What is Class Culture?
Class culture has to do with the way we work in class, how we treat each other, what effort we put forth and so on. We will address the importance of class academic expectations and rigor in another post. In this post, we will address how our class makes us FEEL, and it's made up of the way we act and what we expect in behavior. A lot of data out there show how important the classroom environment is to successful student outcomes, so taking a little time to plan yours is time well spent.
What might go into this concept of class culture?
- how people will treat each other,
- whether I will be happy in here,
- whether we will celebrate successes and work for the next level,
- how safe I feel, whether I feel vulnerable,
- whether I can relax or will I have to remain wary and vigilant the entire time,
- whether I feel this teacher cares about me,
- whether I feel this teacher is fair,
- whether I have to hide it if I don’t know everything, or can I tell my teacher I need help
without being shamed
Think back to your own experiences as a student. There were teachers whom you loved and those you were afraid of. The classes you loved were probably safe places to be where the teacher was fair and you knew what was expected of you each day. You knew you would not be singled out in a bad way because it didn’t happen to anyone else, either. You might feel bad for not bringing homework, but that was mainly because you never wanted to let this teacher down; you respected them too much.
On the other hand, there were classes that gave you a stomach ache every day at that class time. For some of us, classes could be so stressful that we’d risk skipping class just to avoid them.
In some classes, you’d watch the teacher belittle one kid relentlessly every day, so you’d make darn sure you didn’t do anything to garner that attention for yourself.
I remember in first grade there was a boy who was so afraid to ask to go to the restroom when he needed to, that he’d sit right in his desk chair and go without saying a word.
I remember the teachers along the way who ran a tight ship and got a lot out of us, and I recall sadly those who could never seem to get the class under control.
Once you determine exactly how you want students to feel in your class, it's time to plan your path to getting there.
Create Your Class Culture Vision
Decide how you want your students and you to feel in the classroom. Here are some examples. Feel free to dream up your own description of your class:
Thoughtful—We need to do a lot of thinking out loud with each other and quietly at times, too. Students will be encouraged to make wise choices, consider others’ feelings, explain their learning and willing to help others. Ours will be a relatively quiet, calm class.
Relaxed—I enjoy a room where we can talk freely, and work with conversation on the side as long as we all are learning what we need to learn. Students might work in small groups or independently, they may take breaks as they need them--so long as we all get our work done.
Upbeat—I want kids to practically be-bop their way into class. We will have cheers and celebrations often. It won’t be unusual for us to incorporate music into lessons. Our lessons will be full of active participation, lots of hands on learning. I want my students to feel pepped up when they walk out.
Friendly—In my class, I will incorporate social skills and lots of working together, praising each other, having class meetings to work out any kinks together. We will call each other friends.
Energetic—I am an energetic person, so I want my class to be energetic, as well. We will have boisterous discussions, have lots of movement in the classroom, stand up to work.
Cautious—We work among chemicals and other lab equipment, so my students have to be very careful and pay attention to safety at all times. However, within that context, I want the class to be productive, collaborative and professional.
Write up your vision for your class. Make it lofty! YOU are the captain of this ship! How will you act? How will your students act? What are the traditions that you would like to see? Write up the description of your PERFECT day in school. That description is your vision---your GOAL.
Choose the Behaviors You Need in Your Class Culture
Make a T-chart and list the behaviors that are OK and behaviors that would just drive you crazy in the environment you choose.
Using your ideas from step one, decide what you NEED for students to do to support your class vision.
Now, select the top three or four things you really have to have from your students to make it possible for you to teach them effectively.
That means that your expectations must support the goal of making class time learning time—students are able to think and work efficiently in that environment; you, as well, are able to think and work efficiently in that environment.
I remember when I first started teaching, the only policies I knew were
- No talking while I’m talking (everyone should have something like this one)
- Keep your hands to yourself
After a few weeks of teaching, I found out there were a few others that I’d like in place:
- No throwing things in class [surprised me to find out that is a pet peeve!]
- Get permission before your move about the room [and I will say no if we’re in the middle of a lesson].
- Get permission to talk [that means we will have blocks of time where we are allowed to converse with one another, but we’ll start with no talking].
Now you choose those top three or four things that are your absolutes in your classroom. You can word them in positive ways and teach what those expectations are. Then, be consistent in those expectations--that's another story, I know, but do your very best.
None of the above preclude the excellent teaching practice of setting your group norms of how we as a class will treat each other. I do that, too!
Setting Group Norms with Your Class
Another big part of developing your classroom community is to allow your students to help set the group norms. These are the expectations that they build for how they want to treat others and their teacher. Flip Flippen's "Capturing Kids Hearts" is the best procedure I've ever seen for this process. If you get the opportunity to get that training, you are very fortunate! In the absence of that training, you can use a basic procedure: I allow students to write down their thoughts about how to treat each other and then have everybody add to a class list that you record on the board one at a time so no one is left out of the process. If you have repeats, you can acknowledge the contribution by putting the initials of the student's name beside that entry. Once you are done, discuss what you developed as a class and celebrate your accomplishment together. Be sure to commit their work to a permanent fixture in the class.
Planning and Implementing your Culture
Remember that achieving a goal is the act of achieving sequential objectives that lead up to the goal. Write out the incremental objectives to achieving the class culture and add these to your lesson plans:
- Teach your absolutes starting on day one, right at the beginning of class. Practice daily for the first several weeks of school, gradually releasing students to independently remember. You can give quick reminders, reteach, ask for do-overs. Give them lots of praise for remembering on their own.
- Use group-building exercises and ice-breakers to help students get to know each other and practice your absolutes.
- Wait until about the second week of instruction to develop your class norms with your students. People need a chance to get comfortable with each other, first.
- Discuss the meaning of each expectation that students list on their class agreement. Talk about what it looks like, sounds like. Consider teaching these at a rate of one per day.
- Most of the rest of the behaviors you teach your students will be procedures. You teach them by modeling and having students practice just as you taught your absolute behavioral expectations. Plan these into your lessons as you introduce the activity students will apply the new procedures.
Developing this class culture will be a gradual process. It is achievable, if you clearly outline your incremental objectives to get your students there each year and work diligently to get them there. That means class culture objectives are part of your lesson plans each week. Putting them in your lesson plans will hold you accountable for getting them done. Please note that these goals are worked in as part of everyday class experiences, not separate lessons that eat up content time EXCEPT during the first one to two weeks of school.
Making Your Class Vision a Reality
- Hold fast to your vision for your class. Read it frequently. Share that vision with them. Mention it every day in class. Tell them when they are doing things that work with the vision. Teach them the correct way when they veer outside the vision. Encourage them. Have a sense of humor. Take responsibility if students didn’t get it—that means you must not have got it across as well as you should have. Apologize and reteach the idea.
- Each day is a new day. Students are going to mess up, sometimes in a big way. It is very important to let that go. When they come back the next day, they are greeted and welcomed sincerely to a fresh start.
- Bring your game face EVERY day. All of your other troubles and concerns need to be locked in your desk—better yet left at home-- for the duration of your teaching day. They will only create problems if you allow them into your personality during the day. Psych yourself up each and every day to put on your best teacher face and demeanor.
- FOCUS on successes and CELEBRATE them with your class!
When you are consistent in adhering to your class vision and expectations, your classroom will a safe, pleasant place for students AND teacher. Remember, you spend a lot of time together, so you want it to be welcoming, safe and pleasant for all of you.