6 Ways to Foster Positive Attributes in Our Youth!

It becomes increasingly easy for teachers to point out the traits in students that they wish were “different” or “do not want to see” as the year goes on.  Can we just as easily describe the traits or characteristics that we want to experience from our students?  Can we identify what positive attributes we try to foster in our students to help create a safe and supportive learning environment?  And what can we do to help elicit those characteristics from our students?  Lets take a look at our students from head to toe to see which characteristics will help create a positive school culture and how we, as educational professionals, can help create it!

What we can do as educators to help create an environment that helps support positive traits in our students:

  • Embed social/emotional learning into everything we teach.  Concepts such as self-advocating, standing up for others, being passionate, empathy vs. sympathy, cultural diversity/competency, awareness of self and others, sensitivity, intuition, etc. can be embedded and taught in all academic subject areas.  Don’t be afraid to put a lesson on hold for 5 minutes if there is a life lesson that can be learned form an experience in the classroom.  These moments are priceless and can’t always be created for learning.
  • Find ways to teach to ALL learners.  There are many modalities of teaching and it is critical to teach to the different aspects of the brain and to our different learners and abilities.  Consider music, art, dance, writing, speaking, problem-solving, debating,
  • Find strengths in all students and help foster them.  Every student has strengths and every student has weaknesses.  Some make it easier to see strengths than others.  Find a strength in every student you work with.  Make sure that you find ways to recognize or acknowledge this/these strengths.
  • Create an environment that is emotionally and physically safe for learning, wondering, questioning, disagreeing, etc.  Do not allow judgment, making fun, or ridiculing to be an acceptable part of your classroom environment.
  • Create an environment that is culturally competent.  Make it an expectation to respect people of all races, ethnicities, nationalities, religions, genders, sexual orientation, etc.
  • Be language neutral.  Don’t make assumptions about your students, those who live in their households, or what abilities they have.  Allow them to reveal themselves to you without judgment.


Teach ALL:
Think positive.  Be proactive.  Nurture partnerships.

Constructing a community of learners

Remember the song “We Are Family” by the Pointer Sisters? That has become the mantra for my class as we journey through the school year together, building a learning community as we go. A learning community is a group of students with a common purpose and shared values and goals. Building a classroom community truly enriches the students’ learning experience, and helps them learn valuable life skills they will be able to use and benefit from for the rest of their lives. Here are four thoughts to consider as you build your own classroom community this year!

  1. Research community building games, and help students get acquainted through these activities at the beginning of the year. As time permits, challenge students with various community building tasks related to the standards you are teaching throughout the school year. Learning to work together on a team successfully is a life skill that has many rewards.
  2. Stress to students that we are a family, we are all in this together, and that learning never stops! Just like the armed forces – leave no man behind! Say to students weekly or even daily, “The most important things we do in this learning community are learn and help each other be successful. Any behavior that takes away from learning is unacceptable and has no place here.” Repeated reminders of this ideology will encourage students to take ownership of this belief statement.
  3. Let your students know that their contributions to the lessons and the learning community are valuable and appreciated. Pull a student aside once a day, get on their level, and look them in the eye. Tell them sincerely that you are proud of them and what they have accomplished, how much they have improved, how much you appreciate the support he or she gives you and his or her classmates, and how glad you are that he or she is in your class. The return on this minute-long conversation is invaluable!
  4. When you see that a student is upset, pull them to the side, and ask them how they are feeling on a scale of 1–10, 10 being the best. Ask them what you can do for them to help them get to a 10. Yes, this takes time, so don’t do this in the middle of a lesson… use your judgment about the best time to ask. Not only will you be addressing the students’ needs directly, which helps them feel an important and respected part of your community, but you are modeling valuable empathy and problem solving skills that they will undoubtedly need to utilize as they mature.
  5. Encourage a culture of respect. Encourage students to be sympathetic and supportive. Reward positive behavior such as this through your behavior system, or with positive ClassDojo points! Better yet, customize these behaviors in ClassDojo for your classroom, and weight them heavier than other positive behaviors. You will be amazed at the culture change in your community! When students support and respect each other while learning together within a community, continuous improvement becomes an embedded value.

Building a learning community in your classroom definitely takes more time and effort. The powerful qualities ingrained in its philosophy shape and enhance learning invaluably. Students will undoubtedly benefit from such a rich educational experience, and your love of educating children will grow stronger, guaranteed!


Do students feel safe in your classroom?

I remember one math class in high school that was dreadful. It wasn’t dreadful because the content was boring or the activities were disengaging — though we’ve all been there, too. It was dreadful because the environment was harsh, uncomfortable, and scary.

What could be so scary about a math class, you may ask? Was algebra alarming? Exponents eerie? Integers intimidating? While the purpose of class was to increase my knowledge, I didn’t feel like this was happening, and it had nothing to do with the content.

After becoming an educator myself and reflecting on this class many years later, I now have a better understanding as to why this class left such a negative impression on me. Our teacher — though clearly bright and well intentioned — did not set have clear outlines for lectures and assignments, nor clear and upfront expectations for classroom behaviors.

For example, his questions were unplanned (I suspect) and, therefore, unclear. He would call on us right away after asking an unclear question, and I wouldn’t know how to answer. He would then look disappointed in me and  some of the math whizzes would shake their heads and promptly answer correctly. Not only did I not follow the unstructured lesson and questioning, but I felt unsupported by my peers. I felt disrespected and disengaged.

Here are some ways to ensure that you are creating a safe, respectful classroom culture!

1) Start the year with clear procedures and directions

When everyone knows what’s expected at all times, there is less room for misbehavior, ambiguity, and off-topic questions. Drill these practices and procedures, just like you would a fire drill, your first few weeks of school. Start the class the same way every day. Keep an agenda and cross off items as you complete them. Always end with some sort of check. Consistently practicing these procedures and structures creates a culture where students know exactly what’s expected of them at all times. Less ambiguity = less frustration.

2) Everyone participates!

One of the easiest pitfalls teachers can fall into is calling only on students who raise their hands or, on the flip side, calling on students whose hands are not raised as a “gotcha” moment. Both of these strategies are ineffective. Rather, use a system to call on students randomly, so everyone’s always responsible for the answer.

3) Wrong answers are okay, but everyone always finishes with the right answer

If a student gets an answer wrong, you need to walk that fine line between “You tried, that’s the important part” which communicates low expectations and “No. Wrong!” which makes kids feel like its unsafe to try a wrong answer. Use lines like, “It’s on the tip of your tongue, I can tell — someone help him out,” or “That’s wrong, but I’ve heard you say it before. Mark, help him out?” Then always go back to the original student, have him or her repeat the correct answer after hearing another student say it. This will allow them to leave feeling successful, knowing it is okay to try in class, even if they are unsure of the answer.

4) Wait time

If you’re asking a difficult question, give students the appropriate amount of time to think about it before calling on a random student, or let them write or talk with a partner about it. If you build in this wait time, it becomes a part of your class culture and students will feel more comfortable voicing their answers with confidence.

5) Positive responses — from students!

As teachers, we are responsible for providing positive feedback, but let your students do the work! After debriefing partner work, try asking, “Who would like to call out a glow of something their partner did well?” Also, within the last months of the school year, I recently started incorporating snapping when a student would say something poignant — and the rest of the class was allowed to snap as well. One snap for something great, two for a comment that was downright insightful and awesome. They loved the positive encouragement from not just me but their peers, and many of them wrote in their end-of-the-year surveys that they strived to get a right answer so the class or teacher would snap for them.

Would love to hear how other teachers create a safe, respectful classroom culture? Please share your ideas in the comments below!

New Teacher Survival (series) #1: Setting up your first classroom

Let’s just get right into it! Here are three quick steps to set up your first classroom 🙂

1. Take Stock

If you are starting out your teaching career at a public school, in a classroom previously used by another teacher, you will probably be left with the dregs of furniture and junk. If that is not the case, you are lucky! I made the mistake of keeping all the items left by the previous tenant of my classroom and I never touched any of it. With the exception of books in decent condition, my advice is to throw it ALL away! It is best to start fresh.

The first thing to do after a good cleaning is think about your teaching style. This should determine the layout of your room. I prefer my students to be seated in cooperative groups. Four is ideal, but I’ve always had to do groups of six due to large class size. Depending on your grade level, you should also have a rug area. I recommend a group meeting area for all ages — if you have the space. I gather my fifth graders on our rug everyday for meetings and mini-lessons. I make it a point never to teach while they are all at their tables, too many distractions. You may not have a lot of space or choice in how you set up your tables, but you will most likely have a lot of empty walls. Do not feel obligated to cover every inch with decorations and posters, blank space is good for learning!

2. Design with a Purpose

“Oh Ms. ______ is such a good teacher! I learned so much from her campfire themed classroom!” said no student ever. Do a google search for classroom decorations, and you will be amazed at the elaborate designs out there. If some teachers spent as much time and money designing and planning lessons as they do decorating their classrooms, there would be no achievement gap. Okay, so I might be oversimplifying, but all of the research out there states that children need blank space, areas for their eyes to rest. I love the article, “The Culture of Cute,”  which describes how over-decorating has really become an epidemic in schools. And for what purpose? It certainly doesn’t help the students learn.

3. Resist the Urge to Over-Decorate

I’ll admit, I am a decorator. I love walking into teacher supply stores and finding that they have an entire aisle devoted to cute owl decorations. I allow myself one or two items, but that’s it! An owl sticker here or there, or even some owl pencils are not going to break the bank, and they will not distract from student learning. Decorating my classroom in floor to ceiling owls is not only expensive, it’s pointless. When you inevitably end up at the teacher supply store, or on TeachersPayTeachers.com, ask yourself, “What is the educational value of this item?” If the item’s sole purpose is to make your room “cute”, put it down, walk away, don’t look back. I also advise against buying pre-made “instructional” posters. You may find a poster that perfectly illustrates the water cycle, but your students won’t get much out of staring at it all year. It’s best to let them make their own. If you must have it, only take it out when you are teaching that particular unit, otherwise, it will just become a part of the landscape and the students won’t pay any attention to it. All you really need in terms of decor is space to display student work, which is decoration enough. A little fadeless paper and some tasteful borders should suffice! Remember, your classroom is a place for learning, it’s not your birthday party, it does not need a “theme”!

Now that your classroom is squared away, I’ll be sharing more ideas and suggestions as you venture on your path of becoming a teacher this year! Stay tuned!

This is part 1 of a 4 part series by Emily Dahm. Read Part 2 here, Part 3 here, and Part 4 here.