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Creating Strong Classroom Culture, With Molly Nicol

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

Creating Strong Classroom Culture, With Molly Nicol

By The TFA Editorial Team

September 24, 2014

One of the greatest (and most important) challenges in the first year of teaching is establishing a strong classroom culture. Besides the fact that you’ve probably never done it before, I think what makes it so tough is that you are not yet 100% sure of your own identity as a teacher. You find yourself trying on many different personas and testing out several different methods and styles of teaching and classroom management, and begin to lose sight of where you started in the first place.

That being said, I think it’s absolutely possible to build a strong classroom culture in the first year, in the first few weeks even. To begin, try to articulate for yourself what kind of classroom culture you dream of in order to begin to create it. When someone walks into your classroom, what do you want them to be able to immediately say about it? That students are helping each other and working collaboratively? That there is a shared sense of responsibility and leadership among teachers and students? That students clearly have a deep understanding of the routines and procedures? That there is energy and joy in the room? Whatever your dream, ideal classroom is – write it down.

Once you’ve prioritized for yourself what is most important to you, you can move in that direction rather than running in a million different ones. Your lessons, the ways in which students engage with you and the material and the relationships that develop in the classroom will all begin to reflect this belief you have about your classroom culture.

For me personally, I always envisioned a classroom where students helped each other without me asking and wanted to continue discussion after the bell rang. So, I began to explicitly assign partner and group work that rewarded positive collaboration (peer revision, group presentations, etc.). I also began to research English methods that got the students talking more (Socratic Seminar, debates, etc.). I modeled the kind of behavior I wanted to see in students: I made myself available to help students and other teachers after school and I demonstrated my own enthusiasm for the subject matter. (It helped, of course, when I actually chose interesting and engaging texts.) In short, I think we too often look outside of ourselves in trying to create a particular classroom culture when really it begins with us. If you are genuine in what you say and how you treat students and mirror your own values in the classroom, you are well on your way to creating a strong classroom culture.

Of course, there will be missteps along the way. I’ll never forget shakily announcing detention for the entire 8th period class as the bell rang and having them all steamroll past me. Or having a thirty item checklist for positive and negative consequences that I had no chance of keeping up with. Even though there will be bad lessons, bad ideas and bad days, don’t lose sight of the bigger picture: each day is a new opportunity to make your classroom exactly what you dreamt it would be.

Molly Nicol was a 2005 Philadelphia corps member. She taught English and Theater at her placement school, Olney High School East, for four years and English at The Arts Academy at Benjamin Rush for five years. She is currently taking some time off to care for her 11-month-old daughter, Nora.