By Jonathan C. Erwin, M.A., author of The SEL Solution: Integrate Social and Emotional Learning into Your Curriculum and Build a Caring Climate for All
There is a direct relationship between the kind of learning environment teachers create in their classrooms and student achievement. Here are 10 specific strategies for developing the optimal classroom climate and culture.
1. Address Student Needs
Remember that students, like adults, have not only physical needs but also important psychological needs for security and order, love and belonging, personal power and competence, freedom and novelty, and fun. Students are driven to meet all of these needs all the time, not just two or three of them. When teachers intentionally address these needs in the classroom, students are happier to be there, behavior incidents occur far less frequently, and student engagement and learning increases.
2. Create a Sense of Order
All students need structure and want to know that their teacher not only knows his content area, but also knows how to manage his classroom. It is the teacher’s responsibility to provide clear behavioral and academic expectations right from the beginning—students should know what is expected of them all the time. Another important way to create a sense of order is by teaching students effective procedures for the many practical tasks that are performed in the classroom. For example, teach students how to:
- Enter the classroom and become immediately engaged in a learning activity
- Distribute and collect materials
- Find out about missed assignments due to absence and how to make them up
- Get the teacher’s attention without disrupting the class
- Arrange their desks quickly and quietly for various purposes: in rows facing the front for direct instruction, in pairs for collaborative learning, in groups of four for cooperative learning, and in a large circle for class discussions
3. Greet Students at the Door Every Day
As students enter your classroom, greet each one at the door. Explain that you want students to make eye contact with you, give you a verbal greeting, and—depending on the age of the students—a high five, fist bump, or handshake. This way, every student has had positive human contact at least once that day. It also shows students that you care about them as individuals. If a student was disruptive or uncooperative the day before, it gives you an opportunity to check in, explain your “every day is a clean slate” philosophy, and express optimism for that class (“Let’s have a great day today”).
4. Let Students Get to Know You
Students come in to the classroom with preconceived perceptions of teachers. Sometimes it’s good, sometimes it can be an obstacle. I wanted my students to perceive me as a trustworthy, three-dimensional human being rather than as the two-dimensional perception of an “English teacher” that they may already have. Since the only way to impact people’s perceptions is to provide them with new information or new experiences, I would give students a quiz about me during the first week of school. (Of course, it didn’t count.) I’d have them take out a piece of paper, number it from 1 to 10, and answer questions about me. Things like: Do I have children of my own? Where did I grow up? What is something I value? What is something I do for fun? What other jobs have I had besides teaching?
After the quiz, we would go over the answers as a class while I shared a slideshow of pictures of my children, my hometown, and representations of things that are important to me, like family, education, a strong work ethic, fairness, and so on. (I would even get a laugh out of some of their answers.) Students enjoy learning about their teachers, and the quiz gave me an opportunity to share who I am, what I value, and what experiences I bring to teaching.
If the “first week quiz” isn’t something you’re comfortable with, think of other ways you can share with your students:
- Who you are
- What you stand for
- What you will do for students and what you won’t do for them
- What you will ask of your students and what you won’t ask of them
5. Get to Know Your Students
The more you know about your students’ cultures, interests, extracurricular activities, personalities, learning styles, goals, and mindsets, the better you can reach them and teach them. Some ways of getting to know your students:
- Educate yourself about their cultures
- Talk to them
- Assign journal prompts and read and respond to them
- Attend extracurricular events
- Have students complete interest inventories or surveys
- Have students complete learning style and personality assessments
- Hold regular class meetings
- Play team-building games with students
6. Avoid Rewarding to Control
Over 50 years of research has shown that incentives, gold stars, stickers, monetary rewards, A’s, and other bribes only serve to undermine students’ intrinsic motivation, create relationship problems, and lead to students doing nothing without a promised reward. The human brain has its own rewards system. When students succeed at a challenging task, whether it’s academic (a class presentation) or behavioral (getting through a class without blurting out), their brains get a shot of endorphins. Instead of devaluing their successes with stickers or tokens, talk to students about how it feels to achieve proficiency and praise the effort, strategies, and processes that led them to those successes. Then talk about what they learned this time that will help them achieve their next successes.
7. Avoid Judging
When students feel like they are being judged, pigeonholed, and/or labeled, they distrust the person judging them. It’s hard not to judge a student who just sits there doing no schoolwork after you’ve done everything you can to motivate her. It’s easy to see how we might call such students lazy. And it’s easy to label the student who is constantly provoking and threatening peers as a bully. But judging and labeling students is not only a way of shirking our responsibility to teach them (“There’s nothing I can do with Jonny. He’s simply incorrigible.”), but it also completely avoids the underlying problem. Instead of judging students, be curious. Ask why. (Where is this fear or hostility coming from?) Once you uncover the underlying reason for the behavior, that issue can be dealt with directly, avoiding all the time and energy it takes to cajole, coerce, and give consequences to students.
8. Employ Class-Building Games and Activities
It’s important to develop positive relationships with your students; it’s equally important to develop positive relationships among them. One of the best ways to break down the cliques within a classroom and help shy or new students feel a sense of belonging is to engage students in noncompetitive games and cooperative learning structures. There are hundreds of resources online and in books that provide thousands of appropriate choices for your grade level. Another benefit of bringing play into the classroom is that it gives your students a very powerful reason to come to your class—it’s fun.
9. Be Vulnerable
Being vulnerable develops trust faster than any other approach. Admitting your mistakes shows that you are human and makes you more approachable. It also sends the message that it’s okay to make mistakes in this classroom. That’s how we learn. Vulnerability and public self-evaluation also help develop a growth mindset culture: We embrace mistakes rather than try to avoid them at all costs. We learn from those mistakes and grow. Make a simple mistake, like spilling a glass of water or misspelling a word on the board, and instead of making excuses, talk about how you’re glad you made that mistake, because it taught you something.
10. Celebrate Success
At first this may seem to contradict strategy six about avoiding rewards. It doesn’t. A celebration is a spontaneous event meant to recognize an achievement. It is not hinted at or promised ahead of time like an “if-you-do-this-then-you-get-that” reward. Instead, you might set a class goal, such as the whole class achieving 80 percent or higher on an assessment. Chart students’ progress on a wall chart (percentages, not individual names). After each assessment, discuss the strategies, processes, or study habits that students used to be successful and what they learned and might do to improve on the next assessment.
Once the class has achieved the goal, hold a celebration. It doesn’t need to be a three-ring circus. Showing some funny or interesting (appropriate) online videos, bringing in cupcakes, or playing some noncompetitive games would suffice. The next time you set a class goal and students ask if you’re going to celebrate again, tell them not necessarily. It really isn’t about the cupcakes, it’s about the effort and learning.
Jonathan C. Erwin, M.A., has been a secondary English teacher, a professional development specialist, a college professor, and the director of training and curriculum for a federally funded character education program. His previous books include The Classroom of Choice (ASCD, 2004) and Inspiring the Best in Students (ASCD, 2010). Jon is currently an independent educational consultant, a senior faculty member at the William Glasser Institute, and a trained HealthRhythms facilitator. Jon’s work focuses on providing research-based approaches to teaching, managing, counseling, and training that appeal to people’s intrinsic motivations and help children, adolescents, and adults develop physically, intellectually, emotionally, and socially. A musician and martial arts enthusiast, Jon has earned a second degree black belt in karate and a first degree black belt in Tae Kwon Do. He lives in western New York.
Jonathan Erwin is the author of The SEL Solution: Integrate Social and Emotional Learning into Your Curriculum and Build a Caring Climate for All.
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