Any teacher worth their salt knows the impact that relationships have in the classroom, whether we're talking about the relationships amongst the students, the teacher and their students, the family and the school or the relationships amongst the faculty of the building. The relationships that we foster within our school communities matter. I don't remember precisely the first time that I heard the saying, "they don't care how much you know until they know how much you care," but that is something that has stuck with me through my 15 years in this profession. I have seen time and again that it is true and that it just as easily applies to the adults we work with as it does to the children in our care. When you are in caring, trusting, respectful relationships with others it is far easier to assume positive intent, keep our minds open to new ideas, face challenges and to accept constructive feedback because ultimately you feel supported by your community. Your community is a safe place to try new things, to experiment with new ideas, fail and ultimately try again.
Values matter.What we say we value, and what we actually prove through our actions has an incredible impact on the culture of our classrooms. If we truly believe that our young people matter, that the whole-child matters, then our classrooms need to reflect that. We make time for community meetings, provide opportunities for self-reflection throughout the day, take time to indulge natural curiosity and to follow a tangent and deviate from the lesson plan. Our curricular content while important is not the singular focus because deep learning of content does not happen in isolation.
When I was in the classroom we had three agreements: be respectful, be responsible and be safe. These formal agreements lay the foundation for the collaborative practices in the classroom that centered on student voice and active participation. Pretty much every type of behavior could fit into one of those categories. Indeed, we spent a good amount of time discussing what it looked like, sounded like and felt like when those agreements were honored, and I am sure we spent just as much time debriefing and revisiting them as different situations and issues arose. After all, we all brought different and varied experiences with us to school each day, and our individual experiences shaped how we handled both the positives and negatives of the day. We all made mistakes and I would like to think we learned from many of them.
Passion is infectious. There is actually plenty of brain research to support this, but just think about it for a moment and you will know it to be true. We feel most energized when we are around people that are enthusiastic and excited. Conversely, when we are surrounded by people who are whining, complaining or are just plain miserable - they seem to suck the energy right out of us. Think of the implications that this has for the classroom and the school community. Faculty that are passionate about teaching and learning, in addition to being passionate about the content they teach, will leave an indelible impact. There are so many ways that we can share our passions with our students and the larger school community, and in turn, ways that we can nurture the passions of others.
Physical spaces matter.
The design of our learning spaces impacts learning. Again, there is a whole body of research on this, but if we draw from our own experiences I think we can acknowledge some fundamental truths. Furniture arrangement can speak volumes. If you are looking to promote learner-centered discussions and collaboration you aren't likely to position desks in rows, you will consider an arrangement that promotes interaction. You may also consider spaces that allow students to work quietly and independently - some of your more introverted students (like me) will appreciate a place where they can take a moment of pause and often work more productively. We also need to think about a balance between organized but perhaps sparse, with cluttered and distracting. Part of our job as educators is to create a space that will allow learning and creativity to flourish.
These are the musings of a student, teacher, and coach.
If you would like to read more about the topic of classroom culture might I suggest reading everything you can by Sir Ken Robinson, not that it particularly pertains to classroom culture, he's just that good, and then any of the following:
School Culture Rewired: How to Define, Assess and Transform It by Gruenert and Whitaker
UnCommon Learning: Creating Schools that Work for Kids by Sheninger
What Great Teachers Do Differently: 17 Things That Matter Most by Whitaker
The Innovator's Mindset: Empower Learning, Unleash Talent and Lead a Culture of Creativity by Couros
Teach Like a Pirate: Increase Student Engagement, Boost Your Creativity and Transform Your Life as An Educator by Burgess