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Starting Anew: It’s Never too Late to Co-Create Your Classroom Culture

"To build community requires vigilant awareness of the work we must continually do to undermine all the socialization that leads us to behave in ways that perpetuate domination."

- bell hooks, Teaching Community: A Pedagogy of Hope

Last year I presented a workshop entitled, “The Early Years of Teaching.” Despite its title, this workshop invited teachers from all experience levels to come together, learn about tips for classroom management and lesson design, analyze a lesson through the student experience, and consult with one another about some of their conundrums at this stage in the school year (or in their careers).

The first activity of the day was creating “classroom agreements,” in which all group members were invited to respond to the following question:

In this workshop, what supports do you need in order for you to learn best? List at least three.

After writing individually for a minute or two, participants then were invited to talk with a neighbor and come to an agreement on 3 - 5 common ideas. From that point, participants gathered in groups of four, then eight, and then all 20+ of us reconvened to settle on 3 - 5 group agreements.

The responses weren’t so different from what we would see in our classrooms: a desire for people to stay open-minded; real-world applicability of the day’s topics; space for people to ask questions and share their experiences. At the core of this work was a culture created by everyone, for everyone.

Upon completing the activity, we talked about the “why” behind creating agreements and other ways participants may use this activity in their classrooms. I shared some of the research that supports this approach, from Ron Ritchart to Ruth Charney to Gloria Ladson-Billings. At the center of this research is a focus on meeting the students where they are, trusting--and valuing--what students have to bring to the classroom, and inviting student voices as part of the classroom process.

And while participants understood the philosophy behind classroom agreements, some questions arose from several segments of the room: “But wait, that activity is great for the first day of school, but what about now? If I tried something like that now, wouldn’t I seem inconsistent? Doesn’t that take a lot of time to do?”

My response: It’s never too late to co-create your classroom culture. And yes, it is time consuming, but we’re raising human beings in the process of teaching our subjects and grade levels. We owe it to our students to show that our classroom spaces are inclusive of their needs and values.

In teaching, we’re often taught some overused tropes about being an effective educator:

  • Don’t smile until Thanksgiving (Christmas if you’re hardcore)
  • Start firm, and then you can slowly soften over the course of the year
  • Be consistent; students will walk all over you if you’re wishy-washy

And while the latter can be true (it takes time to develop an authentic teacher persona whose routines are well-established), teachers who are struggling with management need a Plan B. They need to break whatever habits they have formed and start anew. They may not survive the school year if they don’t stop, readjust, and rethink their classroom cultures.

Classroom management isn’t just about classroom rules and consequences; rather, it’s about a thoughtful approach to holding the space as an adult and allowing students to feel safe, heard, valued. Classroom management also is about thoughtful lesson planning and routines--the kind in which students see the purpose of what their learning and can engage through multiple modalities. And classroom management is a constant negotiation among all parties (students and teachers) to ensure that learning is happening.
Our academic calendar doesn’t mesh with the the Julian calendar, which means that when people in the “real world” are resolving on January 1st to break their bad habits, exercise more, be more grateful, teachers are trying to work at the same routines they established last September. But our students are different people in October and December and April than they are when they first walk through our doors. They know us better; they are more comfortable (for better or worse). And we know them better, too.

The most consistent thing we can do as educators is pay attention to our students, what their needs and values are, and if something clearly isn’t working a couple months in, then it is time to readjust what we’re doing and say to the students, “Hey, these guidelines from the beginning of the school year just aren’t working well enough. What do you think we need to make this classroom a better space for learning?” And at that point, trust the wisdom in the room.

Kindergartners will tell you that students need to keep their hands to themselves, and seventh graders will tell you that everyone needs to show one another respect. High school students will advocate for a “judgment free zone,” and anyone on the K-12 continuum will be more apt to comply with classroom culture if they are a part of it.
Changing things up doesn’t mean denying the teacher’s role as an adult authority, nor do the students get to run roughshod over the teacher. Rather, as bell hooks notes in Teaching Community: A Pedagogy of Hope: "To build community requires vigilant awareness of the work we must continually do to undermine all the socialization that leads us to behave in ways that perpetuate domination." In other words, co-creating classroom culture ensures we are valuing our classrooms as diverse spaces with diverse learners whose needs are met when their voices are heard.
As one calendar year comes to an end and another one begins, it may be time to change some dietary habits or resolve to reconnect with family. And it may be a good time, too, to check in with the students to see how well they’re learning, and how well they’re connected to the classroom process. Just as our society is aiming to dismantle the systemic forces that inhibit equality for all, isn’t it time we teachers dismantled some outdated notions of education? Our students will thank us for it, and our classrooms will run more smoothly when we all agree on how to learn at our best.


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