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Creating Strong Classroom Culture, With Erica Weiner-Amachi

This is the first in a series of guest posts on creating a strong classroom culture. Check back weekly for additional segments.

Erica Weiner-Amachi

By The TFA Editorial Team

September 7, 2014

What does a strong classroom culture mean to you/look like/sound like/feel like?

I think of strong classroom culture as something that can be indicated by how your feet feel when they hit the floor on Monday morning: do you want to be in your classroom for ten hours that day? Strong classroom culture can mean lots of things to different people. I’ve taught in schools where strong classroom culture is defined by how quiet the students are. Other schools define strong classroom culture as how big the smiles are on students’ and parents’ faces.

Strong classroom culture exists in rooms where everyone in that room believes at some level (and that level of belief may vary from day to day) that the hard work they are doing matters and that they want to be in that room doing that hard work with the people in it.

How has the culture of your classroom changed over the years?

I’ve taught every grade from K-6 over the past twelve years, so hopefully a lot has changed! I’ve constantly had to adjust to the developmental needs of the current batch of students I’m teaching. I’m not exactly the same with first graders as I am with fifth graders. It’s having gained the awareness of developmental appropriateness that’s made me more adept with developing a strong classroom culture in whatever grade I’m teaching.

I’ve learned to better balance warm and demanding. It’s been a hard equilibrium to reach, but I’m closer than I’ve ever been before. At the beginning of my career, my classroom was too loosey-goosey. There wasn’t consistency and students felt unsure. As I worked longer in classrooms, I became more demanding, but at times lost touch with the fun of teaching that initially drew me to the field. Now I view setting up consistent structures as the way to allow me to be silly the rest of the year. :)

What advice do you have for new teachers about creating a strong classroom culture?

You need to know yourself and what you value. Your students will be able to read if you are being authentic with them. Discovering the VIA Survey of Character Strengths was eye-opening for me. I realized that I highly value critical thinking and humor. In order for me to feel good about my classroom, I need to feel like there is laughter and that students are solving problems. That affects how I set up my classroom. I spend lots of time telling students that they are teaching me that I get to be silly and funny with them. I take time to introduce a Peace Path because I want students to solve their disagreements. What another teacher values and has strengths for might be different. Their classroom doesn’t have to be exactly like mine to have a strong classroom culture. Trying to be exactly like someone else in a way that is fundamentally opposed to who you are at the core won’t help you.

With that said, you should take the time to observe teachers who you feel have a strong classroom culture. What do they do that aligns with what you value? If you want what they have, what do you need to do to get it?

What’s the best project/activity/etc. that you’ve used to create a strong classroom culture?

I spent two years teaching the same group of students in 4th and 5th grade. When you spend that much time together, you begin to form a family. To help that family function, I reserved time each day for a class meeting. Students and the teacher (i.e. me) were able to discuss what affected them that day and work to collaboratively solve problems. This was especially helpful for solving problems that stemmed from recess. It also gave us space as a class to explore how one student’s experience having Asperger’s in our room affected all of us and how we had to communicate to make sure everyone’s needs felt addressed.

What’s the biggest misstep you’ve made around classroom culture?

When I first started teaching, I spent way too much time and money on junk food and junk prizes. There is totally a place and time for extrinsic reward! However, I used it as a first line of defense on a steady basis and it kept students from embracing that the work in our class was important because learning was important. I’m more thoughtful now around how I give out prizes and food.

Erica Weiner-Amachi was a member of the 2003 Metro Atlanta corps. Erica met her husband teaching at the same school, and taught for a total of five years in Atlanta Public Schools. She has been teaching with KIPP Philadelphia schools for seven years, and is currently the Science Specialist and Math Coach at KIPP Philadelphia Elementary Academy. Erica and her husband live in Northern Liberties with their daughter, Laial.