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Establishing Classroom Culture

By Joey Brandes

It has been said that a teacher wears many hats; janitor, coach, counselor, referee, negotiator, mediator, decorator, entertainer, the list goes on. Should any one of those required roles dominate more than the conveyor of knowledge? The one hat which I refuse to wear often is firefighter – not the actual firefighter, but the firefighter like behaviors I have observed in some classroom where too much time is spent putting out one classroom distraction after another. Classroom management is both an art and a science and successful management is paramount to a healthy learning environment.

Addressing the needy child that  acts out at the cost of encouraging those with the most desirable behaviors can quickly create a culture where the young students learn the only attention available is demanded by acting out. Yes, inappropriate behavior should be addressed, but frequently diverting attention to the students who truly deserve attention may also teach the attention seeking child appropriate ways to obtain attention.

Imagine each class is like a Petri dish developing a unique culture. As teachers we influence that culture, and a few measured techniques can make the difference between a thriving community and festering chaos.  Humans are competitive animals each striving to meet their wants and needs. One of those, especially among children, is the want for attention and recognition.

One system I employ in my work with young ESL children is a tally system. This visual representation of their favorable behaviors allows students to see how their performance is relative to others in the group. I employ this tool daily among my new groups, and it works like this.

At the beginning of class I ask each student their name and I write their name on the board adding a star immediately after writing their name. In later weeks I will change the question I ask from their name to some other question I know they are likely to get correct such as the day of the week, the month, year, season, weather, etc.…  As the class progresses, I add a star for each appropriate response. An Inappropriate response or a lack of attention creates no star. A wrong answer initiates coaching to guide the student to a correct response, and a star becomes optional.

As the session proceeds this tally allows the teacher to see who is performing well and provides feedback about the teachers own presentation and management skills.  Students benefit by seeing a representation of their performance in relation to others in the group, and, importantly, this data is erased at the end of each session – no cumulative tally is carried into the next session - so that each session becomes the beginning of a new round of play.

Yes, children like to play, and they are capable of learning very well while playing. So, what do you want to play: janitor, mediator, doctor, firefighter . . .? There is a time and place for all those roles, but I would rather not put on some hats. By recognizing what hat, you are choosing to wear you can influence the culture of your group. What hats would you rather not wear?

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