A new school year and the importance of creating a positive classroom culture

Name tag/name mat- identity I belong really important – clues when chn bring parents/family members in to share means

Creating a positive classroom culture means giving students opportunities to feel like they belong and are valued. You’ll know you’ve got it right when the children want to share these experiences with one another and their families.

It’s a new school year and I’m pleased to report that things are going well. I am getting to know the children and the children are getting to know me. The ice is starting to melt. Order and structure is being established and learned.

My primary focus at the moment is on building positive relationships – between myself and the students, as well as between the students themselves. That’s because effective teaching and learning is premised on the quality of relationships and the quality of the interactions between the teacher and the students. I have already written about that. It’s all about making the learning ‘visible’.

Creating a classroom culture that is structured and ordered provides the social and emotional space that will allow a random group of individuals to grow into a kind and caring community.

I am glad that the research has been able to validate something that makes intuitive sense. And while the research seems to focus on the teacher/student relationship, I have taken it a step further by putting a lot of emphasis on building positive student/student relationships. In a vibrant, dynamic learning environment, children spend a lot of time interacting with each other. That could be via teacher prescribed, direct learning opportunities such as reading a book together or, self directed activities such as collaborating on building a tower of blocks or playing together at lunch time. And remember, this is all enshrined in our wonderful NZ Curriculum document. It defines learning in its broadest sense – academic and social learning.

When it comes to establishing a classroom culture, I think of myself as a ‘benevolent dictator’. Which may seem somewhat paradoxical when you consider all the emphasis that I put on the role of positive relationships. Creating a classroom culture that is structured and ordered provides the social and emotional space that will allow a random group of individuals to grow into a kind and caring community. That is the ultimate prize.

…all efforts put into building a positive classroom culture, are rewarded exponentially throughout the year.

By achieving that, it means that a teacher can be more effective – achieve better quality interactions. It makes it possible to be able to deliver dynamic, flexible and individualised learning programmes. But to do that, it is necessary to have a classroom that is structured and orderly. From order and rules comes spontaneity and joy – and of course, great learning.

Let me tell you a story.

How would you react if you walked into your classroom after morning break to find all the children jumping out of hiding places in the classroom and yelling “surprise”? That’s what’s happened to me over the last few years. I don’t know how or why this situation has arisen. But it got me thinking. That a group of 5-6 year olds could agree unanimously to do such a thing? That they could do it without someone spilling the beans? That they assumed I would also enjoy their surprise? And of course I did (until they wanted to keep on doing it everyday, that is). I laughed with them. I congratulated them on their inventiveness and creativity. And of course, I interpreted it as a sign that we had successfully created a kind and caring community. We were all on the bus, all going in the same direction. Magic!

It’s not personal. It’s not judgemental. It’s just about setting everyone up to succeed.

So building positive relationships is not just an important focus for the beginning of the school year. It takes priority throughout the year. Just like regular maintenance will help keep a car on the road for longer, a classroom culture needs regular maintenance as well. It’s not a task that can be ticked off after the first few weeks of school. It’s ongoing. I have learned that all efforts put into building a positive classroom culture, are rewarded exponentially throughout the year. It really is worth it. Typically, the best solutions in life are the ones that take the longest and require the most input. There are no quick, easy steps to creating a positive classroom culture.

Children arrive at school in different states of readiness. Some children arrive at school knowing how to read, how to relate to others. Some, less so. I use the beginning of the year to address any needs – provoke, listen, respond. Who needs help to turn the pages of a book gently? Who needs help packing up the classroom equipment? Who needs help sharing the blocks? The beginning of the year is the time to determine the ‘lay of the land’ and model the desired behaviour. It’s not personal. It’s not judgemental. It’s just about setting everyone up to succeed. 

Yes, we have a treaty in our room. Yes, the students and I have co-authored it. Yes, we have referenced it to the Treaty of Waitangi. But still, even after all that, that treaty is just words on a piece of paper, stuck (with varying degrees of artistic flair) onto a classroom wall. So we need to breathe life into it. We need to embody its intent with the words and actions we use in our everyday interactions.

I wonder whether the teacher in this video had a well written, well considered and well presented treaty on her classroom wall? While I don’t want to be a scare-mongerer or a John Holt, I really want to be reassured that classrooms are great places for learning as well as places for the human spirit to flourish.

So, let’s celebrate the good parts of our education system and keep looking for ways to improve.

Ease Education: Teaching at a human scale.

You can also find Ease Education on Facebook and Twitter.

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