Instructional Practices

Creating Classroom Norms and a Positive Classroom Culture

6 Min Read
High School Classroom Managerment

Classroom management. Two words that usually generate an instant visceral response in educators across the nation. The pressure teachers face to create the perfect plan for effective classroom management for high school is real—and completely understandable. Effective behavior management helps students focus on their learning and keeps students safe.

Developing Classroom Norms for High School

Where does good classroom management begin? Here’s what I’ve learned over the years from my own students and from other educators' examples.

Focus on Your Students' Needs

Before diving into building the perfect classroom management plan, remember who you are building it for, and keep your students at the heart of any plan for your classroom. High school students are at an exciting, incredibly dynamic stage in their human experience. Their bodies and brains are changing at a rapid pace, and they are experimenting with concepts related to their independence and their role in a social community.

With that development comes classroom needs that have nothing to do with the content you are hoping to teach them. They are social creatures with social needs. High school students have hypotheses about who they are and where they fit in the bigger picture. Embrace these needs, and be sure to save some space in your classroom management plan for students to be human.

Your students, like everyone, are still works in progress. Consider ways in which you can communicate trust, respect, and grace when students fall short. Set your standards high, encourage students to set high standards for themselves and for their classmates, and make it clear which behaviors are and are not in harmony with those standards. Students will fail, but successful classroom management creates opportunity from those failings.

Embrace these needs, and be sure to save some space in your classroom management plan for students to be human.

Involve Your Students in Developing Classroom Norms

Now, who should be doing the heavy lifting when it comes to building classroom norms? Despite what you may think, the answer is everyone—both you and your students.

Too often, teachers feel the pressure to identify the perfect set of classroom rules and norms that will keep their students on track. One thing that we might fail to do is simply to ask our students what they think.

If you are the only one setting your classroom procedures, norms, and rules, then you will be the only one taking on an authentic sense of ownership of those procedures, norms, and rules. Your students won’t have the same connection to them as you will. Not only that, but your classroom management plan may not meet the needs or provide the necessary support for your students. Instead of taking on the management mantle solo, start the year by asking your students what they think. By doing so, you and your students can all benefit from a greater sense of ownership.

Here’s what your questions might sound like:

  • “This year, we’re going to learn. A lot. What norms do we need to agree upon up front to help you learn as much as possible?”
  • “What does success in this class look like to me? What does it look like to you? Let’s make a plan on how to make that success more likely.”
  • “When things go off the rails, what can we agree upon to get back on track? What do you think will help you when you are struggling to uphold our classroom norms?”

These questions acknowledge that sometimes students know what they need better than we do. They know what will motivate them, distract them, break them down, and build them up. By sharing some of the agency with your students, you are supporting their learning and development while getting intel right from the source.

Establishing Positive Classroom Culture is a Collaborative Effort

Every class is unique. You’ve likely seen this yourself time and again; the same lesson across two class periods can go completely differently. When you combine all of the students in any given classroom, it creates a unique culture. Like a fingerprint, no two classroom cultures are the same. That’s precisely why I’m convinced that silver bullet classroom management policies don’t exist. Take technology, for example. In some classrooms, using a cellphone hotel is an effective way to reduce distraction, while in others, separating students from their devices in such a way will mean damaging rapport beyond repair. While it is certainly wise to be consistent in the classroom policies from class to class, be prepared for those rules to take on some varying hues from period to period due to the natural differences between those groups of students. And since it takes time to understand the culture of each classroom, you’ll find value in periodically coming back to your policies to see what is or isn’t serving you and your students.

Image courtesy of @Jimmy_Smyth96 on Twitter

Here’s the thing about classroom culture: it’s inevitable. Whether you and your students put effort into it or not, your mere existence together creates a culture. What you and your students do will affect that culture, which in turn will affect how you experience your time together. That being the case, it’s probably worth investing some time and energy on.

Don’t leave it to chance. Talk candidly with your students about what you want from the culture you are building together. Keep in mind that your classroom policies and procedures have a direct effect on the culture being constructed over the year. Work together to protect that culture by using those policies you built together at the beginning of the year. Remind students why those policies are in place—they are a means to ensure that you are cultivating a successful learning environment. Every single member of the learning community is responsible for its culture. When every member has a shared sense of ownership over classroom policies and procedures, you set yourselves up to have a culture centered on self-agency, mutual respect, and productivity.

Will things happen that harm the culture? Of course. Will students, and even you yourself, fail to uphold your norms? Probably. But with your culture as your classroom management north star, those temporary setbacks can springboard you and your students into even more learning, both in the subject area and beyond.

When you get down to it, the norms, rules, and classroom policies are but the tip of the classroom management iceberg. If you get a bit wide-eyed at the prospect of all these considerations, you aren’t alone. The most effective classroom management for you and your students isn’t necessarily something you can build on your own. This work won’t always come easy, but the good news is that it’s well worth the effort. Collaborate with your students to build and regularly maintain classroom norms and expectations. You may be surprised to see what you come up with together.

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