don’t generally do good work.
Now that I’m back in the classroom, I try to apply this lesson as the leader of my class community. As teachers, we can be up against a lot of obstacles in creating a positive classroom culture. There often many factors outside our control. Maybe our kids don’t get enough recess. Perhaps we’re teaching in a school that is obsessed with standardized testing. Many of us lack autonomy over our curriculum, so we feel forced to teach content that is irrelevant and/or uninteresting to our students.
Regardless of what challenges we are facing, we know we can’t do anything. We have the power to shape each day for 180 days of a young person’s year. We must do whatever is in our power to shape those days for the better.
We have the power to shape the day for 180 days of a young person’s year. Click To Tweet
Keeping the above constraints in mind, here are the best ideas I have for shaping a positive classroom culture.
Treat students like human beings
In other words, you have to build relationships with your students. Riina Hirsch provides some good places to start in her post 10 Steps to a Positive Classroom Culture. I’m a big fan of greeting my students at the door. You may have even seen the viral video of teacher Barry White, Jr. who takes this practice to a whole new level. Whether it’s a simple smile and hello or a personalized handshake, the principle is the same: Affirm students. Make them feel welcomed.
As teachers, we are under tremendous pressure to help our students achieve. But we probably know how it feels when a principal focuses on this myopically. I have worked for a principal who never said good morning or good night. That is one of the reasons I am using the past tense of work here. The more we interact with our students on a human level the more we can form the trust. This is the building block of success for any team.
Give students voice and choice
There’s a difference between being authoritative as a teacher and being authoritarian. As a teacher in an urban setting, I have always taught in schools where classroom management is communicated as priority one. But I cringe when I walk into a room and kids have to raise their hand and ask permission just to get a tissue.
The more you can give students a way to shape their own learning, the more you’ll see a positive impact on your classroom culture. Again, think to what we want as adults. When every step of our day is dictated by powers above, it doesn’t lead to feelings of excitement or investment in our work. Why wouldn’t this apply to students as well? Whether it’s offering some choice time at the end of the day or the week or providing options for end of unit performance tasks, your classroom culture will benefit when students feel empowered.
Build a shared sense of identity…
You could broadly define culture as “the way things are done in a community.” With the students in your classroom, build a shared way of doing things. This isn’t about procedures for using the bathroom or dismissal. This is about classroom rituals.
In our classroom, we start our day with a morning meeting. We start our writer’s workshop with a rap that was written by one of our 5th graders. We start our math workshop with a daily number routine. We end our day with a closing circle and chanting our classroom motto. We have specific ways of celebrating student work, sharing feedback, and appreciating each other throughout the day. These rituals and protocols act as a kind of glue in our classroom community. They send an implicit but strong message that our classroom has a way that things are done.
Team builders and cooperative challenges are also another great way to supplement this work. I start the year with a Newspaper Tower building challenge (shout out to Ms. Amy!). I often use team builders when we come back from a break to reinforce our commitment to each other. Sometimes I’ll use the same team builder, again and again, to allow us to see how we’ve changed and grown over time as a community.
And make learning central to it
Sometimes we make the mistake of thinking that we can fix culture with things like Crazy Hat Day or pizza parties. But we have to remember that we’re educators. Our classrooms are communities of learning. In our classroom, I really strive to make our culture about a commitment to learning. When I think about the way we do things it’s not just about silly chants, it’s about a work ethic. Ron Berger calls it an ethic of excellence. In our classroom, we celebrate hard work, and we talk about taking risks, and we always think about ways to make our work better.
If you show your students that you care about them, you value their ideas, and that you are excited about learning, then that will do more for your culture than crazy socks, an app, or any other gimmick.
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