How Can Teachers Make Learning Last? It All Starts With Classroom Culture

Classroom culture is everything. You can know your stuff, have advanced degrees and be well-read in different teaching and learning strategies, but if you’re not paying attention to the learning culture of your classroom, a lot of your work will fade when the last day of school arrives.

A strong classroom culture helps children get excited about learningTake a moment to assess the learning and interpersonal culture of your classroom. Is it a place where your subject matter comes second only to the way students are treated? If not, you need to take a hard look at what you’re doing.

How can you leave a lasting impression on your students? Are you content with having them live only in your subject for a school year, or do you want more for them?  A strong classroom culture can make that happen. Here’s how to build it:

Have high expectations

Children learn what they live — it’s true of parenting and it’s true of teaching. Your students may claim otherwise, but they really want you to ask a lot of them. I have found that most people like a good challenge and will respond vigorously to work they see as relevant and interesting.

Don’t fall into the trap of merely reciting and delivering a stale curriculum that may as well have been taught five (or 20) years ago. Any subject matter, no matter how dry it may seem, can become more interesting in the hands of a dedicated and progressive teacher.

Model the right behavior

Another key to building a classroom culture is to model the interpersonal behaviors you want from your students. The best classrooms are places where the teacher takes a patient and growth-oriented approach to the children and their learning.

Avoid sarcasm, cutting comments and humor-laced-with-cruelty in your language, and take a strong stance against students acting that way. A classroom with a strong culture is a safe place for all children.

Speak of your own learning

You’re more than a role model — you’re a professional in the learning business. If you show the children what you’ve been learning lately, they’ll naturally want to follow your lead.

Talk about the books you’re reading, the podcasts you’re listening to and how you’re growing in your knowledge. When you treat lifelong learning as an expectation, students will line up behind you. This also supports students who love learning and need an adult to affirm it in their lives.

Spread the word

Most of your work will happen inside the four walls of your classroom. What the students are expected to do, what they will learn and how they are to act should be your primary focus.

That being understood, don’t forget to spread the news of your class to your parents and the school community. Produce a podcast. Publish a paper newsletter. Have a Google Hangout with your families. There are many ways to connect and spread your culture. Be sure to keep the outward-bound positive messaging going.

Make it relevant

Too much of what we do in a classroom feels divorced from the students’ outside lives. Work to bring relevant experiences to your students, and use these activities to reinforce your culture and your expectations.

If you can connect an activity to a student’s current interest or future aspirations, you can support your classroom’s culture while you’re increasing student interest.

It all comes down to culture — the way children feel when they walk into your classroom speaks to what you aspire to. Avoid mediocrity, low expectations and sarcasm at all times. Celebrate your subject and your students. You’ll love what will follow.

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Brian P. Gatens is the superintendent of schools for the Emerson Public School District in Emerson, New Jersey. He has been an educator for more than two decades, working at the K-12 level in public and private school settings in urban and suburban districts. In “From the Principal’s Office,” Gatens shares advice, provides insights, and gives guidance on everything from what principals look for when interviewing teaching candidates to how to work with overly protective parents. His front-line assessments supply candid perspectives on school life.

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