The minute your students first set foot in your class, they are adapting to your classroom culture. Your classroom culture consists of all the beliefs, perceptions, and assumptions that you and your students share. As Seth Godin says, the meaning of culture is “People like us do things like this.”
Whether you realize it or not, your classroom does have a culture. The only question is whether you are cultivating the culture of your classroom, or simply hoping for the best. If you aren’t intentional about it, you may end up with a classroom culture that doesn’t support your goals or your students’ needs.
When I first started teaching 20 years ago, many of the veterans gave me some questionable advice about how to set the tone for the year: “Don’t smile until Christmas” and “Make sure they know who’s the boss!”
Now there are some good arguments for a strict, teacher-centered approach. With one teacher and 30 kids, we’ll never survive if we can’t get them to follow our directions. But there are also risks. If we are too heavy handed, we end up sending students the message that they aren’t capable of being responsible for their learning.
That’s why an increasing number of educators are embracing a collaborative approach to building classroom culture. This begins with an emphasis on relationships over rules. And a belief 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.
Student-Centered Learning Resources
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 these early laissez faire experiments, I became a pretty strict teacher. I had seen what could happen when a class went off the rails, and I embraced the order and authority of a teacher-centered approach.
But eventually, this dynamic left me feeling unfulfilled. I had become a teacher because I wanted to inspire students and connect with them as people. Not because I had a deep love for following directions and working silently.
It took me some time, but once I was confident and relaxed in my role, I found a middle ground. Classroom management became automatic, and I could focus on bringing the fun and passion back to my classroom.
How Do You Model Classroom Culture?
Fast forward a decade or so, and I found myself in the role of instructional coach. I was excited to help other educators with collaborative inquiry, personalized learning, and other cutting-edge pedagogical practices.
But most of my client teachers could care less about these thing. Many were desperate for help managing student behavior. And walking into their classrooms, I could see why.
Like it or not, I had to help these teachers establish order before we could work on elevating the learning experience.
I would start with a demo lesson to “model” student-centered classroom management. For the most part, speaking loudly, moving around the room, and calling students by name was enough. (One of my ‘old tricks’ was having students fold a piece of notebook paper into a nameplate, so I could call on them by name).
Afterwards, my clients would thank me profusely. They couldn’t believe how respectful and on-task their students were.
But once I left the room, many of my teachers struggled to replicate the experience I’d demonstrated. I couldn’t show them how to ‘exude confidence.’ And I hadn’t explained the reasoning behind the tricks, or when to use which ones.
I’d been so focused on creating student-centered learning experiences for their students, I’d forgotten to put my clients at the center of their learning experiences. I was expecting them to just absorb the ability to manage a classroom by watching me do it.
Three Ways Teachers Cultivate Classroom Culture
To be an effective coach, I had to remember the ‘why’ behind my instincts. And I needed to show teachers how they would benefit from persistently building their classroom cultures.
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. Was there a unifying theme? Or was I just drawing on a giant bag of tricks I’d accumulated over the years?
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 LMS (Lead, Manage, 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 consider what our students need, and what they’re capable of. With the goal of gradually helping them take ownership.
Our first approach to building intrinsic motivation is to lead, rather than manage our students. Leadership means that students follow us because they want to. Because we’ve shown them that we have their best interests at heart.
Using this approach in our classrooms often means simply treating our students the way we would treat a guest we invite into our home. Shake their hand when they enter, use their name, and say ‘please’ and ‘thank you.’
Of course, this approach only sounds simple. It can be challenging to find a ‘please,’ with a student who is interrupting you for the 50th time that week. And by the time Thanksgiving roles around, most of us will have grown tired of the daily handshakes.
The real challenge with leadership isn’t doing it on day 1. It’s keeping it up when you’re tired and frustrated, or with students have repeatedly tested you.
But taking a leadership approach doesn’t mean we allow students to walk all over us. We are still shaping their behavior. The key is changing behavior through nudges. 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.
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 temporary solution, when we’ve failed to establish leadership. 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.
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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.
About the Author
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