During my teaching career I’ve been incredibly lucky to witness amazing teachers in action creating positive class cultures.
If you ask most teachers, they will tell you the best learning often comes from watching and learning from other teachers in a classroom.
Early in my career I realised this and since then I have made a point to get into the rooms of teachers who were highly regarded by staff and students as often as possible.
Every time, at some point, this happens. #forreals
Marking books will always be there, but great teachers may not always be next door or down the hall from you – if you can, use an hour of your release during the week to check them out.
The biggest thing I discovered from watching all of those impactful teachers was that they heavily invested in one key thing: building a strong, positive culture by connecting the group in front of them.
These amazing teachers weren’t only creating individual connections with the students in front of them. They brought everyone together, including themselves, into one tightly knitted group.
When I was a kid, I had some pretty horrible teachers who also achieved this. They were also masters of uniting and connecting the group – against them. (Which, I must admit, led to some now hilarious anecdotes and stories involving ways we worked hard to team up against the teacher).
Great teachers don’t create an Us and Them feel in their rooms. They purely focus on Us.
Power to Group!
How can we start? I’m glad you asked.
Use Inclusive Language in Your Class
The words we use create a unique feeling and atmosphere within our classrooms. As the adult within the classroom, we set the tone and culture.
I’ll never forget first hearing the incredible civil rights activist and poet Maya Angelou describing how she saw and experienced words:
“Someday we’ll be able to measure the power of words. I think they are things. They get on the walls. They get in your wallpaper. They get in your rugs, in your upholstery, and your clothes, and finally in to you.”
Thinking back over the various classes and kids I’ve worked with, I truly believe that our words do get into those people in front of us.
Which is why a simple shift to making our language more inclusive makes such a huge difference to our class culture.
It’s not about me, mine, I.
It’s about us, our, we.
Y’all heard right. Sorry, we’all heard right.
As many an inspirational movie and teacher has taught us – it’s about becoming a united family away from our family.
The power of inclusive language is in its simplicity. When I first started I chose two moments that would occur multiple times each day: packing up times.
“Okay everyone, it’s time to pack up. I want you all sorted and sitting on the floor in four minutes. Remember, you need to focus on making sure you’re fully packed up before you can help someone… annnnnd, the time’s started now!”
Now, don’t get me wrong, with both of these examples I wasn’t speaking rudely or down to students. I was trying to help and support them, but without knowing it, what I was actually doing was making it about things they needed to do for me, not for themselves.
I was making an Us and Them situation.
Oh God, no! Not Us and Them!!
Here’s how it can be approached a little differently:
“Okay everyone, [cue rallying call/signal to draw attention]. We’re all at that point to pack up. Let’s go back over how we can do this as effectively as possible so we’re all able to get out on time. [Pause…hold….hold…].
Don’t forget, we’re all here to help each other, so when we’ve finished up, let’s see who we can help out”.
These examples won’t suddenly shift the class overnight. But, it will make a difference over days and weeks…until one day you will see the change happening without a reminder from you even needed.
You got this!
Use Words Other Than ‘Think’ With Your Class
Another serious part of creating a positive culture within a class is giving students opportunities to succeed. Research by Ron Ritchart and his team at Harvard University, called Project Zero , has found giving students different words and phrases to “think” can be a game changer.
By helping students name all the different skills and strategies we use to think, we can give them a greater chance to experience success – which always helps create a positive culture!
When confronted with a student who doesn’t know something, is stuck on an idea or isn’t engaged in a task, I used to tell them, “Okay, have a bit of a think and I’ll come back to you in a few minutes.”
Which really wasn’t helpful.
What is the simple shift we can make?
Take a moment and create a list of all the different words or phrases we could use instead of ‘think’ in my example above.
Hmmmm… think. Think… think…
See what I did just there? Instead of asking you to just have a think about it, I gave you the strategy I wanted you to use: create a list of all the different words of phrases.
It’s as simple as that.
Some examples to help get you started with your class
When They’re Stuck Coming Up With An Idea in Writing
“Stop and replay the main moments of … then write down the ones you can see in your head“.
When They’re Not Sure How to Retell Something
“Create a list of what you do remember, then number it in order and use that to help retell the story.”
Priming Them To Think About Another Person’s Perspective
“Imagine how you’d feel as one of these people. Then, ask yourself ‘What makes me feel like that?’ “.
Reflecting on the Learning in a Maths Lesson
Tell yourself our learning intention, then ask yourself these questions “How did I go with this?” and “How do I know?”.
While it can seem daunting to create an amazingly positive and unified culture where people feel connected and successful, it starts with us and the words we choose to use.
Being aware of our words is the first step. Then comes the exciting stage: getting our words into the carpet, clothes, walls and, most importantly, that legendary group of kids in front of us.
What other tips or strategies have you seen teachers use to create a positive culture in their rooms? We’d love to hear from you!
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