No one knows how schools will open this year. One day it is online, and the next day it is in person. Teachers, families, and administrators are unsure about how to plan. But the uncertainty around where learning will take place shouldn't stop them from preparing for what matters most: classroom culture.
Experienced teachers know that classroom culture affects the way kids feel about the class and about themselves, and it also affects whether or not they learn. Classroom culture is even more important during the pandemic, when kids have been out of school for months. They miss their friends, feel isolated, and want to be accepted.
Most kids are unhappy about missing school, and some even need psychological help. Many are anxious about what the future holds. Here is an important note: It is impossible for kids to learn when they are stressed and worried. Teachers in all subject areas and at all grade levels should focus on social-emotional well-being. The need for SEL transcends age, gender, and socioeconomic status.
One of the main problems with online classes this past spring is that they were primarily impersonal lectures and assignments. There was little or no time for students to interact with their peers. In fact, the kids could be muted as a group, and the only one with control was the teacher.
Hopefully, we will not repeat this in the fall. We need to realize that school is all about relationships, and when we cut out relationships or limit relationship building, kids don’t learn. They may sit obediently and look like they are listening, but research shows otherwise.
There are many small actions teachers can take to make students feel like they are important and to enhance relationships with their peers and with the teacher. Feeling welcome is one of the keys. Kids are required go to school, but it should be engaging. We are looking for ways to improve their lives while also teaching them.
1. Take Care of Yourself
Before starting the school year, the first thing you need to do is take care of yourself. It is impossible to teach when you are exhausted, sick, stressed, or all three. You need to eat well, sleep well, and get exercise—the big three. I know this is easier said than done, but it is important to remind teachers of these health goals.
One idea to improve your sleep: Keep your phone and computer out of the bedroom. So many people don't do this and then wonder why they can’t sleep. Don’t think you are a superhero and cut back on your sleep either. Give yourself time for the requisite sleep. Sleep is important. One simple and effective tool that many find effective is to meditate for three minutes before bed to relax.
A note about exercise, too. We tend to ignore it for ourselves, and we shouldn’t. Kids look to you as a model, which is one reason you should do it. Exercise helps you eliminate stress as well. You don't have to overhaul your life. It takes about an hour to do 10,000 steps. Look for ways to increase the number of steps you take each day while you're doing chores around the house, like cleaning or gardening. You can also listen to a podcast, audiobook, or music, or even make a call while you're walking. Personally, I exercise while talking on the phone and cleaning the house. Yep, it works!
2. Develop a Classroom Management Plan
You can conceptualize a classroom management plan during the summer and then collaborate with your students to revise it once school starts. Collaboration is the key word here. You, as the teacher, have control of the class goals and curriculum, but you can share the way you are going to teach with your students. When kids feel they have some control, they are more excited about the class. Instead of lecturing, plan to have kids watch YouTube videos about the subject you are teaching. When studying a book or era in history, I would give kids some choice to find resources themselves and share what they learned with the class. Giving them control gets them interested.
When planning for your class, whatever the subject, the ideal thing is to give students an opportunity to be independent and find some of the learning resources themselves. You provide the road map, then give them the opportunity to find the direction.
What kids miss most about school is not the teacher (sorry) or the curriculum, but their friends. So whatever you can do to have them collaborate will be a winner. They will learn more talking with each other than they would ever learn just listening to a lecture.
3. Learn and Pronounce Every Student's Name Correctly
It may seem trivial, but it matters a lot to kids. This can be done online or in person in a large group setting. You, the teacher, are learning their names, and the other students watching are seeing that you care. This is important at all grade levels, not just in elementary schools. It shows respect for the student, which is important whether the student is in first grade or twelfth grade. Everyone wants to be respected. Elementary teachers usually have great ways to welcome the kids, and it can be so hard to replicate online!
4. Have Students Interview Each Other
In the next class, whether it's online or not, let students share their interests, experiences, and feelings. See my previous post on writing a personality feature. Put them in pairs. You can either assign them a partner or let them pick. Have them interview each other. Give them some questions to start with and then tell them they can come up with their own, too. Online, you can start in a whole-group session and then break into smaller groups. Alternatively, you can break them up into smaller groups right away, and later have them present to the bigger group. The goal is to have your students meet their classmates and talk about their lives now, how the pandemic has impacted them, where they live, and what challenges they face. It should take two 50-minute class periods, whether online or in person, if you do it right. It is not a waste of time as so many teachers think. You are building the culture of the classroom as a place where people care about each other, help each other, and can share.
After the interview, have students share a slideshow presentation introducing their student partner. This way, all students in the class get to know each other. It is simple to facilitate, and kids love to have someone say nice things about them. Encourage students to take photos with their phone and import them into the slide deck. This activity could take a few additional class sessions. Be sure to keep presentations around five minutes long, or perhaps a bit longer in middle and high school. There are many back-to-school activities that teachers can use as icebreakers, but this one is my favorite because the kids get to know each other, which makes them excited about your class.
When students answer questions about themselves, it is important for all students and the teacher to use the TRICK model: Trust, Respect, Independence, Collaboration, and Kindness. Trust the student to do a good job; respect their ideas; give them independence to ask good questions and develop a presentation; encourage further collaboration; and treat them with kindness. Kindness is one the most important parts of a successful classroom. Teachers need to remember what Maya Angelou said: “People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
5. Model Acceptance of All Students
It is important to model acceptance of all students. Many of us experience a difficult time with racial discrimination. We need to trust and respect all students. The teacher can help out by modeling acceptance in class. Remember that kids learn the most when they navigate a difficult situation successfully.
By modeling acceptance of everyone, you set the stage for a safe space so that all students feel respected, valued, and cared about. The teacher is the most powerful person in the classroom. What the teacher models is what the kids will do. It is subconscious, and it happens whether you tell them to do it or not. They do it.
6. Model Accepting Criticism
Kids are particularly sensitive to criticism now, during this pandemic. We are all on edge because it hasn’t been easy. It is important to let them know that criticism isn’t an insult, it is a way to help. In addition to modeling acceptance of students, model acceptance of criticism for the students so that they can copy. It is okay for students to give the teacher some constructive criticism, too. It is particularly important in setting up effective peer-to-peer learning.
7. Collaborate on Class Rules
Be sure to include the class in the creation of class rules. Collaborate. Collaboration is the most effective way to get kids to follow the rules. If they come up with them, they tend to follow them. I have tried this idea out for decades, and it works.
These strategies go further than starting the school year on the right foot, they set up the foundation for peer-to-peer learning. Kids need to feel comfortable asking each other questions, making mistakes, and being vulnerable. That is how learning happens. We all make mistakes until we get it right.
Wishing all my colleagues the best in our challenge ahead. We just need to be hopeful. Without hope, life can be miserable.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of HMH.
Zoe Del Mar
Dr. Troy Hicks
Professor of English and Education, Central Michigan University