I had an entire year of full-time teaching under my belt–Language arts for grades 7, 9 and 11–before I learned the secret to my best success teaching. In working under a wonderful veteran, mentor teacher in the Toledo city public school system, I was introduced to the concept that I needed to teach my students, intentionally, how to treat each other civilly. And not stop there–but teach them to care and encourage each other and value each other’s accomplishments. This I count as a pivotal moment in my teaching education and I am forever grateful to her. (She is now retired, after long years teaching and serving as principal!)
In writing how I create an encouraging classroom, there are 6 parts:
- Creating an Encouraging Classroom
- Fostering Respect and Encouragement in the Classroom: My Journey as a Public School Teacher (You are currently reading this now.)
- Classroom Management: Motivation Without Treats?
- Rewards in Classrooms: To Give or Not to Give?
- Holding Kids Accountable in an Encouraging Classroom
- (Not yet completed) List of Encouraging Choices and Behaviors: Concrete Examples for Students
My journey to my current philosophy of classroom managment began when my mentor teacher introduced me to Ron Clark, a Disney Teacher of the Year award winner, who has gone on to write books and start a groundbreaking academy. At that time, he had recently published a book entitled, The Essential 55. Some people might tend to think it’s just a list of rules for a classroom. And 55 of them. I know so many teachers play it “cool” and say “I have only 1 rule: respect each other.” I’ve done that too! But what I learned–and saw as my mentor teacher implemented it–was that we have students coming to us who honestly do not know how to respect each other! They need to be taught many specifics. We were team-teaching seventh graders in a school with inner city and suburban students, and in a handful of months, I got to see the students transform from chaos to kind. They were able to listen to, encourage and praise each other. This forever changed the bar I set for myself in teaching. It’s not just about content and the lesson. The most important lessons I may ever be able to pass on to my students are these interpersonal skills that will help them in all area of life–no matter their career paths.
I wrote another post about how I integrate scripture from my Christian faith to achieve my classrooms goal, an option I have as most of my teaching contexts lately are in Christian communities. (Read Creating an Encouraging Classroom for more on that). But my first step in this journey in public classrooms began by reading Ron Clark.
What Clark managed in his classrooms of kids people had already written off is nothing short of phenomenal. What he did, and offers to teach his readers, is that kids can find their full potential when they are in a safe place–where they are accepted and encouraged to learn and express themselves. But getting that classroom atmosphere takes lot of work for the teacher.
photo by Menlo School via FLickr
My desire for my classroom to be less formal fought with my frustration that my students did not always tend to do so well when I wanted mutual respect to be the norm within lots of freedom. Sometimes, this had the effect that out of fear of losing control, I had to be more strict than I wanted to be. I recall, with this mentor teacher, we were on a team of teachers where one in particular was adverse to these ideas and Clark’s book. My mentor offered a poster of the rules for this other teacher to use, and it was dismissed. I had opportunity to sit in that other woman’s classroom and it was educational. She was what I loved about my favorite high school teacher: creative, colorful, loving. She was an ex-hippie; her clasroom was covered, from floor to ceiling with creativity. It’s what some call chaos and others find freeing. I love rooms like that; I was an art minor and chaos can often describe my organizational patterns. I wanted to be like that kind of teacher. She was energetic and inspiring–and had hardly any rules. Some kids, I’m sure, did thrive in that atmosphere. Some expressed liking her room better than the more controlled one with 55 rules, surely.
“An Inspirational Classroom” by Sarah Dee via Flickr. This was the closest photo I could find approximating the kind I describe; imagine this, then imagine more–hand-made student posters all the way up to the ceiling, overlapping, with the handing things perched here and there–all less geometric, more haphazard.
What I observed in comparing the two classrooms, was that yes, some kids did thrive and find nurturing in that environment of unbridled creativity and few rules. But many could not, because it didn’t fit them or make them secure enough to express as freely as the teacher encouraged them to. There was an expressed desire for mutual respect, but the students there did not always know how to, or if they did know, were not held accountable often when they choose not to. (And in the environment of a lot of noise and freedom, mistreatment was not often heard by the teacher.) I found the subtle undercuts most prevalent. The pervasive eye-rolling and other facial expressions used to shut own and silence other students and the common conversational put-downs. And there was no intentional building of an expectation or teaching how students could/should invest in each other. After this experience of months, watching kids from the same area be molded by different classroom expectations, I was sold on what kind of classroom I wanted in my future.
I did not go with all 55 of Clark’s rules. (He is Southern, and some play well there but not so well in the north!) I guess now I say I have just one rule: to encourage each other. That’s a higher expectation than respect–or at least an action verb to illustrate an abstract idea. You can respect passively. But to encourage means you have to step outside yourself and look for a way to enter someone else’s space and build them up. But while I might say I have one rule/expectation now, I spend most of the rest of the year teaching specific ways of doing so, many of which you will find in Clark’s list of 55.
Before I sign off, I will leave you with one anecdote. When implementing this, you will be getting kids used to something that is not echoed elsewhere in their lives. I recall a time when I had a sub in my classroom for a couple days. I forgot to let her in on some of the finer points of how communication was done in my class: expecting kids to turn and face each other when one was speaking, to talk to all students and not just me (but rather a class discussion where I wasn’t the only audience), and to clap to show appreciation to another’s comments. I came back to my classes and their stories of the sub who fund some of this affrontery, suspect and even disrespectful of her. I apologized to them, and knew that in the future, I really had to explain a lot to a sub so my students wouldn’t be penalized for good communication skills! (There is more I could say about what this taught me, but that’s another post!)
photo from USAG-Humphreys via Flickr
Anyone else out there had experience with Clark’s 55?
Other resources for teaching/tutoring:
OiLs lesson #1: How I Talk to My Students About Drawing on Day 1 (Masters and Journeymen levels)
Basics of Drawings: Fine Arts Week 1 for Classical Conversations (Masters and Journeymen levels)