M4U1A3 – Malin Matus – Establishing a Positive Classroom Climate

Introduction

To begin this blog I’d like to share a little pertinent background information. Currently, I am a middle school ESL teacher with four years of experience teaching 5th grade and am currently in my first year teaching 8th grade. Before I started in the middle school classroom I had only previously taught adults: business English and conversational English. I had, had a smattering of experience teaching kids conversation classes but that was very little. As a teacher of adults, classroom climate was not something I thought about much other than usual ice breaking activities at the start of a new course. Thus, when I entered the fifth grade classroom for the first time it was a disaster—for the whole year. Vowing not to repeat that experience in my second year I embarked on a mission of self-directed learning on how to better manage my classes. I found a lot of stuff and tried it out. Some worked and some didn’t but ultimately things got better. Now doing the Teach-Now program I am very excited to have the opportunity to again delve into the realm of managing/creating/existing the teaching environment. When I first thought about writing for this assignment I read the word “classroom” in the title and immediately thought about what to do with the kids in the class and in the lessons. Then, naturally, I thought how can our classroom learning be extended into the community or how can what we learn be applied into a broader context. However, while thinking an investigating ideas for these two areas I started asking myself questions like “What would my personal response be to bullying?”, “How culturally sensitive am I?”, “What do I know about the inner workings of the families of my students?”, etc. Very quickly it became clear to me that establishing a positive classroom climate starts with the teacher examining their own beliefs and practices and then educating/developing themselves to bring positive caring practices into the classroom. I envision it like an onion, the teacher is in the center and from them an environment of safety, caring and positivity moves outward in layers: to the students (and perhaps other teachers), to the school community and to the community outside the school.

The Teacher

I think a positive and equal classroom environment begin with the teacher. They are the default leader of the class and are the number one role model for the students. Therefore it is very important that a teacher educate him/her self to be the kind of person that they would like their students to be. How effective would a teacher be if they preached anti-bullying like Rosina Keren (Teaching Channel, 2012) but then was seen to be yelling at students. Not very effective I believe. The inherent hypocrisy would completely undermine that teacher’s credibility with the students and they would likely not hear what that teacher has to say. What about a teacher who is trying to foster an appreciation for cultural diversity in their class but they have trouble correctly pronouncing some of their students’ name and laugh it off say, “Oh, I don’t know x language so you’ll just have to get used to my horrible pronunciation”. Without realizing it this teacher has just sent a message to that student saying, “You are not important enough for me to learn how to say your name right”. Therefore in order to set-up a positive and caring classroom environment it is vital that you educate yourself comprehensively so as to not undermine your own efforts, and to be able to lead with honesty and integrity. Teaching Tolerance [TT] (2016) has several suggestions for doing this and I think two very important one are; “16. Self-Awareness and Cultural Competency” and the two strategies mentioned there, “Self-Assessment” and “Professional Development on Working with Specific Groups” (Teaching Tolerance [TT], 2016, p.19). The other is, “20. Ongoing Reflection and Learning” and the strategy called, “Critical Friend Relationships” (TT, 2016, p. 22). I think these areas of teacher development are important because firstly, when it comes to cultural awareness we can often believe “I don’t think of my students in terms of their race or ethnicity. I am color blind when it comes to my teaching.” (TT, n.d., p. 1) but that leaves us ignorant of who someone truly is, because like it or not race and cultural background have an effect on education and we cannot be blind to it. Therefore, in order to combat our own blindness we must educate ourselves and use self-assessment whenever possible to try and ensure there are not gaps in our awareness of who our students are. Second, I believe that having a “Critical Friend” is an essential part of educating oneself to be the kind of teacher who is able to lead and maintain a positive and caring classroom. A “Critical Friend” is a teacher colleague who you trust to give you constructive criticism on your teaching practices. Unfortunately, even teachers are human and prone to think the best of themselves (or vice versa) and an outside opinion is necessary for us to realize more concretely what we are doing. A timely observation or discussion with your friend could be the piece of the puzzle you needed to further improve your classroom environment, or it could be the necessary validation of your technique or idea allowing you to stay the course when perhaps your conviction was wavering. As teachers we likely all want the best for our students. A learning environment filled with positivity, caring, understanding, freedom of expression and safety. However, in order to realize these goals in our classrooms and/or in our students we must first realize them in ourselves. If we do not our best efforts will be sabotaged by our own hypocrisy, whether overt or covert, and our goals will not be satisfactorily realized. As a result, it is incumbent on teachers to become the most positive, caring, understanding, free and safe, individuals they can be, in order to, bring out those qualities in their students and learning environments.

The Classroom

Of all the places where a teacher works the classroom is likely the place where a teacher interacts with their students the most. Therefore, it is essential to establish it as a positive and safe environment for both students and teachers alike. There are many ways one could accomplish this task and what any given teacher might do would depend on their teaching style, the age of children being taught and the subject of instruction. Nevertheless how a teacher may decide to organize their classroom their measures will fall into one of three categories. One, use of physical space: how the desks, chairs, furniture and other instructional materials of a classroom will be arranged. A science classroom will necessarily need quite a different arrangement of furniture and materials than a math classroom. Two, what the teacher will do in the class: this is a list of routines, actions or responses the teacher will employ in the class. This could be how the teacher will greet and start each class, to how they will handle disruptions of learning. Three, and the last category, is what the students will do in the classroom: this is a list of behaviors and actions that the students will be expected to perform in the class. As mentioned before the way in which a teacher structures the items of the above categories will be dictated by age group, teaching style and subject taught, so for the purposes of example I will provide some description in these areas according to what I have taught: grade 5, ESL to Japanese students in Japan. Marzano states, “The physical setting of the classroom conveys a strong message regarding a teacher’s approach to managing instruction and learning” (2010, p. 121), and I agree with it who heartedly. Therefore, for my ESL classroom to promote the positive, “we are in this all together” mind-set I think is essential for language learning I have the student  desks and chairs arranges in clumps of 4-5. The teacher’s desk is off in the corner as I don’t spend time there during class. At the front is a big white-board with space in front of it so that both the teacher and students can use it together. The goal of this set-up is to create a collaborative environment and when I set my student groups language tasks to practice I go around and see what they’re doing. Also, the groups serve as teams for game based activities. With the physical space organized a teacher must “establish a small set of rules and procedures” (Marzano, 2010, p. 122) to promote positive interactions in the classroom. For middle school learners it is import to have routine as it allow for familiarity and lowers the affective level of the students, which is important for learning. While establishing class rules and procedures I think that it is important to incorporate the element of equity over equality. Definitely we want all students to have equal opportunity but I think “that one-size [rules or] lessons do not fit all” (Safir, 2016). The same application will not always help a student and while establishing rules and procedure we must retain flexibility. Personally, I like big catch all rules that can be adapted to many situations. My number one rule in all the classes is, respect everyone, and we spend time in the first months of classes going over what this means to each students and when we need to take the opportunity to apply it. Sometime respecting someone means letting the rules bend a little bit in order to retain that person’s unique viewpoint or passion. Of course other more bland rules like, raise your hand to speak, or, walk don’t run, have their uses but once again maybe we’ll run in class one day for a game or just to burn off youthful energy. It is just important to run respectfully. As the teacher you set up the classroom and define a basic framework of procedure and rules, and then it is time to turn it over to the students. Marzano says “interact with students about classroom rules and procedures” (2010, p. 127) and this practice is very important for middle school aged students I believe. Within a basic framework established by the teacher having the students decide on how to manage things is empowering for them. It allows them to take ownership of their behavior and class, and for them to employ an internal locus of control rather than just be controlled by an external agent. This ties into the idea expressed by Teaching Tolerance [TT] (2016, p. 9) of, “student jobs and ownership of classroom space”. As humans we are much more likely to take care of what believe is “ours” rather than what we perceive as “another’s”. It is especially important for middle school students to be given the opportunity to solve problems themselves as at their age they are developing a greater sense of personal agency. TT mentions “student-generated agreements and contracts” (2016, p.12) as a method for doing this. I think this is particularly effective because as adults teachers do not always understand what students perceive as equitable. Having the students decide for themselves may remove feelings of arbitrariness and the excuse that “adults just don’t understand” which middle school students often express. Designing and maintaining a classroom environment that is safe, positive and learner centered is no easy feat. However, with some forethought and by being flexible, aiming for equity and listening to your students it is achievable in my opinion.

The School

While often not directly under the teacher’s locus of control the school culture plays and important role in creating safe, positive and productive classroom environment. A teacher and their classroom is only a microcosm of the school universe. Certainly, a teacher can do all they can to promote safety and positivity in their classroom but if the overarching school environment is filled with violence, apathy and/or negativity, the teacher will be fighting a losing battle. Consequently, it is absolutely necessary for schools as a whole to participate in all the practices I’ve mentioned above. Namely, having administration that will support teachers in; gaining self-awareness and cultural competency, learning anti-bullying practices and getting ongoing professional development and training. In addition the school must provide resources so that teachers can establish physical learning environments appropriate to their students and subjects, as well as, time and resources for teachers to facilitate students in taking ownership of the physical space and resolving inter-student conflict. Also, while maintaining an internal school macrocosm that promotes safety, equality and positivity the school should be reaching out into the community to establish ties that will make what happens at school more relevant. There are many ways this could be done but I think one key method is Teaching Tolerance’s strategies of; family interviews, guest speakers and community research (2010, p. 12). Family interviews can take the students life into their home and vice versa. Definitely parents and teachers will be far more effective if they understand each other and work together to educate the children involved. Guest speakers can provide and invaluable real-life perspective on education. Showing the students the purpose of education and that there is a reason for learning spelling, problem-solving, history, etc. Finally, community research can allow the students to connect with and share their identities with the school.

Conclusion

In this blog I mention three layers of an onion to develop a positive, safe and caring environment for learning, from the center our: the teacher, the classroom and the school. However, at the end of this blog I think perhaps the onion analogy could be misleading. Thinking of these three areas as separate layers I think may belay the interdependence they have on each other. Certainly, a poorly maintained or managed school will challenge teachers greatly to establish a positive, caring and safe environment. Conversely, a negative ill-tempered teacher would likely be a spreading stain on an otherwise sterling school’s environment. So, as I realize this point I think what I am trying to get at is that teachers are tied to their schools and schools are tied to their teachers. That education is a holistic process that involves relationships, reflection and growth to thrive.

References

Alrubail, R. (2016, July 7). Equity for English-Language Learners [Web log post]. Retrieved June 2, 2017, from https://www.edutopia.org/blog/equity-for-english-language-learners-rusul-alrubail

Davis, M. (2016, September 8). Preparing for Cultural Diversity: Resources for Teachers [Web log post]. Retrieved from https://www.edutopia.org/blog/preparing-cultural-diversity-resources-teachers

Marzano, R. J. (2010). The art and science of teaching: a comprehensive framework for effective instruction. Alexandria, Va: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Safir, S. (2016, January 21). Equity vs. Equality: 6 Steps Toward Equity [Web log post]. Retrieved June 2, 2017, from https://www.edutopia.org/blog/equity-vs-equality-shane-safir

Teaching Tolerance. (n.d.). Common Belifes. Retrieved June 2, 2017, from http://www.tolerance.org/sites/default/files/general/common_beliefs_descriptions.pdf

Teaching Tolerance. (2016). CRITICAL PRACTICES FOR ANTI-BIAS EDUCATION. Retrieved June 2, 2017, from http://www.tolerance.org/critical-practices

Teaching Tolerance. (n.d.). Common Beliefs. Retrieved June 2, 2017, from http://www.tolerance.org/sites/default/files/general/common_beliefs_descriptions.pdf

Teaching Channel. (2012). Change Attitudes Toward Bullying: Be An Ally [Video]. Retrieved June 1, 2017, from https://www.teachingchannel.org/videos/be-an-ally

 

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