Classroom culture is a difficult subject to write about. Even though I’ve been developing it in my head for a few months I have been nervous. Why? Because it involves telling the truth. Not all teachers want to hear the truth and the last thing I want to do is to discourage my fellow educators.
Poor classroom culture can act as a filter to weed out a large number of teacher candidates.
Remember, classroom culture comes down to you, the teacher. You have the ability to create it and to change it. The only way to have a positive, organized, and meaningful classroom culture is to be a positive, organized, and meaningful teacher.
There is no way around it. So while the following article may give some helpful tools to improve the atmosphere of your classroom, and I believe it will, there is nothing more important than to be a teacher who loves children and offers well-planned instruction day, after day, after day.
What Is Classroom Culture (Defined)
The word “culture” comes originally from the writings of Cicero and other ancients.
Cicero wrote of “cultivating” the human soul. By using an agricultural term he helps us understand that like plants, we grow as we are fed, nurtured, and cared for to become “fully human”. By doing this in unison with others a culture is developed.
While we normally think of countries, language groups, or other communities of people as having a culture, this same idea can apply to any group that is together for an extended length of time and shares values. A classroom of 30 students, who meet each day, led by the same adult, sharing a system of rules, and expectations is going to have a unique culture.
Whether it develops accidentally or on purpose is up to the teacher. Imagine 30 children whose souls are nourished to grow (or to be crushed) daily by the culture that develops around them.
Simply stated, the culture of a classroom can be positive or negative. It begins with the attitude of the teacher and his or her response to the activity of the students.
The teacher chooses the focus of the class. There are always those teachers who blame the students or the administration for giving them the “bad” ones.
Sometimes it’s just your turn to have the 3 or 4 students who constantly disrupt and cause problems. But students have a remarkable talent for knowing how much they can get away with – so they do.
This is why it is critical that the teacher is organized with well planned and meaningful instruction.
Why Do Some Classes Have Great Culture and others “Don’t Smile ‘til Christmas”
I attended school in the 50’s and 60’s. We walked into a classroom, sat in rows based on our academic ability and were taught by teachers who moved from row to row teaching a bit and moving on.
I loved school and did fine as a young student but I can only imagine the daily humiliation of walking into a classroom day after day and walking across the room to a group of 3 or 4 other poor-performing students.
While the classroom was an enjoyable place to learn for me, it was another thing entirely for those who had difficulty. We had good teachers who did their best under the circumstances.
Those teachers who had compassion for their students’ situations made an effort to downplay lower levels of ability and the class could always sense this. My teacher renamed our skill-level groups to bird names in order to limit any embarrassment. We still knew who the good and poor students were, but labels are important and the bird names made a difference.
As a young teacher in training, I learned from bad examples as well as good. In the 1970’s I was a student teacher in a gentleman’s 4th grade classroom.
He sat at his desk and seldom got up. Occasionally, he yelled at the students and often ridiculed them in front of the class. He gave students the responsibilities that he should have assumed himself and which would have had him moving around the classroom.
His classroom “rules” were 1) sit down and 2) shut up. He made it clear every single day he did not enjoy being there with them.
In my first student teaching experience I learned what not to do!
11 Ways To Build Positive Classroom Culture
1. Clear Rules and Norms
Every classroom has rules. While they can usually be summarized to “treat others with respect and use good manners”, a good teacher should never assume that all students have been taught those things.
A teacher should teach them the rules early and enforce them. It is amazing what a difference “frontloading” information makes when given a chance (read my article on how to create great sub plans).
Most classrooms with a positive culture have a list of rules or guidelines posted on the wall. They are referred to often. Just as important as having rules posted is having consequences clear and enforced. This should never have to be something a teacher has to dream up on the spot. A teacher should never have to yell across the room.
If a student is bothering her neighbor, this will be the outcome.
If a student throws something in class, this will be the result.
Problems will repeat if not addressed the first time. It is best to have a standard consequence ready that is fair and appropriate to the circumstance. Consequences could include writing a name on the board, pulling a card, isolation, loss of privileges or points.
This can also be called classroom management but it is much more than that. By organizing the room, planning lessons correctly and being prepared, teachers can grow their confidence and ability.
Students can always tell when you’re winging it. My first few years of teaching were shaky because I am not naturally organized.
I loved my students and tried to be a fair and kind teacher but just didn’t feel like I was doing the job right. Finally, I asked for and received help from my vice principal. He showed me a point system for the students and I then rehearsed it.
The changes I made didn’t come easy. I practiced, then practiced more. Yes, I remember laying awake at night practicing my lessons and my responses to students who I knew would misbehave.
When I finally felt organized and in control, I knew that the confidence I was exuding made all the difference. The students realized I was in charge. I had a plan. It was not easy. It took a lot of practicing in front of a mirror but it paid off.
3. Communicative Environment
Kids enjoy talking and should be given opportunities to share in class. We all know that this requires taking turns, so the teacher should have a process for talking and discussion.
Another way of communicating, and I feel that this is critical, is through writing. When I was teaching it became very popular to have kids write in their daily journals.
One reason was so the room would be quiet for a few minutes but another was just good practice. My philosophy about writing was different than most of my colleagues.
I noticed that some teachers were spending a lot of time correcting the kid’s journals. For me, that felt odd. On one hand, we were asking them to write, usually about their personal thoughts or feelings and then on the other hand, we were critiquing it like it was going to be published (learn how to teach blackout poetry).
Some teachers would spend a huge amount of time redlining the journals and when the kids came back the next day were asked to write some more. Very discouraging.
If journal writing is personal why do they need to have it corrected? I had a different idea. What if I just responded with a few words of my own. As if we were writing notes to each other.
For example, when a child wrote about his dog dying that morning with lots of misspellings and punctuation errors, I only wrote how sorry I was and asked what kind of dog it was so that the next day, he would write and tell me more about it.
This helped in a number of ways. First he realized I could read what he wrote which is the point. Second he would have to know how to read what I wrote to him.
So sometimes he learned new words. Finally, I would write using correct spelling and punctuation which would set a good example. This was such a rewarding exercise I had no idea it would work so well.
Of course, I could not get to every journal every day, but I told the class ahead of time I would read their notes at least once a week and respond. They enjoyed it. I loved it and I highly recommend trying it.
4. Participatory Teaching
Did you know that teaching a subject requires the highest form of learning? Yes, we can teach and teach to kids and then give them a test but a better method of learning is to have them teach each other.
Due to time limitations, it may not be possible to do much of this but it is possible to have small groups of students teach each other. Let’s say you are teaching a geography lesson about Hawaii.
After presenting the information, discussing it a bit, answering some questions, have the students take turns telling their groups 3 things they learned about Hawaii today. Classrooms can be configured into small groups or teams. These work well for activities like this.
5. A Lot Of Light And Visual Stimulation
While classroom culture isn’t dependent on surroundings, creating a pleasant place to spend the day can only help. I remember walking into my first substitute teaching job and encountering a teacher- hoarder. Oh my.
That was even before we knew the term for such a person. Her aide and I spent the day looking for stuff under piles and piles of “dittos”. As I remember it turned into a long-term sub position so we were able to organize quite a bit.
I never heard if our efforts were appreciated or not. At least we had more room for the kids.
Decorate the room with the student art (blackout poetry is the perfect way to decorate). Have plants. Post positive sayings on the walls. Keep the clutter down. Visual stimulation will add to a positive classroom culture.
Science tells us that attention spans are normally 20 minutes long. And that’s for adults!
We also know that children are incapable of holding still for extended lengths of time. It is also not healthy for them.
Most experts realize that by eliminating recess and physical education during the school day we are not practicing what we know to be right for children. As a classroom teacher, you can recognize that and do what’s right for them during your day. Take short breaks, accept some movement and you’ll find an active class has better classroom culture.
7. Get All Students To Buy Into The Team Concept
To get the class on board with your class cultural development, it is fun to show them how to operate as a team instead of competitors.
How is this done?
By being fair to all, not having favorites, and keeping reprimands private. Encourage the class as a group and individually.
Have them encourage and celebrate the successes of each other. Catch them doing the right things and let them know how much you appreciate their efforts. Consider developing a classroom logo or mascot.
8. Make The Subject Relevant To Life
Classrooms are also microcosms of real life. You are a small village. You are a family for a year.
Teach students the subjects required but be sure to help them find the meaning in it. What does Hawaii geography have to do with anything (here are some free typing games for kids)?
Well we learn what islands are and there are many more; about oceans and there are 4 more; about sailing and ancient travelers. Whenever we learn about one subject we can learn how it is similar or different from what we already know around us.
9. Use Student’s Creativity
Whenever possible draw on the talent in the class. I was always surprised at the lack of art or creative activities in other classrooms. Rainbow writing, for example, is easy and colorful compared to standard writing practice.
I became known as the teacher who does art. Maybe back then I was unusual because many teachers didn’t feel confident with artistic endeavors.
However with youtube art videos there are no excuses. So easy and so much fun.
They love to perform plays, sing songs, share artwork, do collage. Make it part of the unit’s concluding activity and they love it.
10. Look Professional-Take the time to dress nicely and business like.
You, as the teacher, are the main driver of classroom culture. It took me a little while to figure this one out. Especially since I started my teaching in a very casual school.
In fact, it was so casual that many teachers were wearing sweats to work. While I did not ever wear sweats, I really didn’t think much about what I wore except that it was clean and appropriate.
I did come out of the 60’s with all its resistance to middle-class expectations so there was that. Anyway, I have come to believe that if you take yourself seriously, so will the students.
If you take the time to look business-like they notice. If you think enough of their opinion of you to look your best, they know you did. High expectations for yourself and for them will be the norm of the class.
11. Stop Yelling
I cannot emphasize enough to you that yelling will not help classroom culture. A classroom that is loud with yelling will be stressful. If you yell in class, your students will raise their voices as well.
Yelling assumes one of two things. Either you are far away from the person you are yelling at or the noise in the room is louder than your speaking voice. Instead of yelling across the room, put forth the effort to walk over to the student and speaking directly to them.
I did correct my habit for this situation by being near the students. I didn’t sit down very much. Proximity solves a myriad of problems. Children have a tendency to behave when the adult is standing next to them.
When there is great activity going on and it needs to stop, all teachers should have a signal of some kind of a bell so they don’t have to scream.
The sad thing about yelling is that if the students know you don’t mean business until you yell…guess what? You’ll be yelling all the time.
Can you create good classroom culture where your student’s souls can be nurtured, developed and matured?
The basic elements for this require a love of children, great organization and finally meaningful lessons. If you implement just a few of the above suggestions, you will be on the correct path.
Begin by remembering your best and worst classroom experiences either as a student or a student-teacher. Reflect on ways you can replicate the best practices yourself.
Do you have rules posted with clear and appropriate consequences? Be consistent in your enforcement.
Are you confident because you have planned and practiced?
Communicating with students with respect and fairness while maintaining your authority is key to a positive culture. Providing students with an attractive, organized, and light-filled room to spend the day will help bring positive results.
Come to class looking professional and be ready to work. Be confident in your job and it will rub off on your students!