Years ago, a student about to graduate high school told me about first meeting me in middle school. She said, I was quaking in my boots.
We had a laugh because she came to realize that she did not need to be so nervous. It wasn't anything I said or did--just entering the new classroom with new classmates and a new teacher was enough. So much uncertainty!
Before Erica, the student, shared her experience, I hadn't really thought about how our years of experience, confidence, or energy plays one part of--and influences--our classrooms or our early conversations with our new students.
Teachers across America are in the early stages of a new year. Many of us have been putting in a lot of time establishing classroom routines and developing classroom communities.
Now in my 22nd year, I can not undersell the importance of establishing community. It took me almost half of my career to really digest that reality. It is more important than curriculum. It is. Without community and relationships, the curriculum might be delivered but it certainly won't be received.
Developing community is worth any time that it takes. And we must care for it and tend to it throughout the year. Don't be afraid to take the time to work on it. Teachers muscle through and adjust to so many interruptions--assemblies, weather, state testing--that flushing the time to develop community because we feel compelled to genuflect to the curriculum we must cover...needs to be rethought.
Developing community isn't sacrificing anything--it is investing in everything that matters.
Yesterday, I had the good fortune to participate in a professional development session for colleagues in our district's induction program. The topic was classroom management.
Asked to spend about 45 minutes leading a discussion on this topic I went to Peter Johnston's research and his book Choice Words: How Our Language Affects Student Learning. As I prepared at home, I also received the most recent edition of Voices in the Middle. I found a relevant article in it: Relationships Matter: Fostering Motivation through Interactions by Erika Daniels and Ron Pirayoff.
Daniels and Pirayoff's message resonated with me and matched what I was hoping to share during the professional development session:
"You are just a moment in their time, but you could make it a positive moment or you could hurt them. Think about what you say and be careful about what you are doing (20)."
While I embrace the message wholeheartedly, I can see how it might be jarring to some teachers. After all, the words hurt and be careful carry a hefty warning.
What do you mean I might hurt them? Powerful stuff to consider.
As we met during the classroom management session, I was brought back to my former student--the one who entered my room quaking in her boots--and wondered if my sharing the research, the evidence, and the theory of how we speak to kids was helpful...or jarring...or intimidating.
Learning that we have as much--or greater--an impact on classroom behavior as anything a child brings into our building can be sobering. We experience many approaches to classroom management--desk arrangement, seating charts, clear classroom rules, allowing students to generate ownership in the rules, rewards, punishments, contact with counselors and colleagues, et al. However, the one strategy which trumps all of that is the establishment of community.
Community takes time. We don't just move into a classroom and experience instant community.
It takes a very concerted effort. I spend a lot of energy focusing on the words I choose in my classroom. I am not perfect at it. I find myself stumbling or pausing sometimes. But I am more aware of my word choice. Seriously, this is not just something I am writing because I know it is good advice, I am writing it because this is where my classroom management energy goes: using word choice to elevate how kids see themselves in their eyes--especially in my content area.
Since learning about Peter Johnston's work, I find almost zero management issues in my classroom. Ninety-nine percent of the detentions I wrote in my career occurred during my first eleven years of teaching. As a matter of fact, I can't even recall the last detention I wrote concerning a student in my classroom. I feel confident in estimating that it has been at least ten years.
We can spend more time and energy cleaning up discipline issues (which are always temporary) and never truly mentor positive behaviors. Quite honestly, once we are in the discipline stage it is too late to do much about that incident other than clean up the mess. Each mess, however, creates a new opportunity to start over--to work on building a community so that foundation is strong and student behavior does not crumble before our eyes and through our fingers.
Developing a community is not easy. Changing our language--the words we choose to use--is not easy either. However, the concerted effort put into getting to know our students and allowing our students to know the positive ways in which we see them matters. It matters. It matters above anything we can do regarding classroom management.
At the very least, it has mattered to me...
...and it will continue to matter a great deal to those next kids who will come into my classroom already quaking in their boots.