Creating A Powerful Class Culture With a Few Simple Words

During the last ten years I’ve been incredibly lucky to witness amazing teachers in action. Early in my career the biggest thing I discovered from those impactful teachers was each of them were heavily invested throughout the year in one key thing: building a strong, positive culture by connecting with the group in front of them.

Actually, that needs to be clarified. These amazing teachers weren’t only creating individual connections with the students in front of them. They were able to bring everyone together, including themselves, into one connected 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 focus on building up the Us.


Power to Group!

This week, the focus is on how we can take two steps to continue to build that feeling of connection, belonging and positivity.

So, how can we start to do this?

It starts with the words we choose to use.

Inclusive Language: Building a Story of Being Together

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.”

-Maya Angelou

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 a little more inclusive can make 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 this inclusive language is in its simplicity. When I first started focusing on this I chose two moments that would occur multiple times each day: packing up times and when a student is uncertain of a task or activity.

Here’s how I used to approach these 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!”.

If you don’t know what to do, stay down on the floor”

(Cue kids not staying on floor, even though they don’t know what to do)

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. Don’t forget, we’re all here to help each other, so when we’ve finished up, let’s all ask who we can help out”.

“As a learner, I’m focusing on giving clear instructions, so if I haven’t made them clear enough so you know what to do next, hang back to let me know how I could keep improving and I’ll try again”

(For the careful observer, you’ll see this second one utilises the inclusive language with some individual language. The second sentence is focused on showing myself as a learner who isn’t perfect and is always seeking feedback to keep improving. We’re making our learning real too…while also getting those kids who have no idea to hang back)

It’s important to note, these examples won’t suddenly take off overnight. But, they will make a difference throughout the year. We’re starting the way we want to finish, so keep investing in that inclusive language and make time to model and use it whenever possible!


You got this!

There’s So Many Other Words Than ‘Think’

Another serious part of creating a positive culture within a class is giving students opportunities to succeed. Through the brilliant learning and research of Ron Ritchart and the many gurus involved in Project Zero by Harvard University, the power of giving students different words and phrases to “think” has been a game changer.

By helping students understand all the different ways we think and understand a topic or skill, we can give our students the chance to experience success in any learning experience. The secret is knowing how to help them show and explain their thinking.

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 turn and say:

Okay, have a bit of a think and I’ll come back to you in a few minutes.

Which really wasn’t helpful. The student had just told me they either didn’t understand what I said or didn’t have a strategy or skill to attempt the task.

So, 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…

Weighing Up

Hmmmm… think. Think… think…

See what I did just there? Instead of asking you to think about different words for think, I actually gave you the strategy I wanted you to use.

Surprised Kid - Ben White Photo

It’s as simple as that.

Depending on the activity being focused on in class, you can actually provide the thinking strategy (or strategies) for students to use to get the most out of the task.

Here’s a couple of examples just from my last week of teaching:

1. When They’re Stuck Coming Up With An Idea in Writing

“Stop and replay the main moments of your holidays, then write down the ones you can see in your head“.

2.When They’re Not Sure How to Retell A Story We’ve Just Listened To

“Create a list of what you do remember, then number it in order and use that to help retell the story.”

3. Priming Them To Think About Another Person’s Perspective Before a Text

Imagine how you feel as one of these people. Then, ask yourself ‘What makes me feel like that?’ “.

4. Reflecting On Some Partitioning During a Maths Lesson

 Tell yourself our learning intention and ask yourself the 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 simple steps and actions.

Being aware of how we can change our words is the first part, now comes the exciting stage: getting our words into the carpet, clothes, walls and, most importantly, that legendary group of kids in front of us.


If you’re interested in the list of different words we use for “Think” in my class, sign up and join our community to get it sent straight to you…add to it or simply begin to use it in your own classroom!

I’d love to hear how you go (or your previous experiences) building these positive cultures. Comment below or share your story on our Facebook page and keep spreading the teachspiration!


Ready for some more? You might like these…

How to Start Teaching and Creating a Positive Class Culture

Why We Need to Watch Our Students Walk Into Our Classrooms

Things You Actually Need When Setting Up Your Classroom – Part One

Teacher Tip #76: Act Like An Idiot (Sometimes)

How to Win Kids Over: Names and a Similarity


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2 Replies to “Creating A Powerful Class Culture With a Few Simple Words”

  1. Great article Dan! I think building a positive culture of inclusion in your classroom is so important. What I think is key here is what you mentioned in your article, allow the students to see you as a learner too. One of the best times I find to do this would have to be the beginning few weeks of the year. As teachers, we’ve always been told to use this time of year to set your expectations. However, I let my students know that I would also like to use this time of year to find out what the students expect of me. We use the old saying of ‘respect works both ways’. If I expect them to follow my expectations, then I need to meet their expectations of me.

    1. That’s a brilliant idea of allowing them to come up with, and state, their expectations of you!! A fantastic piece of advice for any teacher, new or experienced, to use!

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