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How To Establish A Positive Classroom Environment

How To Establish A Positive Classroom Environment

By Dr. June Stride View more articles

It was the workday before students arrived for the new school year. As usual, this ‘teacher workday’ was pretty well consumed with administrative meetings leaving personal time as the only actual preparation time for teachers to set up the classroom and to get materials ready. Not unlike my colleagues, I was anxious to know how many students I had in each of my classes and whether any of them was familiar to me. I picked up my class rosters from my mailbox in the front office and began reading them as I walked down the hall of our high school to my classroom.

I got halfway down the hall when I spied Jonathan’s name on my third period Biology class roster. Jonathan is a student that all teachers in school have come to know and dread having in class. It is easy to understand why. He seems to be able to immediately size up teachers’ weaknesses and take control of the class using subtle intimidation, clipped and sarcastic remarks, both of these underscored by his formidable size. He is also bright enough to know ‘the limit’ and push right to the edge so that most teachers feel powerless and insecure within their own classroom. Needless to say, before long students are aware of the dynamic and begin to withdraw from class participation, choosing to watch the Jonathan vs. Teacher Show, waiting to see how long the teacher will last.

Jonathan was a late entry to school, a transient enrolled by foster parents at the end of January. The memory of our first meeting, or should I say near collision, is still fresh in my mind. I was standing in the hall by my classroom door between classes. My inner clock indicated that it was almost time for the late bell when a large, well-developed young man sauntered toward my room. My immediate thought was how good-looking he would be IF he didn’t have that surly expression on his face. My cheerful greeting was totally ignored as he brushed by me and took a seat in the back of my classroom.

There was no mistaking Jonathan’s intention from that first day. He was painfully obvious about wanting to control the class. Further, in my mind, there was no mistaking my intention. I intended to teach my class, to the best of my ability, and to neutralize Jonathan’s impact on our learning environment while, hopefully, winning him over in the process. And so, the challenge was on.

I’m sure that I don’t need to describe the millions of thoughts that flew through my mind as I looked out at the scornful expression on Jonathan’s face and bore the brunt of Jonathan’s initial foray into battle…new and higher standards, accountability, professional evaluations, student final scores posted on the web and in the newspaper. Before I even began teaching the very first lesson P.J. (Post Jonathan), I knew that Jonathan was going to be ‘the test’, the test of my patience, the test of my expertise and the test of my accumulated repertoire of strategies for managing difficult students. This very practical test was most certainly one that I could not afford to fail for it meant teaching or failing to teach the entire class for the remainder of the year. Fortunately, I love a challenge. Further, having been a ‘difficult’ student myself during high school years, I had a slightly different insight into Jonathon’s tactics than most teachers.

If you are questioning why I have focused on just one student in a class of almost thirty, let me assure you it is for good reason. One student, endowed with Jonathan’s abilities and proclivities, can easily make or break your lesson, your relationship with your students, your productivity, indeed, your entire classroom environment. Your early consistent and positive messages to him/her lay the foundation for your future relationship with him/her as well as the entire watching and waiting class of students. Stride (2004) suggests that a wise teacher ‘thinks smart’ by identifying the student(s) that peers respect and/or follow and makes every effort to develop a positive relationship with him/her.

Immediate steps
Over the years of teaching (and as a result of lots of trial and error) I have come to the conclusion that taking a split second to mentally move from reacting to a situation to reflecting on options is the split second that has often saved my professional life. Resultantly, my repertoire of options has grown considerably.

Here are five things that have been instrumental in helping me establish a positive classroom environment and consequently, to avert difficulties from uncomfortable challenges and challengers:

1. Self discipline. There is no question in my mind that it is essential to have self-control first and foremost; self-control permeates the classroom and makes possible class-control. I am in total agreement with The Master Teacher that good classroom discipline starts with self-discipline, to include positive facial expressions, body language, tone of voice as well as choice of words. Leave confrontational students some ‘wiggle room’, never back them into a physical or emotional corner and never touch any student!
2. Q-tips (quit taking it personal). I try to bear in mind that the attitude, language and behavior displayed by students clearly have some antecedent, probably unrelated to me. When I remove my self from the picture I find that I can be less judgmental and more able to recognize student distress, both of which make dealing with the situation less threatening.
3. Humor, but not sarcasm. Being ready to laugh at myself, I believe, allows students to view me as human. I find that if I use humor during ‘challenge moments’ it often defuses a potentially difficult, even dangerous, situation. Sarcasm, on the other hand, is an invitation to engage and often increases existing tension. It can not only be hurtful but also result in your downfall. (I do not kid myself about being the master of sarcasm. I have learned the hard way that there are students who are far more adept at sarcasm than I am.)
4. The KISS (keep it simple stupid) principle. Make high behavioral expectations clearly known. Encourage student ownership of the rules as a necessity to enhance their personal learning. A few simple rules posted prominently, stated affirmatively, consistently enforced and referred to upon infraction, make the consequence more impersonal and readily acceptable. Further, I have to acknowledge that what’s good for one is good for all, which meant that I have to follow the rules too! If students can’t drink beverages or eat in class then I shouldn’t either.
5. Convey confidence, sincere interest and expertise. Even if you are quaking inside, follow the old maxim: “Fake it ‘til you make it.”

Certainly I have found that challenges/challengers stimulate my growth, often encouraging me to evaluate and reassess every aspect of my behavior and professional performance. Today’s MTV minded students can be sophisticated and critical consumers, which can definitely be to the advantage of a focused, informed and dedicated teacher. Yes, good teaching is good teaching but some of the techniques that worked in the past may no longer be effective or appropriate. The teacher who has only one trick in his/her bag of tricks may find it difficult to maintain student interest without which academic success is highly questionable.

The diversity of my large high school of some 2000 students mirrors much of the urban/suburban American school population today: approximately 38% Black, 39% Hispanic and the remainder made up of about 56 different ethnicities. Many of the students come to school from homes of single parents, overworked parents struggling with expenses as well as parenting responsibilities. Often parents speak a language other than English at home and although parents have the desire to supervise and assist their child in schoolwork, many do not have the time (Williams, 2003).

I have found that these students, street-smart in mannerisms and greatly influenced by media, do not generally appreciate or learn from a class period in which the teacher continually lectures or the assignment assumes the ability to read and respond. I have found that students engaged in learning thrive beyond expectation. The following are some strategies that I have found successful in engaging students, even the recalcitrant ones.

10 Tips for Developing Enthusiastic and Engaged Students

1. Be an expert at your subject. Ascertain that students will recognize the focus and purpose of each lesson. Higher standards and media publicized class performance necessitate carefully constructed lessons to maximize daily student learning.
2. Make the lesson relevant to their life in such a way that they recognize the connection and importance Hanson, 2003). I have found that it is invaluable to use current topics as focusing activities to shape and direct lessons.
3. Make lessons multimodal to keep interest high as well as to accommodate the diverse abilities/disabilities of students.
4. Circulate the room, making eye contact and your interest in each and his/her progress obvious. Be open and available for academic support. Post times and locations of extra help and encourage attendance.
5. Promote student involvement in discussions. Work with the class to develop standards that clearly set forth guidelines for orderly and mannerly discussions.
6. Establish high expectations, behavioral and academic. Do not assume that students know how/what/when/why you want things done. Clearly identify how they will be successful.
7. Involve students in determining how to demonstrate subject mastery: pen/paper test, oral presentation, multi-media presentation, written report, graphic or artistic presentation etc. Work with students to establish presentation and evaluation rubrics.
8. Post daily lesson objectives and the outline of class activities as well as homework assignments. Students have the right to know what to expect! This is also a quick and easy way to have students review the main lesson objectives and make an end-of-class summary of important points.
9. Use state curricular standards to develop your lesson plans as well as exams. Familiarize yourself with the content and structure of mandatory exams and give your students practice throughout the year with similar type questions at the same level of difficulty.
10. Smile. Be positive. Be encouraging. Be helpful. Be there for them. Trust is the foundation of a positive classroom environment, one in which the most passionate or the most passive student can succeed.

I have learned a lot from the ‘Jonathans’ in my classroom and, as with most things worth learning, not without a challenge. Mostly I have learned that the real test is a test of and for me: my resolve, my dedication, my determination and my concern for the academic and personal development of my students. I suspect that perhaps you have found the same to be true!