Moving from a Classroom of Kids to a Community of Learners

Discipline and classroom management are two major components of school culture. Within each classroom is a community that runs differently from the next room down the hall. All communities together make up one large community, each contributing to the school’s overall culture. Neither can be taken lightly, and when one isn’t in place, the environment for leanring is simply not effective.
Every educator and parent/guardian has their own take on discipline. Some equate it to punishment, others see it as teaching. Some see it as a combination of the two. Discipline is most successful in our schools when strong relationships exist within an environment where clear expecations are set and procedures are in place. Most importantly, the child’s voice must play a role in classroom community. When these four concepts are woven into each day, a classroom of of kids becomes a community of learners.
When relationships are authentic and trusting, procedures are in place that kids understand and value, and they play an active role in decisions about classroom structure, will misbehavior be prominent? Will we need to “discipline” kids continually if these things are part of the classroom and school culture?

Strong Relationships

img_5409-1 Relationships, relationships, relationships. We all hear on a daily basis how important they are. We all know that if we do not love kids first, they are almost impossible to teach…but…are we intentional enough about personal relationships with individual kids in a classroom and school? Are there times when we go through the motions and do business, rather than authentically connecting with all kids? The answer to both questions is no doubt a big YES, because we all have days where we are not at our best. We have all made the mistake of missing out on an opportunity to connect and make a difference because of our current focus or mood. I look back on times where I have done this, and I am ashamed. I am remorseful and have deep regret. We are human and all mistakes, but I never want to have regret regarding relationships with others. Kids need us to be on our game and at our best every single day. A bad day will happen now and then, but what if some classrooms have mulitple bad days? Consider the damage that is done and the missed opportuities within those classrooms. THIS keeps me up at night.

Building strong relationships is a nonnegotiable. We simply cannot have teachers in classrooms who refuse to connect and choose to stay business like. It is no longer acceptable. Every educator needs to continually reflect and ask themselves,

“Am I THAT educator? Am I the ONE people wouldn’t want their child to have? Am I less preferred over other teachers because of my interactions with kids?” 

Question your own intentions by reflecting on them regularly. Keep yourself in check when it comes to strong and lasting relationships with children in your classroom and school. Don’t be THAT educator!

Clear Expectations

ad0b6-img_5675Setting clear and high expectations is nothing new to what is required by teachers. There are general “rule” posters available for purchase that list expectations, and some make their own to post before a new school year begins. Safety procedures/expectations are important and exist no matter what a class is like, or who a child is. Other expectations such as how we treat each other, how we ask for help, how we best learn, etc. are discussions that need to happen with all involved. Expectations that are preset will ultimately fail because of lack of clarity and lack of ownership.  Consider the following common expectation in classrooms and schools:

Treat each other with respect.

How vague is that? How many interpretations or understandings of that phrase can you think of? Kids may see it in one or more of the following ways:

  • Don’t be mean. (will that look different to each child?)
  • Be nice. (see above!)
  • Use your manners. (Do all kids know the same manners, or any?)
  • Don’t touch.
  • Be quiet. (How many kids are told this at home… a lot?)

As stated above regarding expectations, unless it is modeled for kids and consistent throughout a school, it will never become part of the culture. Kids will unintentially receive mixed signals. We must be clear by modeling appropriate responses when kids are not treating each other respect so they can learn how to resolve conflicts without misbehaving in return.

Empathy is the golden key to the mansion of respect!

Clear expectations and empathy go hand in hand. When kids and the teacher are seeking to understand where another person is coming from, patience takes over. Patient kids are less likely to lash out at others. Respect becomes more defined, and kids begin to understand that it is so much more than “being nice”. Expectations regarding tone of voice, body language, nonverbal cues, reciprocal discourse, collaboration, and honoring someone’s space are all areas which cause misbehavior and conflict among kids. Dicussing these by attaching them to situations or scenarios will support kids’ comprehension of the learning community. When the majority of kids are knowledgable about these aspects of respect, a classroom begins to transform into a family.


Procedures, Procedures, Procedures

The beginning of every school year is spent going over “the rules”. Kids are continually told what to do and when to do it. There are many procedures that must be in place in order to keep people safe, and those procedures are the nonnegotiables of school! The important thing to remember is to discuss with students WHY these nonnegotiables are in place. Telling kids to do something and not explaining the purpose behind it can cause lack of trust and unwillingness to follow procedures that will keep everyone safe. Furthermore, explaining the purpose helps kids understand their role in having a safe community–that it isn’t just about them individually , but about the collective group. Kids need to understand, “When I follow procedures, I am making a contribution to my environment. I am adding value to it.”

We often assume that kids know specific procedures and what they look like. We must never assume this! For example, let’s consider the following expectation:

We always walk quietly in the hallway.

Consider how many ways this statement may be interpreted!

  • My feet need to be quietly walking, but I can still talk.
  • I am always quiet, even when I am giggling with a friend!
  • Quiet doesn’t mean silent so I can still talk in line.
  • I know quietly means NO talking and having quiet feet!
  • I see grown ups talking loudly in the hallway, so I guess I can talk as well.

So many interpretations or understandings of that phrase exist. Unless it is modeled for kids, and consistent throughout a school, this procedure will never be a clear one for anyone, including teachers. There will always be question on what walking queitly in hallway looks and sounds like. We must be clear by modeling appropriate actions, how to use materials, transitions, voice level, collaboration,  etc. Kids do not automatically know or remember to “act appropriately” in these areas. It takes discussion and demonstration for them to learn the appropriate behaviors.

When I was teaching kids in a classroom, I had a procedure for everything, from how to put a cap back on a dry erase marker (if you don’t hear the pop, it isn’t closed and will dry out!), to sharpening pencils, to visiting the restroom, etc. Much time was invested in modeling and practicing these procedures, as well as reteaching them after weekends and long breaks. The time spent came back to me tenfold because we didn’t waste time during transitions. Kids knew what and how to do routine things in the classrooms, and helped remind each other if someone forgot. The best teachers I know have very clear expectations for kids, but also communicate with kids in a manner that says (in kid friendly terms, of course!),

“I respect you. I care for you. I want you to be safe, and I want our classroom to be an awesome place. You are a contributor. You matter in our class family. Here is how you add value, and why.”


Student Voice

When we silence ourselves for a given time, and intentionally listen to kids…WOW. They can tell us so much about what they need in order to be successful. They can also teach us about ourselves and what we need for our own growth as educators. We are here for them…if there were no students, there would be no need for us! Getting caught up in “managing” a classroom can happen quickly, sometimes before we even realize it. Managing is easier than leading. It is much more safe, comfortable, and likely less time consuming.

Managers of classrooms will have a class of students. The kids will be compliant, safe, and orderly. There will be clearly defined expectations and procedures, but not all kids will understand why they are in place. What they do know is that it will be considered a bad choice if a rule is broken, and there will be a consequence. Classrooms led by managers generate lots of kids who do what they are told, and a few who rebel against most rules (probably because they do not understand why they are important). Do you know teachers who are managers? We all do. They run their classroom like a business, and it can appear to be effective at a glance. Beware of the MANAGER TRAP!

img_0617Leaders of classrooms have a very different perspective…they see their classroom as a community of learners, people who add value to the class family as a whole. They are listened to, and more importantly, they are heard. Many decisions regarding how the classroom works are made as a collective group, with the lead learner and the children problem solving and being proactive together. When kids have a voice and an opinion that is valued, it is simply amazing what they can do! Their disposition on learning and school in general will shift to a very positive outlook. Student voice allows kids to build confidence, take risks in a safe environment, choose how they best learn, and what they need in place in order to be their very best.

Are we listening enough? Are our kids being heard? I ask myself that continually. Managers run a tight ship, but leaders empower and produce captains! Which would you rather be a member of?

Classroom to Community…I would want my own kids to be involved in a community…a family who contributes to the community within the classroom and the entire school. All kids deserve that.