“When everyone in the classroom, teacher and students, recognizes that they are responsible for creating a learning community together, learning is at its most meaningful and useful.” - bell hooks
Building relationships with students is vital to having a successful classroom community, but it doesn’t happen without intentional focus. It takes respect, warmth, planning, preparation, and consistency. Starting on the very first day of class, I make sure each student knows that I’m so happy to have them in my class and that this is a time to begin learning. No matter where they are academically, together we set the expectations that we will focus, work hard, and learn together. To share an example of what they’re capable of, I show actual pictures of the students I taught during my first year and share that these students, many of whom struggled academically when they were my current students’ age, are now enrolled in community college. I let them know that, in this class, together, we will accomplish amazing things. To begin building a strong foundation for classroom community starting on Day 1, I make sure to do the following:
1. Welcome Students at the Door
The first day of class begins with a greeting at the door, personal introductions, and an inquiry as to how to pronounce each student’s name correctly. There are so many new and unique names that I haven’t heard before, so I have each student say their own name first to ensure I learn it correctly the first time. Learning student names quickly (and correctly) is such an easy way to show students that you respect them, honor their culture, and have their best interests at heart. As each student presents their name, I begin addressing everyone by name to help students learn one another's names with the correct pronunciation. This matters a lot and sets the tone not just for the year, but for the entire time they’re in school together.
Even beyond the first day of class, I continue to greet students at the door every day of the year; you never know when someone needs a warm welcome and a smile.
2. Establish Rules, Norms, and Procedures
Once introductions are complete, I begin to review classroom rules and procedures to set expectations and ensure that all students are aware of what to expect in my classroom. Providing this structure early on is really important for my students, as it helps them make more constructive choices and reduces misconduct long-term. This step also allows for us to create norms together as a group to give students a sense of ownership of the class.
I also encourage students to tell me if I do something that goes against our class norms or I do something they don’t like; we’re all learners and need to leave room to make mistakes.
The classroom procedures and rules I put in place are specifically selected to create a space in which students feel safe to participate. Included is the understanding that verbal insults, put-downs, and threats are not to be tolerated. Should these occur, I address it by pulling the child who made the insult aside for a one-on-one conversation and follow-up with a restorative conversation with all parties. Even if they engage in the behavior at home, it’s not allowed in our classroom community. As teachers, we may feel uncomfortable acknowledging a put-down, especially if it’s regarding race, sexual orientation, religion, or ethnicity, but teaching students the value of acceptance and respect is worth the hard conversation.
3. Build a Community of Learners
On the first day, I let my students know that we are a team, and I’m the coach. We – and I include myself in this – are a community of learners, and a community helps each other become better. This mindset involves asking students for feedback about things in the classroom and encouraging them to think of solutions to problems that arise in the classroom. I make a point to actively listen to their ideas and implement some of their solutions, allowing them to see their ideas in action, or determine if a new solution is needed. I also encourage students to tell me if I do something that goes against our class norms or if I do something they don’t like; we’re all learners and need to leave room to make mistakes. Most students are surprised that a teacher would be willing to admit to an error; they’re used to teachers having all the answers. Modeling that adults, too, make mistakes and can learn from them sets realistic expectations for their future and shows them that it is OK to be wrong: we’re all learners, no matter our age.
We – and I include myself in this – are a community of learners, and a community helps each other become better.
Spending one-on-one time with all students is important, but this can be especially so if there are any you’re having trouble connecting with. I like to have individual conversations with students whenever I can, especially if we can talk over lunch. (What’s better than talking over a meal?) Students love it and it really only needs to take about 10 minutes to make a student feel seen and heard. You can also share this Student Questionnaire to help students who may be more reluctant to share or need time to think about their answers. I make sure to let students know that answers shared in this questionnaire are kept private and will not be shared with anyone else in class.
Download Student Questionnaire
4. Host Daily Morning Meetings
Incorporating a morning meeting into your schedule starts class off on a positive note and lets students know what to expect for the day – plus it’s a great time to sneak in some Social Emotional Learning (SEL) strategies, which are crucial to building a strong community. Many students haven’t learned the social skills needed to participate positively in the classroom and end up addressing frustration, anger, and embarrassment in non-productive ways. SEL helps everyone find constructive ways to identify and work through emotions and respectfully interact with one another. Morning meetings are the perfect time to teach SEL strategies since students will have opportunities to implement the strategies throughout the day. One of my favorite things to do is to stand in a circle and host call-and-response-style songs so we can all participate. A favorite of mine goes like this:
“I know I can [I know I can]
be what I want to be [be what I want to be].
If I work hard at it [if I work hard at it],
I’ll be where I want to be [I’ll be where I want to be].” 1
This gets us in a great mood to begin the day and helps when mindsets need a boost. I also like to lean on the SEL video activities within Raz-Plus to address specific SEL topics, like awareness and decision-making.
Preview SEL Video Activities
Of course, SEL can’t be covered in just 10-minutes a day, so I add to these efforts by utilizing a resource available within Raz-Plus, Meaningful Conversations (you’ll need to log in to your account to access it). Meaningful Conversations explains the SEL competencies and gives lots of great strategies and books to address difficult, but age-appropriate, topics like differences in abilities, bullying, and working together through difficult times. It comes with an entire SEL Guide, a Teacher Toolkit, and a Caregiver Toolkit so we’re all equipped with SEL information and tools.
5. Foster Student Connections
When we feel connected and have a sense of belonging, we are ready to actively engage in learning. In addition to prioritizing my own relationship with students and their families, I also devote time to helping students make connections and relationships with one another. Classic icebreakers are a great way to help students learn about one another without making them initiate the conversation (at least at first). Since icebreakers can be stressful for students, especially as we’re getting to know one another, I have them fill out a Getting To Know You survey independently and use the questions or prompts in that survey as my icebreaker questions. This way, students have thought about their answers and don’t feel put on the spot. If your students aren’t writing yet, this Student Survey for K-2 students gives space to illustrate answers.
To make sure students have a chance to meet and work with everyone in class, I like to change our seating plan every day. I have a smaller class, so it’s easy for me to do this daily, but if you have a larger class you may want to change seating plans weekly or bi-weekly. To do this, I use an online random generator or put each student’s name in a bowl and pick names out of the bowl each day to make the lift lighter on myself, but also so students can see that I’m not trying to pair people together for a specific purpose.
This exercise allows students to get to know one another and work together more effectively. I’ve also noticed that students become better at encouraging one another, giving compliments, and defending students who are being mistreated outside the classroom. For the first time this school year, I plan to create a WOW! compliments board for students to share kind words about one another; my hope is that it’ll take student-to-student connections to the next level.
It’s critical to build class communities where all students feel valued and celebrated, where every student feels a sense of belonging and self-worth. While this takes intentional work, especially at the start of the school year, the outcomes will be significant. As you go through these exercises, you can get to a point where students are leading the activities and you can be a participant, giving each student a chance to be the “coach” of your classroom for a short time. The confidence this can create is invaluable.
I hope you try some of these strategies, and if you do, remember: patience is necessary in this process, both with yourself and with students. No one is perfect, and we’re all learners – no matter what our role is on the team.
Spark Student Curiosity and Engagement
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- ”I Know I Can (Nas Cover) By I.T.P (Isaiah The Fly Playa)”. YouTube, uploaded by PWStudiosCarolina, 28 May 2012. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0ykbFAFJaIQ.