As an instructional coach, one of the most common challenges I hear from teachers is that they struggle with “classroom management.” To that, I usually suggest taking time to foster a positive classroom culture and develop relationships with each student. Teachers usually respond, “I have so much curriculum to cover that I don’t have enough time for that.” Time may be the only struggle more popular than classroom management. So, how can teachers take time to build a community without taking time away from teaching key instructional content? The answer is that effective classroom management can accomplish both at the same time!
If you’re struggling to do both—build community and teach content—I suggest trying the following strategies:
As a teacher, I taught one lesson a week using the “Circle Up” strategy. I asked students to talk about instructional content by making connections to their lives, their prior understandings, and sharing their opinions. In turn, I learned so much about them and the students learned a lot about each other. Not only can we learn about students’ experiences and ways of thinking and being, but students can also learn about us. I would always participate in circle discussions to model vulnerability in sharing and give students a chance to learn more about my life experiences and interests and how it applied to the content we were learning at the time.
Another strategy I used once a unit, was the Socratic Seminar discussion. For this protocol, I just observed or facilitated student seminars, which was a powerful way to observe students’ self-regulation and discussion facilitation skills as well as what they actually said. Using this strategy provided students with an opportunity to practice our community norms, disagree with other students while preserving their dignity, and hold each other accountable if or when norms were violated, Classrooms will have conflict, and this strategy is a great way to prepare students to handle conflict with respect.
Co-Create Classroom Norms
Each year, as I intentionally integrated more community-building activities into my curriculum, I realized there were fewer disruptions and challenges with classroom management. When students learned to be in a community with one another, they were more respectful of others’ learning. I rarely had to interrupt student learning to address off-task behavior, and this enabled us to use the entire time in class for learning. This doesn’t magically come together; it takes the intentional building of norms and values. I co-created classroom norms with students at the start of each year, and we re-visited these for tune-ups as needed. I also created posters for each of the values from positive psychology’s Values in Action site, which we routinely referenced throughout the year. We used Do Nows to practice a value, shared the values we saw in other students and characters in books and reflected on how well we were living the values.
What I love about these strategies is that they are proactive rather than reactive and they ultimately save me time because there are fewer interruptions to learning once we’ve agreed on our class norms and values and students are engaged in learning, listening to multiple voices (not just mine), and sharing their own ideas.
For more on the notion of proactive, community building in place of traditional “classroom management” approaches, I recommend reading Afrika Afeni Mills’s article “Classroom Management Reconsidered” and Teaching Tolerance’s“Reframing Classroom Management: A Toolkit for Educators”.
Lindsay Lyons is an instructional coach who works with teachers and school leaders to inspire educational innovation and build capacity for shared leadership and educational equity. Lindsay taught in NYC for 7 years, holds a Ph.D. in Leadership and Change, and is the founder of the educational blog, Time for Teachership.