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How Teachers Can Establish Effective Classroom Culture from the First Day

Wednesday, August 30, 2017 -- Scott Sterling

Many teachers write off the first week of the school year as a time for get-to-know-you activities and formative assessments. Those are both important, but so is establishing norms for behavior and classroom processes. Ideally, each day of school should work the same from the first to the last. Here are five tips to build those systems from day one.

Do your homework

Before you even set foot in your classroom, spend some time going through the student files for your upcoming class. Yes, it’s important to look for grades, test scores, and discipline records, but you should also try to get a sense of what the students’ lives are like. Where do they live, and are you familiar with those neighborhoods? If not, consider taking a short drive to explore. What are their parent/guardian situations? Do they have any siblings at the school? All of this information can be helpful to you in identifying potential challenges, building relationships, and finding effective motivations with your new students.

Discipline should operate as cause and effect

Students who frequently have discipline problems often feel as though the teacher is being unfair and has something out for them. From the very beginning, stress that discipline in your classroom is not personal. Set clear expectations and specific consequences for problematic classroom behavior, allot plenty of time to talk through those expectations, and ensure that you give students a chance to ask any questions they may have. It’s also helpful to prominently post this information in your classroom. Then, when you run into that conspiracy theorist, you are able to point to the expectations and perhaps provide an example of another student who received the same consequence.

Notice everything—but don’t necessarily act

Many teachers find that being a hard-edged taskmaster takes away from the joy of teaching, yet they also believe that kind of approach is necessary to rein in a difficult class. Like most things, the answer usually lies somewhere in the middle. Letting transgressions slide without comment could reinforce negative behavior, but calling out every small infraction could put everyone on edge—and cause some students act out further for more attention. A great way to find a middle ground is to notice everything that students do that doesn’t meet expectations, let them know you noticed, but show restraint in your reactions. Students will respect a measured approach, and you’ll still achieve that helpfully mild fear factor of being an “all-knowing” teacher. Paying careful attention to what’s going on in the classroom will also help you identify behaviors that truly are becoming problematic to learning.

Always have a “halfway house”

You can usually sense when students are starting to slip toward a situation that may warrant a serious consequence. Neither of you want to get to that point, so always offer an olive branch or a way for them to rethink what’s going on. Perhaps wayward students need a break away from everyone or a chance to compose themselves by sitting quietly with their head down on their desk. Framing actions like these as “it looks like this could help” rather than “this is the last step before detention” goes a long way toward building a supportive culture and significantly improves the chances of de-escalating the situation.

Leverage the power of disappointment

Challenging students often grow used to the consequences they have seen time and time again, such as detention or suspension. In some cases, this kind of negative attention even fuels poor behavior. But, a universal consequence—one that nearly always works for every student in the room—is when a teacher calmly expresses disappointment in the poor choices that a student is making. It’s the same principle as when we were growing up. When our parents were yelling at us, that was one thing, but it was when they were quiet and sad that you knew you had really stepped out of line. Never underestimate the power of a calm response.

Looking for more classroom management strategies to build a positive culture in your classroom? Check out this blog post for 7 Tips to Build Community!