There are so many things outside of our control as a teacher. We can’t control the poverty level of our students, or the education level of their parent, or whether that parent is too busy working to feed their kids to meet with us. We can’t change any of the tragedies that may have happened in a child’s life or fill in their learning gaps before they walk through our door. But once we have them in our room it is our first responsibility to make them feel safe, respected, and cared for. There may be a myriad of external factors making that more difficult from concerns about income inequality, the politics of standardized tests, or fears about school shootings. But we need to push through those challenges outside and others inside the room (anger, frustration, boredom) to create a space where students feel safe enough to be open and protected enough to fail. So how do we do that?
What A Positive Classroom Looks Like
1. Teachers Know Their Students
This isn’t just about student names and reading levels. It’s about knowing your students on a personal level. What are their interests and their fears? How do they see themselves? Is it accurate? Truly knowing your students (or any human being) will prevent you from pre-judging them for perceived slights as you understand better what led to it. At the same time, it should lead to higher expectations since you see their areas of strength and fortitude. You get insight into what they most need to learn academically and socially as well as what might best motivate them to reach your elevated expectations. Obviously, this is much more challenging if you have 40 kids in your class or see 200 different kids a week.
2. Students Know Their Teacher
I’m not telling you to reveal to the kids that weird thing you did on Spring Break of your junior year, but don’t be a brick wall either. You shouldn’t be this stoic column at the front of the room imparting information. If that’s all you are, we’ll be replaced by robots sooner than we think. You should be honest and don’t be afraid to express your emotions (to a reasonable non-frantic degree) with your students. They should see you smiling and laughing regularly, but you can be sad some days too. It’s okay to discuss a tragedy. In fact, the students, if you’ve been doing well, may strive to console you. A relationship can never go just one way, so they need to feel they understand you in the way you need to understand them. Also when they know you and see you modeling the positive behavior you expect (like vulnerability) it encourages them to do the same.
3. Students’ Needs Are Addressed Individually
I get that differentiation has become a byword for some in education. That probably deserves its own post. In special education, I’m legally obligated to create and strive to meet individual student goals, but we should all feel morally obligated to do that for all students. I know it’s not easy especially in a large class with an overloaded curriculum and too much testing. Being hard though doesn’t make it less worthwhile. There are ways to automate differentiation and assessment and other ways to make it accessible. In getting to know our students we’ve learned they are people with individual learning styles, academic strengths, and interests. If all you do is teach directly in one way, you are, at best, helping possibly 1/3 of your students while another third is falling behind and the final group isn’t challenged at all.
4. Students Are Given Choices
One of the best ways to differentiate student learning is in giving students a choice in how the learning happens. That could mean a choice as to the content covered (would a report on an important athlete be as good as one on a president). That means presenting the material in different ways to different modalities, so they have multiple ways to “get it”. It also means giving options for how a student demonstrates mastery whether through a paper, a video, a challenge-based project, or even a game.
5. Students Are Given Voices
Students need to feel empowered to share their voices, especially the quieter kids who may have incredibly thoughtful ideas to contribute. It begins with listening. What you hear may help you break through whatever challenges are holding back your students. I know time is limited, but I promise it is worth it.
It can start simply by allowing more than one answer to a question. If they’re way off, inquire more to see why they thought that way. Maybe you are cordial and endearing enough to draw these responses in a group discussion or through writing, but there are other options that make it easier for apprehensive students to contribute. I find storytelling to be a powerful tool which can be more accessible when made digital. Using online video platforms can also improve engagement and participation so students don’t feel all eyes upon them when sharing. You can also use that platform for positive feedback between students.
6. The Classroom Is Consistent
By consistent, I don’t mean rigid. Yes, you shouldn’t have a massive stack of papers on your desk and students should be able to walk around the room without fear of tripping or smashing into something. What I mean though is that there should be a level of order and consistency in what you do. Personal organization is key in this regard. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have surprises (my classes start with one to get students focused). It means students should generally know what to expect. That includes a regular structure and rules. There is often enough that my students are unsure of in their personal lives, so it is essential to create a space where they are sure and safe. Chronic stress whether in their personal lives or in the classroom will prevent any possible learning.
7. The Rules Are Clear And Positive
I think the title is pretty clear, but class rules shouldn’t be a set of do-nots. Instead of saying don’t shout out, say ‘my focused achievers (or some other affirmative description) will listen first and wait their turn to speak’ or ‘my future graduates will speak positively to their classmates’. Perhaps you will even demonstrate what that looks like. A list of cannot statements doesn’t let students know what you expect except that you expect them to fail and that you will be punitive. I often find it best, if the students are capable, to have them help write the rules early in the year.
Students who are behaving inappropriately should have consistent (the key-word) consequences, but in knowing your students you’ll know what is best. For example, an angry student is struggling to stay on task and you will know if that can be resolved with a private conversation or necessitates a public address that wouldn’t exacerbate the problem. Also, except in extreme cases, behavior management should remain in your room. By sending misbehaving students ‘to the principal’ or saying ‘I’m calling mommy’ we have basically abdicated our authority and power. It also shows ‘you’re not my problem and I don’t care enough to deal with it myself’. Also part of teaching appropriate behavior in a modern classroom includes teaching students how to behave appropriately online.
8. The Classroom Is Inviting
Part of this goes back to maintaining positive conversations in the classroom and making sure students know their ideas and voices will be heard. Of course, those ideas need to be expressed without impugning other classmates. It should also include basic manners including from the teacher. You need to always greet your students each day, possibly with special handshakes or a personal message. The room should be physically inviting as well. I know not everyone is free to repaint their room and teacher supplies are expensive, but Pinterest can lead you to some inexpensive options while you can find some more advanced ideas on The Classroom Creative.
9. Everyone Is Engaged
I get tired of hearing certain people say “Learning wasn’t fun for me. It was hard and should stay that way. These kids today are so spoiled.” There are a number of wrong-headed things to unpack in that sentiment, but let’s begin with fun and hard. They are two entirely different concepts. Something that’s easy isn’t engaging and neither is something too difficult, but something can be boring and easy (hello, arithmetic practice sheets). Making learning engaging doesn’t prevent us from challenging our students.
To begin with, you need to move away from external motivation and move towards intrinsic motivation. That means stickers and arbitrary points aren’t going to cut it. Some of my favorite ways to keep a class engaging, apart from using interesting content, is through project-based learning which challenges advanced learners while still providing concrete connections for struggling learners. Game-based learning is often a winning proposition as well according to research.
10. Everyone Is Challenged
As I said, a fun classroom doesn’t mean an easy class. In fact, a big part of keeping students engaged lay in keeping them challenged. That could mean that you have to include extensions and ‘teaching assistant’ roles for students who might breeze through an assignment or provide scaffolding (but not answers) for students who are struggling. There is a benefit in that struggle because it leads to greater learning retention (give me time to write that post too).
11. We Create A Community
Whether through trips, trust exercises, cooperative learning, or non-competitive games you need to break down the cliques and create a sense of belonging. One effective tool I’ve used is Classcraft to gamify the structure of the room and encourage collaboration amongst student groups that aren’t made up of buddies. If you’re looking for an analog method you can try silent conversations like gallery walks or a unit on personal narratives to bring students together. Again this begins with knowing each other and openness to share students’ ideas.
12. We Celebrate Success And Failure
Your room should be covered in student work illustrating their successes. You should celebrate through verbal praise, a note, a special task, an award ceremony, badges, or possibly parties (if it’s big enough to warrant it). Celebrating success leads to more success.
On the opposite front though, you should also embrace failure. Mistakes mean you’re able to learn something new. You should be honest about your own mistakes as a teacher and model making and correcting them. I find computer science is great for teaching positive mistakes since students can focus on debugging. Alternately, games can encourage students to push past frustration to more complex learning. In the end, try to help students remember more of the positives than the negatives but both are necessary for growth.