It’s always a joyful experience to step into a school and feel the happy and creative energy. Usually, there is student artwork adorning the walls and adults who are ready to welcome you. The atmosphere feels at once calm but also excited for learning, and it either reminds you of happy childhood memories or helps to remind you why you became a teacher in the first place. Conversely, some schools do not evoke a sense of happiness as they feel more like rigid institutions than places of learning, where adults seem overwhelmed and stressed.
Sometimes, you can get some sense of a school’s climate shortly after you enter the building by observing the adults and children in the space as well as the surroundings. In a healthy school climate, you notice that staff and students positively interact with one another. Often, there is evidence of student engagement and belonging in the space as well, with student artwork displayed or posters to advertise a school event. These visual displays also provide evidence that everyone at the school is made to feel welcome; you get a sense that school staff appreciates the range of experiences and backgrounds that students have and that students feel safe in sharing them.
Going beyond what impression a visitor has when they walk into a school building, school climate encompasses several important concepts, including: emotional and physical safety, positive relationships, respect, and student and educator engagement. It is also associated with several important student outcomes, including (but not limited to): increased psychological well-being, increased self-esteem, and decreased absenteeism.
While teachers certainly play a part in the climate of the whole school, they play an even larger role in determining the climate of their own classrooms. The following ideas are designed to help you build a positive climate in your classroom regardless of how you start the school year – whether it’s fully in-person, a hybrid approach, or fully online. Ideas are organized by each key element of a positive climate: safety, relationships, inclusion and respect, and student engagement, though many areas overlap as they depend on one another to be fully realized.
School safety is an area of climate that is looming large in everyone’s mind these days, as we grapple with the needs of both educating our children and keeping everyone safe. While each community is going to look different in terms of what approaches it takes to physically return to the school building or not, there are some basic steps you can take to help students feel more at ease during a turbulent time. Regardless of how or where you are teaching, one basic step to take is to provide a predictable schedule (with advanced notice when any changes do occur). When other things in your life aren’t always predictable, it’s nice to be able to count on something, even if it’s just independent reading time at 1:05.
Another step to take regardless of where you are teaching is understanding that there will be more worries this year, from both students and staff (and maybe yourself, as well). Be ready to share strategies or resources to help others cope with anxious feelings, and stay connected to the mental health team in your school or district to reach out to if needed. Finally, listen to your students’ feelings or concerns and validate them. While no one has all the answers, you can provide a listening ear to help students sort out their own complex feelings.
Building positive relationships with students is something many teachers work very hard at, and for good reason, since strong teacher-student relationships have been associated with increased student engagement, attendance, and achievement. It’s also important to facilitate an environment that allows your students to build positive relationships with one another. Positive peer relationships provide a way for students to build their social and emotional skills and are associated with increased school engagement, participation, and attendance.
One of the first steps in this process is making sure that everyone understands and abides by the same norms – you want students to be allowed to have differing opinions, for example, but they need to know how to respectfully disagree with one another. Create norms for your classroom by establishing some baseline expectations and asking students to help define what that looks like and what it doesn’t look like. For example, you might have an expectation that everyone communicates respectfully with others, which could mean using a respectful tone and not raising your voice. Specific elements may look different depending on the environment you are in, but the process should be similar.
Once you have your classroom norms in place, allow your class to get to know one another and you by setting aside time throughout the school year for activities or conversations designed to help with that process. With in-person learning, you could have a daily (or weekly) meeting time used to discuss something other than academics by having students take turns coming up with a prompt to discuss during this time. For an online or hybrid teaching environment, designate an area of your virtual classroom for students to socialize. For example, you can have a discussion board with a “show and tell” thread where students share pictures, videos, or links.
Inclusion and Respect
Inclusion and respect are strongly tied to both safety and relationships; to feel truly safe and connected, students need to know that it’s okay to be themselves. Make space for students to feel comfortable sharing their interests, talents, and traditions (this could even be specifically called out in your classroom norms). While there is not enough space to do it justice in this blog post, culturally responsive teaching is an approach that can help students feel “seen” and welcomed in your classroom. Very simplified, this approach provides avenues for students to make connections between their own culture, language, and experiences and academic knowledge and skills by providing curriculum for all students to see their backgrounds represented.
As you think about what kind of work you have planned for your students this year, ask yourself if you have meaningful learning content that provides students with the opportunity to see their own cultural backgrounds or traditions represented and valued. Not only do students have a greater sense of belonging, but they can also learn about different perspectives and build empathy.
Providing students with the other three elements of the classroom climate just discussed is a good foundation for encouraging student engagement. Empowering students to be more involved in the classroom by providing structure and allowing opportunities for autonomy can also be strong motivators for student engagement. For example, allowing students to make choices about what they learn within the parameters of an assignment, such as letting students decide on a topic for writing a persuasive essay.
You can also help students feel a sense of classroom ownership by giving them turns at various classroom responsibilities. For young students, this could mean tried-and-true roles such as “line leader.” For older students, this could be anything from teaching the class a lesson on a topic of their choice (any format) to moderating an online discussion (hybrid and online-only). Finally, having a system in place for students to provide feedback may also help increase student engagement by allowing you to find out what works and what doesn’t. This may also be particularly important in an online-only environment, as certain forms of instruction may work better for some students than others.
This Year is Different, but You Already Possess the Skills You Need
The COVID-19 pandemic has provided a much less-than-ideal starting point for this school year. School will look much different this year, and there will certainly be difficulties and setbacks. However, the fundamental pieces of what makes for a positive school climate have not changed. Keeping these key elements in mind can help you build a positive classroom climate, no matter where you start your school year.
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