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!