Before I became a teacher, I assumed that they had no effect on the culture of the classroom or the way students behaved in their class. Either teachers got lucky with motivated, compassionate group of kids or they just happened to be matched with a bunch of troublemakers.
After teaching biology at one of the most underserved schools in the state of California, I now know that teacher actions make all the difference in classroom culture. Here are five techniques I used that brought the culture of my class from combative to compassionate and from apathetic to empathetic.
1) Greet students at the door
Do you know that one kid who just seems to always be in a bad mood as soon as they walk in the door? Well you know what they say: kill ‘em with kindness. Saying hello to someone with a smile creates an involuntary joy response in his or her brain, making him or her want to smile back.
While you may not see results immediately, after a few weeks of doing this consistently, I guarantee you’ll see more smiles in your classroom, creating a visibly more positive classroom culture.
2) Narrate behavior
Behavior narration is an incredibly powerful tool. In essence, behavior narration is highlighting positive behavior without giving it praise.
For example, let’s say you ask your students to silently complete the Do Now at the beginning of class. You have set your expectation that once the bell rings, all students will be silently working on this activity.
The bell rings, and half of your students are still chatting while the other half are getting to work, some of them halfheartedly, finishing conversations with neighbors. You notice, however, that Maya and Carlos are following all your expectations, so you narrate their behavior. “I see that Maya and Carlos are silently completing their Do Nows,” you say.
Now, other students are aware that you are aware. You aren’t playing favorites, you’re just narrating what you see and choosing to highlight the students who are following expectations.
I was amazed by how effective this technique was in my classroom, how behavior narration created a culture of positive awareness. Read more about how to do behavior narration here.
3) Highlight student achievement and positive classroom culture
This one is also quite simple but can have a huge payoff. In my first year of teaching, someone came into my classroom and asked, “Where’s all your students’ work? And where are the pictures of your students?” I didn’t know those things should be on my wall, but once they were, it was amazing how much more at home students felt inside my classroom.
Hanging up exemplary assignments not only makes your classroom look better, but even more importantly, it shows that you’re proud of your students’ achievements. When a student sees their work on the wall or even their friend’s work, they feel like they’re part of a culture of success. And that feeling promotes more achievement.
4) Incorporate mindfulness rituals into your daily routine
Starting your class with mindful silence sets a tone for the rest of the period or even the entire school day. I used a chime to mark the start of our three-minute meditation and then I used the same chime to mark the end. It was always amazing that even the students who had just come back from an off-the-wall lunch break could settle into mindfulness.
When students are calm, aware, and present they are also ready to learn and free from the distractions of student life. To learn more about integrating mindfulness into the classroom, check out the Aviva curriculum.
5) Allow students space to express their identities in exercises
All students (well, all of us on earth) have a unique identity that wants to be affirmed by the world. There are so many great exercises that allow students to express their identity in positive, safe ways. Weekly journal entries, for example, allow students to reflect on how the week went, express how they feel, and outline hopes for the week to come.
At the beginning of the school year, I gave each student a super cool line drawing of a Nike shoe. I then asked them to color in the shoe and write 5-10 significant events that happened in their lives. Not only did I learn amazing things about my students this way (and them about each other), we all got to admire these beautiful expressions of identity on the wall for the rest of the year.