The minute your students first set foot in your class, they are adapting to your classroom culture. Whether or not you build it intentionally, your classroom will have a culture.
Your classroom culture is made up of all the beliefs, perceptions, and assumptions that you and your students share. As Seth Godin describes it, “People like us do things like this.” It’s important to cultivate the culture you want for your classroom. Otherwise, you may end up with a classroom culture that doesn’t support your goals, and your students’ needs.
Is your priority that students to know who’s in charge? Do you follow the don’t smile until Christmas rule?
When I first started teaching, this was the type of advice I received from veterans. Some educators believe teachers need to take control, because students aren’t capable of making decisions about their learning. But there are also good arguments for a teacher-centered approach: One teacher, 30 kids? We’d never survive without a few tricks up our sleeves.
But these days, many educators are embracing a collaborative approach to building classroom culture. They focus on relationships over rules. They believe that when students know we have their interests at heart, they will do right to make us proud.
So which approach is best for teachers? Which is best for our students? And do we have to choose just one?
Rules and Relationships: Can You Have Both?
In general, I tend to come down on the progressive, student-centered side of education issues. But I’m honestly torn about this one.
In online teacher communities, these questions come up all the time. I follow a group that’s all about progressive and student-centered learning. A teacher will post that his students are throwing things, calling him names, and outright refusing to follow directions. A flurry of comments will come back, “Build relationships!” “Plan engaging lessons!”
In another group, which caters to traditional educators, someone complains that her class is too “chatty.” Or that students “can’t sit still for her lectures.” This time, the opposite recommendations roll in. “Show them who’s the boss,” “Call the parents,” “Send them to the office.”
As with most things, the reality is somewhere in the middle. Apply a strict approach when students are eager to please, and you’ll turn them off. Come across as too soft with students who are testing you, and you’re left with chaos.
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The Importance of Classroom Management
Over the course of my teaching career, I’ve come full circle on the issue of classroom management.
As a rookie teacher, I had little appreciation for management strategies. I was fresh out of college, and I thought the strict teachers were boring and stuffy. I would just be cool and the students would be cool right back.
As you can imagine, it wasn’t that easy. But starting as a substitute was a great way to hone my classroom management skills. One day I’d be teaching pre-K and the next high, school seniors. I could change classroom management strategies as easily as my clothing. I didn’t have to worry about confusing my students or impacting classroom culture.
After my early laissez faire experiments, I became a pretty strict teacher. I had seen what happens when a class goes off the rails, and I embraced the order and authority that came with a teacher-centered approach.
But over time, I began feeling like I’d lost my purpose. I became a teacher to inspire my students and connect with them as people. Not because I had a deep love for following directions and working silently.
But by the time I became an instructional coach, I had forgotten about classroom management altogether. I was excited to help teachers with project-based learning, collaborative inquiry, and differentiated instruction.
But in school after school, teachers asked for help managing student behavior. And walking into their classrooms, I could see why.
Many of these classrooms were out of control. With students running around the room throwing things, these teachers couldn’t even think about engaging lesson plans or conceptual understanding.
Can You Model Classroom Culture?
Like it or not, I knew I had to start by helping these teachers establish some order and build classroom culture.
But it was harder than it looked. For one, I started to realize how much of my classroom management “expertise” had come from my title. When I assigned grades and called parents, a little showmanship and a few high-fives went a long way. But as an unknown entity, I had to break out some of my old tricks.
For the most part, speaking loudly, moving around the room, and calling students by name was enough. (One of my ‘old tricks’ was asking students to make little name signs with folded paper, so I could call on them by name from day one).
Every time I did a demo lesson “modeling classroom culture,” the teachers thanked me profusely. They couldn’t believe how respectful and on-task their students were. And they couldn’t wait to try everything they’d learned.
But when I returned to watch them put it into action, there was a problem. I’d been so focused on showing off my classroom management skills, I’d forgotten to take a learner-centered approach with my teachers. In the classroom, I knew that showing students how to do something wasn’t the same as teaching it. But here I was expecting teachers to just absorb the ability to manage a classroom.
The other challenge is that building classroom culture is a lot like losing weight. Everyone knows the “secret” to losing weight: eat well and exercise. The hard part is actually doing it, day in and day out.
Building classroom culture works the same way. All the tips and tricks in the world won’t change student behavior, unless you practice them day in, and day out.
The Three Step Approach to Building Classroom Culture
Once I left the room, my teachers didn’t know how to exude confidence and supportiveness. Even simple things like greeting students by name felt challenging to those who were overwhelmed. Many were so worried about covering content, that culture seemed like a ‘nice to have,’ instead of what it really was: essential to their success as educators.
I needed to do a better job of showing my teachers the benefits they would experience by consistently focusing on building classroom culture. I also needed to break the process down into smaller, more manageable steps. They shouldn’t feel like they had to throw out everything they knew about teaching and start over again.
I thought back on my own journey, from ignoring classroom management to embracing it. And finally to cultivating classroom culture.
During the middle phase, after I’d embraced classroom management, it was really hard to let go of the reins. I didn’t really trust my students. So I worried that a little taste of freedom would spiral out of control.
But once I was confident in my management, I felt more comfortable giving students more independence. I encouraged them to follow my direction. But without forcing it.
Eventually, some of my students began taking ownership of their learning. I could let them set the direction. And my role was to support them in meeting their own goals.
I call this the MLS (Manage, Lead, Support) Approach. The idea is that there is no one right way to manage students or build classroom culture. Instead, educators should rely on the strategies that are right for them and their students.
But that doesn’t mean “my way or the highway.” We need to account for what students needs and what they’re capable of. With the goal of gradually helping them take ownership.
A management approach relies on rewards and punishments. Together, these are known as behavior modification (or operant conditioning), and are based on the work of BF Skinner. Prior to Skinner, schools relied largely on punishment to discourage unwanted behavior. Skinner proposed that combining rewards with punishment could be an even more effective motivator.
But many psychologists and educators have raised concerns about rewards as well. Though some believe that giving students candy to do their homework, eventually leads them to internalize that motivation. Unfortunately, the exact opposite is true. Over time, the use of extrinsic motivators actually reduces intrinsic motivation.
This doesn’t mean that rewards and punishments should be avoided entirely. In many school settings, that’s just not realistic. But recognize that both rewards and punishments are forms of manipulation. We’re making students follow directions, regardless of what they want.
Rewards and punishment should be seen as a “foot-in-the-door.” Once we get our students’ attention, use the opportunity to start building trust. If we rely too heavily on rewards and punishments, they lose their impact. We have to keep offering bigger rewards or bigger punishments.
And students start to believe that learning isn’t an end in itself. It’s just a way to get rewards and avoid punishments.
When we lead our students, we are nudging them to meet our expectations.
But the key difference is how we nudge. We don’t use any rewards or punishments that have a tangible value. Instead of giving candy, we’re giving high-fives. When a student misbehaves, we don’t assign detention. We tell them, “I know you can do better.”
Some psychologists, like Alfie Kohn, argue that even praise and disapproval are harmful. While I see his point, I just don’t believe we can avoid these entirely in most school settings. Kohn’s CV lists many scholarly publications — but less in the way of teaching in K-12 classrooms.
I fully support the use of praise and disapproval. There is ample evidence that praise can be just as effective as rewards in impacting behavior and motivation. And that it does not negatively impact intrinsic motivation.
The key to making this shift is establishing trust. If students believe you have their best interests at heart, your word is as powerful as any reward or punishment. If you haven’t established that trust, you will need to rely on management until you do so.
But there’s a catch. The more you manage, the less they trust. So look for ways to gradually cut back on rewards and punishments. As you do, make sure students know that you care about them and want them to succeed. If they believe you, they’ll follow your lead.
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If leadership is about students trusting you, support is about you trusting them.
Do you believe that without grades, students wouldn’t do any work? Or do you believe that they are rational beings, capable of setting their own goals?
Either way, you can’t really fake it. You may have good reason to doubt your students’ ability to take ownership of their learning. But if you do, at least frame it as a temporary status, rather than a character defect.
And if you haven’t managed to turn your class over to your students, don’t stress. Few classrooms are built entirely on student ownership. Over my years of teaching, I’d say only around 10-20% of my middle school students truly owned their learning.
Student ownership was like my North Star. I wasn’t planning to reach it. But it still led me in the right direction.
You can also think of support as planting a tree whose shade you will never enjoy. Every step support their social-emotional development, in areas like metacognition, planning, and self-awareness. These skills can take many years to build. The sooner students begin, the better they’ll handle future challenges in school and life. (You’re welcome, college professors).
They can be implemented at any point in the process. So don’t feel like you need to manage and lead to perfection before laying the foundations for support.
Ready to Build Your Classroom Culture?
When students take ownership of their learning, many wonderful things happen. You spend less time looking over their shoulders and reminding them to turn in homework assignments. They enjoy learning, and their work becomes more thoughtful and creative.
But all of this takes time.
If you’re not quite ready to give up candy and detentions, don’t lose heart. Do what works for you, as you look for small ways to build ownership. Eventually, the need for management strategies will start to fade.
But what if you’ve been focusing on relationships, but your students are running around the room and throwing chairs? Start using rewards and punishments tomorrow! An orderly environment is the first step to cultivating classroom culture.
Wherever you’re starting from, and whatever your goals, we can help you get there. Our Positive Classroom Management workshop will help you create and implement your MLS plan. We’ll go step-by-step through each stage, providing practical strategies to help you with management, motivation, and engagement. Each collaborative session is conducted in real-time with a live facilitator. Visit our workshops page to learn more and see all upcoming topics and dates.
If you’d prefer 1-on-1 support in building classroom culture, schedule a free consultation with an instructional coach. Our experts balance research-based strategies with their many years of classroom experience to help you reflect on your practice. And to support you in achieving your goals.
If you’re still not sure how you want to develop your teaching practice, start with self-reflection. Our free Guide to Reflective Teaching includes self-assessments, planning guides, and other resources to help you grow as an educator. Download your copy today, and start taking ownership of your professional growth.
Jeff Lisciandrello is the founder of Room to Discover and an education consultant specializing in student-centered learning. His 3-Bridges Design for Learning helps schools explore innovative practices within traditional settings. He enjoys helping educators embrace inquiry-based and personalized approaches to instruction. You can connect with him via Twitter @EdTechJeff