This month the Secondary Smorgasbord is talking about how to create a positive classroom culture. When I began my journey into education, I was introduced to Linda Albert’s book, A Teacher’s Guide to Cooperative Discipline. It had a powerful influence on my life in the classroom. I was teaching in a junior high school (no middle schools back then), and had a group of 7th grade pre-algebra students with a few “characters” who would undermine everything I did. You know the type, right? I fondly gave those”types” the nickname T.C. Negatory (“Tough Child”). They taught me TWO IMPORTANT FACTS:
- Rules DO NOT make students choose positive behavior.
- The ultimate goal of student behavior is to fulfill the NEED TO BELONG.
I needed to help my students feel connected and choose better behavior. Albert’s book ingrained the power of practicing A+ relationships. She taught me how to model what she calls the five A’s, in order to teach my students how to initiate positive relationships with their peers. Those five A’s are ACCEPTANCE, ATTENTION, APPRECIATION, AFFIRMATION, and AFFECTION.
Now you might be thinking that this will lead to “spoiled students” and “over-inflated ego-esteem.” However, I feel that we only spoil students when
- we overlook their misbehavior and don’t confront the problems
- when we do things for them that they can do themselves (they need to struggle and risk in safe parameters)
- when we bail them out of situations that they created
When used appropriately, a generous dose of the A’s will alter your classroom environment forever. ENCOURAGEMENT (the art of giving someone the courage to risk something new) and A+ action steps are the ticket to a positive classroom culture.
The Five A’s in Action
This is the most important of all the A’s, and the one that I found to be the most difficult when I began to create positive classroom management. We need to accept our students wholeheartedly with all their quirks and faults, right now, just as they are. Learning to accept the doer and not the deed was difficult as a beginning teacher. Helping our students believe that they are still worthy human beings, even when their actions are not appropriate, is the art of giving encouragement. You have to work at this skill, trust me. Learning to accept our students’ personal style can also be a challenge. How many fads and trends have you seen in your career that cause you to take a second look? Are you offended by baggy pants, blue hair, stretched out ear lobes, tattoos? What one generation views as trendy, another might see as unacceptable. Only when you can accept your students can you begin to freely give the other A’s.
In the first few weeks of school, find ways to give personal attention in meaningful ways. Greet students at the door, and learn their names (with proper pronunciation). Make time at the end of class to speak to your students personally, begin to grow that relationship on day one with quality attention. As your classroom culture grows, you will have opportunities to listen to your students, as well. Teens have so much going on in their lives. One of the best ways to give attention is by sharing our time and a gentle spirit to their ideas, trials, and dreams.
To appreciate our students begin to focus on contributions they make, not simply accomplishments. For example, my pre-calculus students are learning the routines of putting away calculators before the bell rings. I’ve got a group of students during our lunch period that haven’t quite got the routine down yet. They keep leaving them on their desks. Yesterday, Michael stayed behind to help. I told him, “Michael, when you help me put away those calculators, I feel special. You really help me save time.” I wanted to emphasize the present achievement and not bring attention to the fact that his group has been negligent all week. Be sure to focus on the NOW, so your students will feel proud of the achievement.
When you can recognize and acknowledge your students’ positive traits you set the tone for building a culture of “positivity” in the classroom. By making affirmative statements to your students you are helping to build the whole child. Statements such as, “Sarah, you are so dependable,” or, “Max, your homework effort really paid off for you on this test!” You can begin to explore this A+ routine by writing down a list of positive traits and then watching for them in action. Some of my personal favorites are ambitious, brave, cheerful, considerate, courageous, creative, dedicated, dependable, fair, helpful, honest, organized, persistent, patient, thoughtful, truthful, witty, and so on. You get the idea!
To me, affection is that unconditional love clause of life. “I like you because I just do!” I want my students to know that no matter what goes wrong, or what mistakes they make, I won’t stop liking them. I won’t give up on them. And, like my mother always said, “What goes around comes around!” Our moms are so right! When you show that you genuinely care about your students, it’s hard for them to resist you. It’s our greatest asset. Students will be more likely to follow our policies, procedures, and advice if they see we are a friendly advocate rather than a foe.
These words of advice and wisdom from Dr. Linda Albert have helped me to create a positive classroom culture for more than 20 years. I still pick up my worn out book and refresh my mind when times get tough. I also keep a photocopy of 99 Ways to Say “Very Good” in my planner binder every year. This list was compiled by my U.C.F. professor, Dr. Timothy Sullivan, when I was his student in Educational Psychology. He too, had a special knack for creating a positive classroom atmosphere. Get your copy here. It’s contagious!