No need for a bull horn, the students could hear me shouting just fine. My voice was so hoarse after my first year, it sounded like I was constantly coming down with whooping cough. Expectations? Oh, my students were fully aware of the expectations ... after they displayed the disruptive behavior. How would they know what I expected? I never took the time to discuss classroom expectations, more specifically, behavior expectations. I let them know after the fact, and it was usually in a frustrated, anxious tone. I was displaying the classic signs of being reactive instead of proactive.
I knew if I wanted to have a positive impact on my students, I had to have a calm, safe, and inclusive learning environment. The summer after my first year, I developed a plan; a plan that invited students to develop their classroom and make it their own by implementing their ideas and creating a culture of community within our classroom. Everything would start and end with student voice and choice. We began with acknowledging that respect would be at the core of our community. Through a discussion about respect, we noticed everyone had their own idea of what respect looked and sounded like. This is where we started developing expectations. We called them Positive Behavior Expectations. They were designed to define respect. We identified specific behaviors, created 3-5 easy-to-follow steps or indicators, and each behavior was supported with a rationale. Also, we tried to refrain from using the word "respect" in the steps or indicators. For example, the students thought it was important to have a safe classroom. They identified Entering the Classroom as a behavior that defines respect. Here is an example of a Positive Behavior Expectation the students created in our class:
Entering the Classroom
Keep hands and feet to self
Walk to your desk and sit down
- Begin your welcome work
Rationale: Keeps students safe and we can begin class.
We started with five Positive Behavior Expectations. As the semester progressed, we added behavior expectations as the need arose. For example, we worked on having better conversations such as one-to-one conversations, small group work expectations, and group project expectations. Other expectations to consider included staying on task, beginning an assignment, listening, following directions, accepting "No" for an answer, and accepting feedback.
Time and Practice
Once we identified the beginning five Positive Behavior Expectations, the next critical step was to dedicate time for students to practice the Positive Behavior Expectations. If the students did not complete the steps with exceptional accuracy, they had to practice until the behavior was perfect. This relays the message that you—and fellow students—are serious about respect as a core characteristic of the classroom community. As students gain a general understanding of the Positive Behavior Expectations, consider reserving 5-10 minutes at the beginning of each class for students to identify the steps and rationale of a particular expectation. Engage students in role playing, writing, and creating posters to show an understanding of each expectation.
Would you project the quadratic formula on a screen and expect students to solve problems using the formula? No, you would introduce the quadratic formula, have students practice with one another, and finally have students work independently. You would engage them in gradual release. Teaching behavior is no different than teaching content. You introduce the behavior expectations, engage students in the process, and eventually they will be able to show the skill with little to no prompting. Treat teaching behavior as you would teach content.
Key Points for Success
You may revisit the expectations throughout the semester by adding new expectations and revisiting original expectations. The students need to be at the center of the process of developing the Positive Behavior Expectations. The rationale is critical in addressing the why of each behavior. The teacher needs to take the time to practice and follow through with holding students accountable for their behavior. You may want to consider having students show how to follow the expectation and how not to follow the expectation. Students have a lot of fun showing their acting skills!
Respecting Individuals while Celebrating Learning
By establishing behavior expectations you have created the foundation for the students to expand their learning environment. Relationships, respect, and trust are simultaneous in co-creating a community within a classroom. The next steps after establishing expectations is to develop students as leaders, create a safe environment for students to have authentic conversations, and engage in collaborative efforts in and outside of the classroom. My vision was to think and teach beyond the four walls. To not only develop community within our classroom, but to have a greater appreciation for school community and the community in which students reside.
So how do we create community in the classroom? I wanted to ensure my students had a voice that was heard and valued and that they were held accountable for their learning and behavior. If I wanted to stay true to hearing my students' voices, why not ask them directly? I did just that, and we decided to delegate leadership roles among the students. As the students explored different ideas, we eventually established a community council, which involved having students address the team building aspect. I wrote about this for the AMLE Newsletter in the October 2017 issue, A Community Council Makes Everyone a Champion (www.amle.org/am/lentfer1).
What is the benefit of team and community? It may seem counterintuitive, but we were much more efficient with our time. Since the students were vested in developing a culture of community, we were able to expand their learning and engage in meaningful projects. Students were more focused and willing to take risks. The community council enabled students to be more supportive, caring, and empathetic when students struggled. We invited parents to join our class to talk about their careers and what community means to them. Through the community council we found it was important to take pride in our classroom, school, and neighborhood. We set academic and behavior goals each week, and if we achieved our goals we would engage in a team building activity on Fridays. Team building would often include going around the school and neighborhood to pick up trash, taking turns tutoring other students with math or reading, and even sending cards of appreciation to staff, faculty, administrators, and community members. The idea is to develop students as leaders; leaders of their academics and social emotional skills, leaders who are willing to serve others, and leaders who give of themselves for the betterment of their neighbor and themselves.
This is community. Students are at the center, encouraging one another to higher levels, discovering learning through challenging projects, and creating and expressing their ideas in a variety of approaches. Students need an environment that will allow them to celebrate their mistakes, encourage peers to take a risk, and be vulnerable, knowing that they will be supported no matter the outcome. It all starts with the teacher and a willingness to let go of control and trust the students to lead their learning.
Community and Team Building Go Hand-in-Hand
Some will argue we don't have time to engage in team building; we have too many tests. I say you don't have time to not engage in team building activities. The activities do not have to take an entire class period. You have control over the amount of time you will designate toward team building. But consider what it looks like if you do not take the time for team activities.
Perhaps the team building activity could incorporate picking up trash outside the school and surrounding area. Emphasize the importance of pride in your community and how that may impact the students and their community.
Consider the skills they are learning while they are engaged in the activities. They learn how to set up the rules and enforce and follow the rules, and they develop leadership skills such as negotiating, compromising, handling competition, problem-solving, and caring about teammates. These are 21st century skills necessary for success.
We designate time—usually on Fridays—to engage in team building activities. The students are at the center of deciding the activity they are going to engage in. The only rule I have is everyone is involved. The students pick the activity, and they self-regulate to ensure the rules are enforced. This allows the teacher to truly be the guide on the side. Set the expectations prior to the team activity and allow the students to take ownership.
Do you ever go home and talk to your family about your day of teaching? Do you ever talk about how wonderful it was when you added fractions, or how the elements of the American Revolution influenced the foundation of our country? I may have talked briefly about how the students understood the material and what a wonderful feeling that was, but I did not gush about how wonderful it is to get "x" by itself. I talked about the students and the relationships. I discussed how we would dive into conversations about content and school news and maybe engage in a debate on when does a branch become a stick and is a twig lesser than or equal to a stick or when do you refer to a branch vs. a stick. We have fun with conversations and we have fun with content, and this fun can only be obtained once you have established positive relationships in your classroom. You build trust when you show your authentic self. They respect teachers who are honest and who admit their mistakes (just that one mistake). Be courageous in your endeavor to have fun in the classroom.
Everyone enjoys a balanced learning environment where you don't take yourself too seriously yet are able to focus attention on the content. Students love to test your limits and observe your response to their behavior. If a student is frustrated, you give them a minute to gather their thoughts and don't poke the bear. Do you like to engage in a conversation when you are angry? Probably not. So, show the same respect and give them some space. If a student continually refuses to follow an instruction, understand you cannot control their behavior. Consider responding with, "I understand, you made your choice, but here's something for you to think about, I believe in you" and simply walk away and let the student think about the fact that you actually care. Focus your attention on the positive aspects of every student. Write a list of positive aspects throughout the year. Have it available and let the student know what positive aspects you see in them. Throughout this process, watch the relationships flourish. Watch their behavior turn to a more positive condition. Find the beauty in every interaction and in doing so, watch how the classroom comes alive with collaboration and kindness.
A Case in Point
If a student poses a challenge, meet them where they are regarding their behavior. The content analogy is at play; if a student does not know how to add negative numbers, you would not expect them to be able to add negative fractions. Set the student up for success. Go for the small wins. For example, if they are having trouble focusing their attention during instruction, meet the student where they are and have them focus for one minute and gradually increase the time each day/week. If you ask for one minute of focus, and the student achieves the one minute, give them praise. Be careful not to get frustrated with the student if they did not focus for more than one minute. You agreed to one minute; praise and increase the goal for the next day.
Consider creating a list of positive aspects. Make a list for all students. Be as detailed as possible. Keep the list available for your review and add to it throughout the year. When you find yourself frustrated with a student, this list is key to turning your relationship into a positive interaction. When you praise a student use specific praise, often it will come from this list.
We focus so much on the negative that momentum builds in the wrong direction. Try focusing on the positives and watch how your classroom embraces a calm, peaceful, learning community. Teach your students to come to you with solutions, not problems. This is a wonderful way to show students to truly be at the center of solving their problems and focusing on the solutions. It is fundamental in creating a positive classroom community.
Calm, Peaceful, Productive Classroom
Developing a calm, peaceful classroom takes time. But if you take the time to communicate expectations, have students practice the expectations, and hold students accountable to the expectations, you will be able to expand the learning environment with high impact practices. When students understand and respect the positive behavior expectations, it allows them to take on more leadership roles, engagement increases, and collaboration explodes. It allows student voices to truly be heard when you implement their ideas. You and your students will have such fun co-creating in a safe and inclusive community. No doubt, you will find yourself going home with great energy and look forward to coming to work every day because you will know the community you took the time to build with your students will be a calm, peaceful, and productive learning environment.
Victoria Lentfer is an education instructor and middle school program director for the University of Nebraska Omaha. She is an educational consultant and founder of the CALM Classroom Management Program and authored
Keep Calm and Teach: Empowering K-12 Students with Positive Classroom Management Routines (2018, AMLE and Corwin).
Published in AMLE Magazine
, August 2019.