The classroom culture makes or breaks the way students respond to us.
Defining Classroom Culture
According to Quay & Quaglia (2004), "The more your students feel that they are part of the classroom community, the more likely they are to become connected to the course, the subject, and even the school" (p. 1). Although Quay & Quaglia's research is around college and university classrooms, the notion of classroom culture is relevant in all forms of education. However, teachers often misinterpret classroom management as classroom culture. While classroom management focuses on strategies that support the learning environment, classroom culture is "'the the systems of values, beliefs, and ways of knowing that guide communities of people in their daily lives'" (Rothstein-Fisch & Trumbull, 2008, p. 3). Furthermore, Gibson (2016) defines classroom culture "as the the overall vibe and mood of the room; what are the things that are valued (or not valued) in that classroom" (p. 1, Edutopia).
Definitions of classroom culture also require teachers to explore the practices of teaching outside of Canada, the United States, and Western Europe. In fact, while these societies tend to have a an individualistic perspective within classrooms, other communities bridge individualism with collectivism. Rothstein-Fisch & Trumbull (2008) explain that "[t]he learning relationship is primarily between the teacher and the child, not among the group of students in the classroom. If students need help, they ask the teacher questions – something dominant-culture parents often encourage their children to do." (p. 12). Conversely, collective communities establish autonomy, but make decisions with each other. It is this idea around classroom culture that goes beyond learning, pushing our students to build character and a framework to guide them make their own decisions.
Building Classroom Culture
Having read and seen different forms of classroom culture, I have developed my own understanding of classroom culture. There are eight components that are important to me as a teacher:
1. Be fair and reasonable: During my eighth grade science class, our group was in the lead of the classroom points for the first time all year. We were always behind and struggled to keep up with the other groups. It was like an underdog story waiting for its appreciation. Anyway, we got the appreciation, but not the one we were longing for. One of our group members decided to put paper reinforcements all over his face to make the rest of the class laugh while the science teacher stepped out. Unfortunately (or not), he got caught. The teacher took ALL of our points. Another group member of mine (who happened to be a close friend) and I probably would have fainted if we did not have each other for support. The year before, another student in an English class took my ruler as a joke and started passing it around the class. The teacher asked who it belonged to, gave me one long stare, and kept it hidden in her desk. These small instances ruined my relationship with those teachers. That same English teacher did not even know my name a month back when my father and I went for a parent-teacher meeting (ouch).
These moments are always tough, but be fair and reasonable when dealing with students. Of course, a clear breach of our classroom conduct is not going to be tolerated. They should know that. You have the right to call out a student who you see firsthand is not abiding by the classroom code. However, in situations where you do not have that knowledge, meet the student or group of students one-on-one. You can tell from the conversation how to move forward instead of making a rash call beforehand. It is also a horrible idea to blame what one student does on a group of students or even the whole class. Students find that type of management style to be frustrating and unfair. It is easy to lash out at everyone, but the long-run impact of staying calm when addressing issues is a lot more conducive.
2. Build trust: I remember two students, Aana and Yusuf, who forgot their homework at home. Sometimes (perhaps just once a month) they forgot to do their homework altogether. They trusted me enough to tell me that. I told them, "I trust you, but just do not make a habit out of forgetting your homework." This approach worked tremendously for us. Both these students do their homework regularly, but sometimes they forget to do it. There is a lot that is gained by trusting them. They learn that they can approach me without feeling that I am not going to believe them.
Our students remember the moments when we do not trust them and they come to cultivate a distrust with us. Can we blame them? Adults do not want to be mistrusted and the same goes for children. This is important to remember when making promises. Do not make promises that you cannot keep. Students often feel excited by a promise (e.g. like going on a field trip). They do not mind if promises are broken based on a legitimate issue (e.g. not raising enough funds for a field trip), but they can see right through excuses.
3. Hold high expectations: I remember being told not to smile on the first day of school. I am not the only teacher who hears this traditional advice. Do not follow it. A classroom based on fear is not going to build a culture that really aims for true learning. It is important to balance a warm and strict approach because we do have to hold our ground, but fear is unnecessary. Try creating a space where high expectations are prioritized rather than fear. All my students are given a warning if they misbehave during a project or lesson. If they repeat the offence, they have to sit out of that specific time period. They can join the next lesson, but have to watch and wait during the project or lesson where they have breached one of our rules. There are no exceptions to the rule here. I have found that students see the activities and want to be a part of it so much that the first warning works like magic. On some occasions, I have to sit students out. It is not ideal for me to get to that stage, but it does something that is magical in its own sense.
I often tell other teachers who reach out with questions about culture that I treat the students I work with as adults. I always tell the students, "You are welcome to leave the classroom if you do not want to be here." No students ever leave. It is not because they are too afraid to step outside. They know that our classroom functions with high expectations because there is a lot of work to do and little time to get there. Of course, as a teacher, there are some things that are off limits with my students because I am their teacher first and I have a professional obligation, but this attitude of we are responsible adults makes it easier to have high expectations between us.
4. Embrace failure: I tell all my students, "I want to hear the wrong answer." Do not lie to them. There are questions where there may be no wrong or right answer, but there are some questions where wrong and right answers do exist. Regardless of the answer, embrace that fact and allow students to make those mistakes. I appreciate my students for their effort not for their intelligence. Intelligence does not build effort, but effort does build intelligence. I even provide positive feedback for effort even when students struggle to answer questions. I want them to struggle. I want them to see how answering a question is not always easy; it takes a lot of work. However, consistent effort despite all our failures makes it all worthwhile.
5. Be eccentric and laugh a little: My students are used to me being focused and then cracking a joke at a random place in the lesson. Anyone who visits our classroom sees how I am a roller coaster of a teacher, going from one thing to the next. An air of levity goes a long way. It keeps a classroom full of happiness. I joke with and about my students. They joke with and about me. We even play pranks on each other (of course, they have to be safe and sound). Most importantly, we know when to laugh a little and then get back to work.
Our day can be long and gruelling sometimes. If we do not take the time to have a bit of fun and laugh a little then we start to lose motivation.
6. Say sorry: I remember an exceptional student who was slightly distracted one day. He had never been this way in the three years I taught him until that day. I was having a bad day myself, so I decided to take away the paper he was playing around with. At the end of the day, he started crying because of what I did. He tried to, with sobs rolling down his face, explain why he felt hurt. I went home feeling like a complete waste of a teacher that day. I felt so bad about what I did that I was confused and overwhelmed, but I decided to write a letter of apology to my student. I gave it to the student the next day and his face said it all. The letter meant everything to him.
The three words that are so powerful: I am sorry. If we want our students to be considerate and take onus for their actions then we have to do the same. There are times that even I, as the teacher, find it difficult to follow our classroom culture. I have bad days and I make mistakes, too. It happens to all of us. I say sorry to the students for a lot of things and my students appreciate it. In turn, my students say sorry to me all the time. They have their bad days as well. We have to find ways to move on gracefully and saying, "I am sorry," is one of of those ways. However, do not use "sorry" as an excuse. I believe that we are also judged on what we do after we apologize. That is more important to me. You can say sorry to someone and then repeat the mistake or offence. That just makes the whole sorry a waste of time. So, if you are truly sorry, make an effort to change your actions as well.
7. Encourage feedback: Feedback is an art to master. Nonetheless it is an important component of classroom culture. I find that students enjoy being asked for feedback. It makes them feel that there is a space for them to go over what really works in our class and what additions or changes they want to make. It is difficult for all students to agree on the same feedback, but there is usually a trend amongst them. You may not know it initially, but getting feedback from them opens the door to finding out. Mostly, the feedback is relevant and rooted in a lot of reasoning (our student surprise us all the time). There may be times, however, that students provide feedback that you do not believe makes sense. Take the feedback anyway and try it out. You can come back to the drawing board and discuss it with students after implementing it first. Sometimes the effort is more important.
Remember that feedback is a two-way communication. I notice that teachers who implement the feedback of their students is also able to get the students to implement their feedback more easily. My students listen to the feedback I give them because they know that their feedback to me is also going to be considered.
8. Cultivate a lot of love: By far, this is the most important one to me. You can use all sorts of teaching strategies and techniques, but there is nothing more important in our world then love. In fact, in his autobiography, Martin Luther King Jr. so thoughtfully says, "I have decided to stick with love. Hate is too great a burden to bear." Our students bring with them a lot of experiences and memories, some good and some bad, and they carry those with them. It is those experiences and memories that develop much of their childhood. The best teachers encourage experiences and memories that create a space for our students to feel loved. That impact is much greater than failing or passing an exam.
Gibson, T. H. (2016). 5 innovative ways to create positive classroom culture. Edutopia.
Quay, S. & Quaglia, R.J. (2004). Creating a classroom culture that inspires student learning. The Teaching Professor, 18(2).
Rothstein-Fisch, C. & Trumbull, E. (2008). Managing diverse classrooms: how to build on students' culture strengths. Association for Curriculum and Development. Virginia, United States of America.