Back to School for Teachers:  Building Classroom Culture

I loved Back to School throughout my career as an educator.  I loved buying new school supplies.  Choosing new posters.  Back to school clothes shopping.  Fresh bulletin boards. Welcoming students to a new school year.  I was a big believer in tapping into student excitement to be back and involving them in creating an inclusive culture.  The concept of “inclusive classrooms” has become a buzz word in education and too often void of meaning.  It is worth the time for educators to think through what that means and plan deliberate steps, so all students feels like they belong the minute they walk into the classroom to start a new school year.  

Learning Names 

My first job was in a Grade 2 classroom in the Abbotsford School District.  Sandy Murray also taught Grade 2 and we did a lot of our planning collaboratively.  At her insistence, we used singing games to learn the names of the students in our two classes.  Although music was not my strong suit, the song experience games provided an excellent avenue to use repetition and practice for us to pronounce student names correctly and the language for kids to say when their name was not being pronounced quite right.  The class would sing:

“Hickety, tickety, bumble bee, can you sing your name for me?”

The child would sing or say his / her name.  The class would repeat the name.  Then the student would have the chance to respond with a yes or no.  We’d repeat the child’s name until we got it right.  Several students had unfamiliar South Asian names so sometimes it took several times.  The follow up was using the child’s name throughout the day and checking that it is being pronounced correctly, as well as encouraging the students in the class to do the same thing.  This process would be repeated when a new child joined the class later in the year. 

The message to students that each one of them was important and we cared enough to get the correct pronunciation.    

Although when teaching older students or adults I didn’t use singing games, I discovered it was equally important to learn names.  We came up with other names games to accomplish the task.  When I was teaching teachers in China, it became part of morning English language warm up.  Investment in class was higher and behaviour was better once I had learned names.  It is hard to develop a relationship with students if they are part of the anonymous masses.  

Respectful Classroom Environments 

I had a Grade 9 English teacher who would regularly say,

“People, everyone should have their hand up!  Even *Kevin has his hand up.”

She always got a laugh and Kevin got derisive sneers.  The obvious implication was that Kevin was not too bright and even he had the answer.  The less obvious implication was that it was completely acceptable in that classroom to target and ridicule other students.  I certainly wasn’t taking any risks in my learning in that class, and neither was anyone else.  All Kevin’s energy was directed to his reptilian brain with survival as his modus operandi.  

Respectful treatment of students is required for teachers to cultivate respectful environments.   That is easy on good days when students are following classroom rules and able to self-regulate their own behaviour.  This is less so in the face of blatantly unacceptable behaviour.  If the teacher or principal treats a student like he is a bad or naughty kid, then so will the rest of the class.  That child will be excluded from the group and likely receive fewer birthday invitations.  

From pre-school to university, there is a jockeying for social power.  I have a daughter and a son, so it was interesting to watch the difference between their worlds.  In my son’s world, the focus was on activity.  You didn’t have to be the best at the activity, but you had to show up to be accepted.  One day in middle school, my son went snowboarding with friends.  One of the very athletic kids was making fun and ridiculing the newest snowboarder.  He was shunned by the group until he agreed to stop being suck a jerk.  It was a tougher go in girl world.  Girls were fully aware of the power of gossip and exclusion.  Modelling by a mother or an older sister often provided the scaffolding for the “mean girl” that enhanced their social power and ability to impose misery.

The hit or the shove is more obvious and usually noticed by teachers.  We know by now that the old saying is just not true:”

“Sticks and stones will break my bones,

Words will never hurt me.”

Words scar.  Exclusion alienates.  They must be identified, discussed, and an action plan must be implemented with the involvement of students and parents.

A Focus on Self-Regulation Strategies 

Expecting conflict and behaviour challenges in the classroom will help you to prepare you intervention. Students do not generally come to school wanting to wreak havoc or annoy the teacher or lash out at their peers.   However, many students do come to school with an inability to manage big emotions and cope with stress.  All students need to develop an ability to identify the emotions they are feeling and strategies to cope with them.  In some cases, children are coming from homes with well-meaning parents who have intervened to prevent the child from developing these skills.  Parent do not do their child any favours when they try to remove all stress and conflict and prevent the development of coping skills. 

There are many tools and published programs that are available to teach self-regulation strategies.  Starting the year by having children in the class create a bank of emotions, situations that prompt these feelings, and coping strategies is powerful.  The diversity of emotions, situations that prompt them and coping strategies is always interesting and informative.  My students always knew that exercise or a pot of earl grey tea was one of my coping strategies when the going got tough.  

At one point a very frustrated teacher delivered four fighting boys to my office.  I had just finished a meeting and my big tea pot and cups were still on the table in my office.

“Is the tea for us?”

“Would you like a cup of tea?” I replied.

“Yeah, I would.”

“Do you have sugar?”

“Yes, and milk, too.”

That sealed the deal.  The teacher came to check on the boys because they had been so aggressively fighting.  In my goodbye speech when I left that school, the teachers recounted,

“I walked into that room and there were my boys, sitting drinking tea and talking about their feelings.”

In my debrief with the boys, we had a lot of discussion about the calm down strategies they could add to their repertoire.  Was it the Earl Grey Tea?  Taking some time to calm down?  Having a chance to express their feelings?  In four out of four cases, they decided that all of them would go on their lists.  

When students are escalating, directing them to their calm down strategies creates a different focus and provides them with something to give them a feeling of control.  It also gives the teacher the ability to compliment the student on the ability to use their calm down strategies.  This doesn’t mean you don’t deal with the problem.  That needs to happen but problem solving needs to come from a place of calmness and in private away from an audience.  My four fighting boys were involved in choosing the consequences for their inappropriate behaviour.  They were more severe than I would have assigned.  All the parents were on side because their child explained the resolution process during the parent-child-principal meeting.

It is instructive for students to learn that everyone gets upset and that calming down is the first step to dealing with the problem.  It also allows for problem solving to be moved to a private place to avoid further embarrassment.  

I always provided a separate desk and, in some cases, a few extra desks that students could choose to work. Making the choice to work in a quiet workspace was a student choice, sometimes at the recommendation of the teacher.  Choosing a quiet workspace becomes a self-regulation strategy and replaces the archaic tradition of the student desk beside the teacher.  This labels the child as problematic, isolates him / her from the group and undermines the child’s belief in his/ her ability to control his/her behaviour.  

Differentiating Between Helpful and Hurtful Behaviour

“I was only telling the truth!”

I have dealt with this response in preschool, elementary school, middle school, secondary school, and in my own life.  It is often paralleled with,

“I’m being a good friend.”

The most helpful response I have used, “Is it helpful or hurtful?”

Truth or versions of it can be used as weapons and too often are.  This often plays out as reporting something hurtful someone else has said, most often in confidence.  Motivations are sometimes targeted to hurt due to jealousy or anger about another incident.  It never has to do with being a helpful friend.  Often, the intention is just to exert social power and ensure control.  

Children need to think through who they want to be in the world.  In the classroom or in social interactions, people need to understand that is a choice to make someone’s life a little bit better or a little bit worse.  For the students that chooses to hurt, they need to ask themselves why they lashed out.  For the person on the receiving end, there is also a decision to be made.  How do I want to be treated?  Is the person who repetitively hurts intentionally a good friend?  In school situations, social distancing is not an option but controlling the information you share is still under your control, as is expanding other friend groups.

Collaborative Learning 

I dreaded “group” work, particularly in university when the marks assigned made a difference to future aspirations.  My kids felt the same way about it all through school.  The kids that cared about the grades did the work, often for group members who were less able or less willing.  As we have come to appreciate portfolio assessment in the school system, this has improved somewhat, but only with careful planning.  The value of collaborating with peers extends far beyond preparation for the workplace.   Getting to know peers opens an avenue of support and learning in classrooms with respectful environments.  

The expectation that everyone will work by themselves, in pairs, in small and in large groups should be an expectation set up at the beginning of the year.  There should also be an expectation that everyone has skills, background experiences, strengths and challenges that help all of us to learn and grow in some way.  That growth could include patience, empathy, or knowledge.  There should also be an understanding from day one that everyone in the class deserves to be treated with respect.  The decision to make someone’s day a little bit better by a small kindness not only makes a difference for the person but also for how you feel about yourself.  

“I hate that kid” or “Oh no!  Not her!” is not acceptable language in respectful classrooms.  It is hurtful, not helpful.  Teachers must assume responsibility for functioning in the group.  Members must have clarity around roles and responsibility in the group.  In some cases, the roles and responsibilities will need to be taught.  Active listening is a skill to be developed for the group to function.  If a group member is not functioning in the group, they require support in self-regulating.   This is the responsibility of the teacher, not the group members.  Assigning a mark based on the work not completed by one group member is the reason that cooperative groups continued to be reviled in some school and work contexts.  

Seating Arrangements 

Seating arrangements are easier once you have established a respectful environment in your classroom.  I also found it was helpful to have seating arrangements that change and some student choice in the process.  I usually created groups of four because they lend themselves to the “Think, Pair, Share” and Think, Pair, Square” strategies for concept development and discussion.  The following guidelines are helpful:

Choose a friend you can work with?  Some friends are for giggling with on the playground.

Choose someone you don’t know very well.

Choose someone you think you can learn something interesting.

Choose someone outside of your friend group.

You decide on the guidelines with your students.  I tried to put one person on their self-selected list in their groups.  Groups changed at least every month.  Every student was placed in a group.  Every student understands they will be working with every child in the class.  

Conclusion

Building classroom culture is complex and will require your effort throughout the year.  However, these six considerations will make an immediate difference in your classroom.   They will impact how students see themselves and how they see others.  They will also cement parental support if the rationale is communicated to parents prior to classroom conflicts.  Learning to deal with people in a respectful way is learned behaviour.  The pressures of covid and modern-day politics have lent themselves to several interaction patterns that are not respectful.  You will need to be vigilant to ensure that respect is the cornerstone of your classroom.  It will take time and talk.  It will be worth it!

*Kevin – name changed to avoid this unfortunate student more embarrassment

Published by Carrie Froese

Curiosity guarantees a life of learning😀 Let me help you find the answer to your questions about educational practice, setting up a small business with a focus on education, and running a non-profit with a focus on educational events.

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