Creating and Maintaining a Positive Classroom Culture (Part 1)

As we all continue to enter into the “hum” of the school year, it is imperative to also begin the reflection process about what has worked and what has not in terms of our classroom culture. Starting a new marking period is a great time to review classroom expectations, try new things with and solicit ideas from your students about how to make your class even better. Being a Content Specialist (“Department Chair”) for five years, I had the opportunity to observe dozens of teachers and hundreds of lessons. On one hand, I have been fortunate to critically observe incredible teaching, and sadly on the other hand I have had to endure a handful of awful lessons. Believe it or not, one of the most challenging aspects of observing is coming upon the “mediocre lesson.”

Caitrin Blake from Concordia University states: “A positive classroom culture is characterized by a non-threatening atmosphere where students feel that they are able to speak, offer ideas and take risks without fear of reprisal or mockery.”

What are some tenets of building a “positive classroom culture?” The site I have linked from Colorado State University explains why we should be focusing on culture first and content second in our classrooms: to promote student engagement, student discourse and collaboration. You cannot effectively teach content, if students are not engaged, not talking to each other, and not working with each other.

This article is Part 1 of three posts that expand upon these points and brings in others into the fold. Ultimately, I believe teachers should take a three-tiered approach to building and maintaining a positive classroom culture:

  1. Build and maintain positive relationships with students
  2. Regular and structured student discourse
  3. Academic Choice and Reflection

Here are two hypothetical classroom scenarios where learning and achieving could be vastly improved had there been a specific attempt at building a positive classroom culture. In each classroom, learning is indeed taking place, but both are missing a positive classroom culture:

  1. Teacher A delivers content as per their collaboratively created “pacing guide” and consistently teaches from their desk or Smart Board. This teacher’s management style is to keep them pacified as much as possible, and tends to be reactive rather than proactive in its approach. This teacher also thinks that making true “connections” with students is talking about the local sports team or the most recent professional sports match.
  2. Teacher B delivers content as per their collaboratively created “pacing guide” but the execution of their lessons tends to consist of a litany of activities (i.e., filling time rather than being planned for mastery). This teacher believes that making “connections” with students is using “on the fly” and unplanned pop culture references throughout a given lesson.

Both teachers are “planned,” provisioned and run what most untrained observers would call a “tight ship.” However, both lack meaningful connections between teacher and student and student to student. So what to do now?

Building and Maintaining Positive Student Relationships

“People do not care what you know, until they know how much you care.”

– Teddy Roosevelt

After this long and brutal presidential election season, this statement rings true on so many levels. In the stressful times in which we live, and with all that is going on in our world both and at home, we as teachers need to be beacons of light and hope. I know this sounds hyperbolic, but for those teachers who consistently build positive relationships with students, year in and year out, they know what I am talking about.

Below are some tips on how to build and maintain positive student relationships. Even though you are finding yourself reading this after the start of the second marking period, don’t worry! By and large, your students are forgiving and they are just kids – treat them like the humans they are, and it will come right back to you ten-fold.

  1. Get to know your students:

Know their names and how to pronounce them CORRECTLY. As an observer who also taught the same students, it was cringe-worthy going into a colleague’s class, where they say the student’s name incorrectly, and the student merely sits in silence and allows it to pass. I’ll never forget my first year teaching where I had a student whose name was Heidi. I pronounced it “Hi-dee.” Being the quiet 6th grade student she was, she said nothing. It took her until 8th grade to correct me and tell me that it was actually pronounced “Hay-dee.” Some may roll their eyes about the lack of distinction between both names – I highly disagree, and I was completely embarrassed. I vowed to never allow that to happen again.

Ask students to take a short survey about their likes and dislikes, how they learn best, and what kind of things present barriers to their learning. Here is one capture sheet that I used for all my students. A shorter version, but still effective, is one that captures how students perceive their learning style: “What opens doors and creates barriers to your learning?” Once students have taken this survey, be sure to read it and revisit it when you can. I would also recommend posting a compilation of what students said somewhere they can access easily. I used a Google Doc to present what was shared (yet another way to build positive relationships: show students that you are actually reading what they write, and taking it to heart!). I did this because I think it showed my students that they are experiencing similar challenges and barriers to their learning. They are not the only ones who are distracted by students talking over one another!

Students will appreciate the fact that you remembered their dogs name, their favorite sport, or what creates barriers to their learning. One of my colleagues actually used to take the stack of surveys for one of his classes, and each day he would pull one out to read through it briefly before class. Then, when students were entering, he would casually ask questions about how their soccer team is going, etc. It truly goes a long way!

  1. Greet students at the door:

Students should not have to enter a classroom with the teacher staring at his / her computer screen, or arms folded in the back of the room. Students should be greeted with enthusiasm and goodwill right when they enter. Shake their hands; ask them how their day is going; give them a fist bump or a high five. Nothing starts out a lesson on a more positive note than a pleasant greeting to your students. For your most challenging students, it shows them that you are willing to provide them a clean slate (despite what may have happened the day before). For all your students, it models what we all should be doing with each other – being nicer! It does not take a lot to say “good morning” to someone in the hallway. Indeed, my previous Assistant Principal modeled this very practice for me. Every single morning that I saw him – he was greeting ALL students with total enthusiasm. Despite all the things that were continually piled on his plate, he never let it show to the students entering our threshold each and every day with their own baggage.

  1. LISTEN to your students:

My dad used to tell me that I never listened to him, much to my chagrin. However, he always explained it in a way that was much clearer: “You hear, but you do not listen to me.” The way he explained it was: hearing includes only sounds and noises…not specifics. Listening is when you are thoughtfully paying attention to what another person is saying…you are internalizing it. Students know when their teachers are not truly listening to them, and it is quite evident to observers as well!

One way to show you are truly listening is during question and answer sessions: When students respond to a question, don’t just “rephrase” or “rework” what they shared with you. That kind of rephrasing delegitimizes the exact purpose of why we want students to share: “If my teacher is just going to rephrase my original idea, what‘s the point of me sharing in the first place?” If you do use the practice of repeating student responses (which I do), ask them probing questions about their response, rather than rephrasing try: “What did you mean by ____?” Or, “Can you explain your thinking behind that opinion?”

  1. Call home.

I know what will be said about this one: we all do not have enough time to call parents. Phooey! Calling home sends an incredible message when you actually have a conversation with a parent over the phone about “good” things as well as the not-so-good-things. Parents love their children and they want to hear they are doing well. Building positive relationships with families starts with the teacher! Emails don’t cut it, and are a cop out for much more effective and personalized communication.

  1. Be clear and consistent:

As the great Dr. Fred Jones says: “You either are consistent, or you are inconsistent. There is nothing in between. There is no such thing as very consistent or extremely consistent.” When you create classroom rules or norms, your expectations must be consistently enforced and communicated to students on a regular basis. Don’t expect students just to assume they know how to operate in your classroom – if you convey the importance of a procedure to students, and how important it is for “our” classroom, they will ultimately get on board.

  1. Embody the “Key Messages” in your speech and your actions:

In my school system, we operate on the foundation of the “Key Messages”:

  • This is important.
    • Explanation: “What we do in this class is incredibly important. Every assignment, activity and exploration that we work on is important!”
  • You can do it.
    • Explanation: “No matter what you have or have not done in previous classes with previous teachers, I know you can do this work. It may be challenging, but that’s OK because I am here to support you!”
  • I’m not going to give up on you.
    • Explanation: “I know that you may feel so frustrated this year with some of our assignments. This is a natural feeling! And as an extra support, please know that I will NEVER give up on you. I will do my very best every single day to make sure you are supported.
  • Effective effort leads to achievement.
    • Explanation: “Some say that Albert Einstein stated that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. Your effective efforts in this class are paramount to being successful. If you do not meet standard on an assignment, never fear – your efforts may not have been effective! That’s what I am hear for – to support you in leveraging the most effective efforts that will lead to your success!”

Although at first it may seem silly saying these things to students aloud, they are messages that resonate with all students. They hear what you are saying, and how you are saying it! Indeed, there are certainly some students in your classroom today that may never hear any of these from their families or their teachers. This is a shame – you can be that teacher! Believe in all of your students, build positive relationships, and never give up on them!


About the Author: Casey Siddons is a Consulting Teacher with Montgomery County Public Schools, and a blogger for Discovery Education. Casey has worked for Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland since 2008 where he taught 6th grade world studies for eight years; five years as a department chair, and joined the Consulting Teacher team in MCPS in 2016. Casey’s current role as Consulting Teacher is to help build the capacity of new and experienced educators. Casey earned a B.S. in Citizenship Education with a concentration in Secondary Education from Kutztown University of Pennsylvania, and is currently earning his M.S. in Educational Leadership from Hood College in Frederick, Maryland.

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6 Comments

  1. Sarah said:

    I have often thought that building positive classroom culture is the most important mission for a teacher, and one of the most predictive factors of student learning.

  2. Jessica McKelvey said:

    I really appreciate the resources and research you shared here! As a former elementary teacher of many years, and now a middle school teacher, I often grapple with the shift in focus on the social/emotional dynamic from being a daily focus in K-5 to a “when you can” dynamic in middle school and beyond. There are programs being implemented in schools, such as Project SUCCESS at Argyle Middle that do an awesome job of creating and building on that positive classroom culture and sense of belonging. Again, thank you for being an advocate for this crucial classroom dynamic as you share your voice with the academic world!

  3. Marie Umali said:

    Thanks, Casey, for a great article for experienced and tenured teachers to remind ourselves of the basics that do impact everyday teaching and learning. As teachers accumulate more years under their belt, we often forget that we have to reestablish these routines for the new school year’s 150 kids who will meet us for the first time and spend most of their day with us. Teachers know what their motivations are, but to most students, we are just another adult telling them what to do and how to do it.

  4. bennett brookstein said:

    Thank you for your post, I fail at this every time and I try get back to some order so that I can teach.

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