Before I ever set foot in a classroom, I knew what kind of teacher I wanted to be. I created a composite in my head of all my favorite teachers. You know them, those teachers who were exactly the person you needed at exactly the moment you needed them. I wanted to be warm, funny, and to encourage creativity. I wanted to protect my students and to advocate for them. I wanted to make them write both silly and serious things and understand just how clever Shakespeare really was.
I never anticipated how difficult it would be to keep that ideal version of myself alive. There were activities I had to fight for, actions I had to justify, and ideas I had to let go. It was exhausting to maintain my ideal teacher persona. There were nights when I was packing up to head home at 9 p.m., furiously apologizing to the maintenance staff for not leaving sooner. It wasn’t until my second year that I realized all of those traits I’d envisioned weren’t about the type of teacher I wanted to be. Actually, those traits embodied the classroom culture I wanted to create for my students.
Gradually, I started to develop habits and strategies to ensure that my classrooms maintain qualities that encourage positive classroom culture and help me to lead a learning community that engages students.
The following five tips have benefited me in all of my classrooms to date, and have been mentioned by my students in student survey data as positive aspects of my classes. It’s my hope that these insights will help all teachers — especially new teachers — build the foundation necessary for a strong, supportive, and engaging classroom culture of their own.
It Goes Both Ways
One of the most important things that you can do to create a positive classroom culture is getting to know your students. I place great value on the bonds that I have with my students and that can make all the difference in their worlds. Former students come to me for advice on college course selection, coming out to their parents, submitting their poetry to online journals, and seeking support for friends. You see them every day and what you see and hear is important. When you open up and students feel comfortable with you, it places you in a trusted position to help them, academically or otherwise.
One way I create these bonds is through Do Now journaling activities. KQED has a great collection of Do Now activities that engage students with current events and social media, and here is an example of a Do Now from Teaching Channel:
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Each day, my students respond to a prompt in the first five minutes of class and I read and consistently respond to what they've written. This activity is a fan favorite. It doesn’t take any extra class time and it’s always amusing to students to see what you’ve written in their journals. You’ll get bonus points in their eyes if you ask them to write the five-song soundtrack of their lives and listen to every song they mention.
Keep Your Promises
Trust is essential to maintaining a positive classroom culture. I’ve had classes I would’ve trusted with my life, as well as classes I wouldn’t leave alone with the contents of my desk. The most important trust dynamic is not whether or not you trust them, it’s whether or not they trust you.
Do you keep your promises? They’ll know. They’re keeping score. They know if you promised another day in the library to work on the research paper; they know if you gave them a bonus point for reading out loud; they know if you said you’d have their work graded by Friday at 8:34 p.m. This also goes for any help that you promise to give them. If you promise to send them a certain journal article, remember to send it.
As a new teacher, it can be tempting to promise when you’ll return work or that you’ll get to a certain activity — don’t. I made many, many promises in my first year that I struggled to keep simply because of the amount of time it took to keep all of them. You’ll exhaust yourself and taking care of yourself is important, too. Only make promises that you can keep because they will remember them, even if they don’t remember how to identify dangling modifiers.
This may seem simple, but it can be one of the most exhausting parts of the job if you do it right. I know students that won’t email teachers because they take too long to respond or never respond at all. There are also students that have no idea where to find their teacher outside of the classroom, and those who operate under the delusion that we fold ourselves up under the desk and await homeroom the next day.
Not being able to communicate with their teacher is a ready-made excuse for students to slack off. Because of this, I make myself painfully available. I use email, I use Schoology, I use Remind (a handy little messaging app that uses proxy phone numbers), I tell them my office number, and I post my schedule. I make sure my students always have a way to contact me.
Here’s the difficult bit: I always answer when they contact me. If they send me a Remind message about citing a YouTube video at 10:30 p.m. on a Saturday, I answer them. It can be exhausting, but they ask so many more questions when they know they’re guaranteed an answer and the more questions they ask, the better their work will be.
Call Their Moms
Or call their dads, or their grandparents, aunts, uncles, foster parents, older siblings — whoever is on that contact list. Making contact with home is an important piece of the puzzle.
At the beginning of every semester, I email or call home for all of my students just to introduce myself. Some parents or guardians never respond but others will gush about their child, telling me all of their strengths and weaknesses. This past year, I had a guardian inform me that the student was dealing with the loss of a parent. That information was invaluable and I was better able to support this student as a result. This bond with families also makes it less awkward when the student does something wrong; believe me, you don’t want to start the plagiarism conversation by introducing yourself in November.
Take The Advice, Or Don’t
As a new teacher, every person you meet will have advice for you. It’s all well-intentioned and some of it is very helpful, but you need to remember that you have the final say. I’ve heard countless times that some of my activities are unrealistic because they require extra time to grade. However, I’ve also heard from students that those are some of their favorite activities, or that my detailed feedback made them more aware of their strengths and weaknesses as a writer. If you have grand ideas, find a way to make them work. Listen to all of the advice, but remember that what works for others might not work for you, and vice versa.
By doing these five things, you can ensure that your classroom will be a place that students can be themselves and learn effectively — and that’s what it’s really all about.
How are you building classroom culture? Share your ideas in the comments below.
Samantha Smith is a high school English teacher in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. She is always looking for a way to utilize her B.A. in Creative Writing in the classroom. Most of her time is spent writing reminders on her arms in purple pen and creating deceivingly tricky Kahoot questions.