How Do You Change a Negative Classroom Atmosphere or Create a Positive One in the First Place?

What do you do when a class gets off on the wrong foot? Or a vein of negativity, underlying snickering or contentious comments characterize your take-away after a session with a group of students?

I just ran a 3-day event with a classroom packed with 34 kids, ages 9-14. There are plenty of challenges to this: the age span, the lack of moving space in such a full classroom, and the sheer number of kids. Add to it, knowing some might get hyper or otherwise bring personalities to the mix that, um, interact with other personalities in ways that might not always be constructive! Mind you, this was supposed to be an academic camp. Academic=they should learn. Camp=they should have fun.

I’m experienced at classroom management, so I started my camp the way you should: stating expectations, having a plan, and giving students something to shoot for when they meet those expectations (Creating an Encouraging Classroom). I was also well-prepared with material I felt comfortable with. In my former public school career, I’d been a language arts teacher, and this academic camp was right up my alley, and I was armed with activities and games to keep these preteen and young teens moving and interacting, acting and laughing. (Because that’s the best way to learn grammar, language skills, and Roman mythology!)

And yet, I still had a bumpy first day. I left my lesson plans at my house! (My gracious husband drove them to me!) But I had to start class with nothing and felt out of sorts since I hadn’t the opportunity to organize my things adequately. I was also worried I could make it through the day due to a prior nerve injury to my face that made speaking and projecting for hours on end difficult; the the afternoon, one side of my lips gets slack, unable to move well to form the right words.

And one game I planned fell flat. One song I’d created to help them remember something in a fun way, I just couldn’t sing, though I swear I could at home quite well. (Note to self, I can sing like that only first thing in the day–not after hours straining my voice already.) We found multiple mistakes–typos on handouts and even on a poster on the wall. All of this shook my confidence and brought some students to comment. (Though let me say, their comments were not aggressive; they could have been a LOT harsher. And yet, it’s my philosophy that subtle under-the-breath comments can be corrosive and ruin a positive learning environment. I don’t like to ignore such things. But the question is, what’s the best way to deal with them? The answer I think is different depending on the situation and students.)

I confess that I let weariness and frustration enter my voice when the game fell flat, frustrated that kids couldn’t or wouldn’t follow the directions as the sun was beating down on us. I instantly disliked myself. I went home with that taste in my mouth. A part of me was ready to start the class the next morning with a firmer hand, reminding them of expectations: 1) being respectful, not intolerant of things like typos, 2) following rules of the games so students can enjoy them, 3) not chatting so much, etc. In my first years of managing classrooms, I would have done just that.

But I did not.

Instead, I started the class telling them a story. About how adults kept commenting with things like, “You have 34 students! Oh, goodness!” (This was the largest class I’ve had in this context; it is not the norm, but a necessary exception that had to be made for this event this year.)  “You have e/teens six hours a day? Are you surviving?” And my response was, “Surviving? No, it’s not about surviving! Running this academic camp, as I’ve done for three years, is one of the most fun things I get to do all year.” (So true. I volunteer for this age group’s camp. I love students in the dialectic stage, a classical education philosophy term for their stage of learning to question.) I told my students this exchange. I repeated what I had said Day 1, that I think their age-group is the most fun, and I intend the class to be fun. I praised the students for everything I could think of–for volunteering so awesomely, for being game in my crazy schemes where they end up dressed like Roman soldiers and who knows what else by the end of the day, for participating, for being curious and asking questions, for acting in skits, etc. I knew the majority of these students and had had them in classes in the past few years, and others I knew of and had been eager to get to know in class.  When I first saw my class list, I’d gotten so excited; I love these kids, for what I know of them and what I expect to learn of them. So I laid bare all the positivity I had about this class.

I mentioned narry a word about any of the issues of the previous day.

And two things happened. As I gave voice to how much I loved them, I reminded myself and saw them through that lens instead of through the lens of small disappointments the previous day, instead of through negativity about things not being perfect. Secondly, what happened is, the students bloomed in that praise. Of the remaining two days of that three-day camp, I didn’t see a hint of any negativity from them. Their efforts academically and to make positive choices and conduct themselves well redoubled. We had two days of blissful learning and fun with no discipline issues!

I’m not so sure those results could have been achieved if I’d focused on the few disappointments of day 1 instead of choosing to saturate them with my praise for the much longer list of reasons why I enjoyed them and was proud of them.

Over the days, I sprinkled in more praise. I highlighted one student who questioned something I taught on day 1, as he thought it conflicted with something he’d learned before, and I focused on praising him for how respectful his questioning was. I asked the class, Was this student disrespectful? A chorus of nos confirmed my impression. He had disagreed with me, but he was not dismissive, argumentative or disrespectful.

I also praised them for having grace whenever something I tried didn’t go exactly as planned. I explained that I’m an experimenter and love creating games, and I thanked them for being willing to follow my untried ideas. (Sometimes they’re fantastic. Other times, they’re just learning experiences of what not to do!)

On the last day, I thanked them for their patience. I explained that I thought they needed patience to be in this camp; the younger kids often probably felt lost and the older ones probably felt exasperated sometimes when younger kids didn’t understand something and asked question after question about things they themselves thought were easy!

That was the largest class I’d ever had in one room, and of the four different camps I’ve led now, this was the least stressful, most fun and most congenial I ever had. The students impressed me so much with their maturity and earnestness and interest.

Last fall, I met an old college friend, a fellow English teacher, for dinner after nont seeing her in a decade. Though neither of us are in public education anymore, we both lead and teach in various contexts, and separately we’ve both come to the same conclusion about what makes a good teacher, what makes us effective in the classroom. It’s so much less about our lesson plans than we ever thought (though they are necessary). What it really boils down to is our personality and how we conduct ourselves. It is the revelation I’ve come to after 20 years of teaching school, Sunday school and tutoring groups: my best classes are the ones in which my love for my students colors the lens through which I see them, when I am quick to laugh and our classroom is full or mirth and laughter, and I enjoy my students so much that they feel it. I was not capable of this for all my classes my first year teaching. I recall getting to that point with one class that year and how that group of ninth graders thrived. (Truly, there are so many skill sets requires to teach well, and I didn’t really get how to duplicate this until I’d gained more confidence, really learned how to nail a lesson plan, knew how to interest my students and effectively set expectations and hold my students to that in order to have an emotionally safe classroom where students could feel comfortable among their peers.)

It’s easy to love some students and classes. Others take more work as far as my perspective. But I’ve decided that is my work. To do whatever it takes to get to that place of loving them so I can be a good teacher for them. When I’m annoyed and frustrated, I’m not a good teacher, no matter what lessons I planned. For me, this requires prayer to see them through God’s eyes sometimes and choosing to stir up my reasons for loving students so they are right in front of me as I encounter my class again.

These are the tips I want to remind myself:

  1. A pleasant atmosphere rests on a pleasant me–one who doesn’t take herself too seriously, isn’t married to her lessons plans, and one who is not quick to be offended/disappointed (I listen to a lot of Dan Mohler on youtube about being unoffended…)
  2. It’s all about building rapport. In my second  year of full-time teaching, the principal evaluated me within the first 6 weeks, and he said, despite the intimidating list of teacher performance requirements, what he really cared about most was that “You know every student’s name, and you interact with them easily. They know you like them.” Last summer, a camp student asked his mom to drive farther to bring him to my class next year, because I “taught with so much joy” and “enjoyed” the students. These are the things I remind myself when I get weary, overwhelmed or feel unequal to the task.

And that is the magic I’ve found, my keys to answer others’ questions about why my classes go well and why I continue to volunteer and contract for these classes again and again! In July, I’m doing the class again with a new group of students, and I can’t wait!

Other posts:

Large Group Games for Latin Camp

Creating an Encouraging Classroom

Classroom Management: Positive Social Motivation

Holding Kids Accountable in an Encouraging Classroom

Latin Clue Game

The Ink They Left On Me: Writers Anne Lamott and Tracy Chevalier



About Renee Lannan's blog

I live, write, teach and enjoy life from a place of hope and a belief in miracles from seeing first-hand the depths of redemption
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