by Jill Schafhauser
For those of us who knew we wanted to be teachers from a young age, we likely pictured ourselves in front of a group of highly attentive, unbelievably engaged students who hung on our every word of wisdom. The reality we faced in our first classroom may have been quite different than our mind picture. In fact, whether our classroom is filled with adorably lively preschoolers or inquisitive but skeptical adults, creating a positive classroom culture may prove somewhat daunting.
Purposefully creating a positive classroom culture should be executed just as systematically as a teaching a math concept. Teachers often believe that students should simply understand what behavior is expected. Let’s challenge that notion. Instead, let’s assume our students must be explicitly taught the behavior we expect in our classrooms. Consider for a moment the three behaviors you feel most show respect. Consider as well the three behaviors you feel demonstrate complete disrespect. Now ask a colleague (a local one if you’re teaching cross-culturally) those same questions. If your answers are the same, that would be very unusual. How, then, can students know what we want from them if we don’t tell them specifically?
Depending on your students, a lesson to teach respect may be very short and simple or may take several days with the need for frequent reminders. Quality social skills lessons whether about respect or numerous other social, emotional or behavioral expectations, include an example, a non-example (of the behavior you don’t want to see), and are taught with elements of role play and rehearsal. Remember that when students begin to show behaviors that are not in keeping with your expectations, additional teaching should take place as consequences alone may not help students make better behavioral choices.
In addition to teaching behavior expectations explicitly, building strong relationships is the second most powerful tool to managing behavior. Was the Master Teacher not the ultimate relationship builder? Like Him, we need to purposefully build relationships with our most challenging students. Consider devoting five minutes each day to learning more about students who are less engaged in your classroom. Use the information you gain to make lessons more engaging for their specific interests.
If time is short during your day, journaling is a great way to build relationships. It is very important to respond to your students’ writing. You will learn a lot about them, and they will be very excited to see what comments you make in response to their journal entries.
Here are a few other simple strategies for keeping classroom behavior in shape:
- Post an agenda so that students know what to expect each day.
- Build behavioral momentum by starting class with an activity everyone is comfortable with. Confidence early in the day will lead to more risk taking later.
- Consider allowing a challenging student to have a specific responsibility of some kind. Make sure the student can do the job and feels a sense of accomplishment as a result.
- Reinforce the behavior you want to see more of. Remember that many students are not reinforced by social praise. You may need to be creative in finding effective reinforcers especially when working cross-culturally. There are numerous reinforcement surveys available online. (Two are linked under Further Reading below.)
- Play detective! Students use behavior to tell us something. Figure out what your students are trying to tell you. Perhaps the behavior is really about an academic skill deficit. How we react to a behavior may change drastically after some simple detective work.
- Proximity is a great instructional tool. Take a look at your classroom arrangement and place students purposefully for increased engagement. Make sure you are able to spend time near students who require more redirection.
- Believe in yourself as an authority figure. Do not continue teaching when students are not demonstrating the behavior you expect. Gaining instructional control is time-consuming but worthwhile.