Classroom Culture and Why It Matters

When educators talk about culture in their classrooms, what exactly does that mean? How does culture impact the learning environment? Has “classroom culture” become another buzz-phrase in the teacher world, just another thing to put on a teacher’s to-do list?

Over the past eight years, I’ve taught in classrooms filled with students who had at least one parent either dead or in jail, students who didn’t know where their next meal was going to come from. I’ve also taught in classrooms with students who came from families with a median household income of six figures and two parents who were still married.

While I have seen innumerable differences between these two very contrasting groups of students, at least one thing always remains the same: the significance of the classroom culture.

Today, I’d like to share with you some thoughts on what classroom culture really is (this is a commonly misunderstood classroom management concept), how it affects the learning environment and how you can transform your classroom culture today in just three easy ways. Let’s jump in, shall we?

What is classroom culture?

According to the Baldrige Criteria for Performance Excellence, a classroom’s culture is the way students feel when they are in your classroom. It involves not only the physical structure of your classroom but also teacher-student and peer-to-peer relationships.

If you think about the general definition of culture – the way of life of a group of people – this makes complete sense.

Classroom culture is the co-mingling of the physical space and how everyone works together – or not – within the four walls of your classroom.

Classroom culture is the co-mingling of the physical space and how everyone works together – or not – within the four walls of your classroom. What are the teacher and student patterns of behavior that emerge on a daily basis? How do students learn in your classroom? What is your relationship like with your students? How do your students relate to each other?

Classroom culture includes the “vibe” of learning, but it’s determined by how everyone “lives” together in your classroom as well.

How does classroom culture affect the learning environment?

When I stepped foot in Room 101, my first classroom, all I had was about thirty student desks, the teacher’s edition of a textbook that didn’t align with my course’s standards, and a Bachelor of Arts degree in History.

I was one of three white teachers in a school that was 99.9% African-American. Almost every child at my school received a free lunch because of their family’s low income status. Most of my students lived in single parent households with multiple siblings.

We had 11-year-olds who were already gang members. The second week of school, we were put on lock down because two men were shooting at each other directly across the street.

I hadn’t completed a teacher education program. I had no formal teacher training. To put it mildly, on paper it would seem I was ill-equipped for the job. But what I did have was some damn empathy.

You see, just two years prior, I had been living under the poverty level, receiving every form of government assistance for which I was qualified and trying desperately to raise two boys born fifteen and a half months apart on my own. Their father and I were still married, but he was unreliable at best.

It took a lot of work, but I clawed my way out of that deep hole of a life (more on that in a different blog post) and in the process found my true calling – teaching.

Because of those experiences, I knew what it meant to be hungry, to be scared of what lies ahead, to feel trapped by other people’s choices and mistakes, to think that it was hopeless to dream of a successful future. And so when I looked in my students’ eyes and saw the same fear and uncertainty I’d experienced, I knew what they needed: someone to listen, someone to care.

At the end of the day, the content and standards you teach your students don’t matter at all if your students don’t think that you care about them. Inversely, if your students know that you care about them, they will work their tails off to make you proud.

The Baldrige Criteria for Performance Excellence puts it like this:

Without acceptance and trust, students’ energy may be diverted from learning to self-protection. A trusting environment empowers students to become accountable for their own learning and the learning of others.

A student cannot do his or her best work while also worrying about the tense relationships going on in the background. Just as a family thrives on the health of its relationships, so does a classroom. And as the adult in the room, this responsibility falls to you.

Now, I know this might seem daunting. Your job is difficult already with the school and district and state mandates pouring down on you, many of them having nothing to actually do with educating your students. If you’re anything like me, you also have a very rich but demanding personal or family life that also needs your attention and effort.

Trust me, I get it. That’s why I’ve nailed down three changes you can start making today – yep, today – in an effort to steer the culture of your classroom in a more positive direction.

3 Steps Toward a Positive Classroom Culture

Step 1: Take an Honest Look

Consider how students might answer these questions in order to get to the heart of what the culture in your classroom might be like:

  • Do students in your classroom feel accepted or judged?
  • Do they feel free to risk or are they afraid to make a mistake because of how you or their classmates will react?
  • Do they feel empowered in their learning or do they feel like they will never measure up?

I know that considering your students’ answers to these questions might not be comfortable, but if you truly want to provide them with a nurturing, productive learning environment, you must be willing to consider your classroom from your students’ perspective. This will allow you to make changes so they feel more at ease and inspired to do their best.

If you’re feeling particularly brave, one way to get a true sense of your classroom’s culture is to give your students an inventory (like the one shown below and linked here). Have your students rate their experience in your class so far and see what your culture’s strengths and growth areas are.

classroom culture survey

Analyzing your classroom from the point of view of your students will also provide you an opportunity to celebrate the things you’re doing right. If you’re anything like me, as I read through the results of my first classroom culture survey, I was stunned to see just how many students felt like they could make mistakes in my classroom without fear of being made fun of or teased.

I knew I had worked hard to create a nurturing environment, but I didn’t think my students noticed. It felt good to know that I was at least doing one thing right! I’m sure you’ll have similar “a-ha!” moments if you’re willing to take an honest look at your classroom from a different perspective.

Conducting a survey like this takes courage, but you’re a teacher. If you can handle teaching a hundred or so kids every flu and cold season, I know you can handle this.

Step 2: Throw Out Your Class Rules

The first week of school this year, I led my students in team-building and get-to-know-you activities. I wanted to give them a chance to learn about the people they’d be working alongside in US History for 180 days. After playing a few games and doing a reflection activity or two, by the third day, they were ready.

It was time for them to make the rules.

You see, in my class, I only have one rule: Respect. We talk about what that looks like nearly every day. It covers all the bases because if you trace back every class rule you’ve ever had for your students, I’m sure that the path would lead you to respect of something – self, others, supplies, the classroom space, the learning environment.

IMG_7236To help my students see this rule in action, they were split into teams to develop a class contract, a list of statements that would guide how we act in Room 110. I asked them to consider a few things…

  • What does the perfect school look like?
  • What does the perfect classroom look like?
  • What does the perfect teacher look like?
  • What does the perfect student look like?

They discussed their thoughts and filled out a chart like the one above to categorize their thoughts. And then I asked the biggest and bravest question of the day:

What must we do in this classroom to ensure that we are ¹creating the best classroom environment and ²being the best teacher and students we can be?

They were given the rest of the class period to come up with five to ten statements that would guide our behaviors for the rest of the year. You see, as teachers, we cannot hold our students to a standard that we also are not willing to follow. This class contract is one that we would all agree to and abide by.

You wouldn’t believe some of the incredible ideas they came up with…

“We will allow each other to make mistakes.”

“We will respect each other’s views even if we don’t agree.”

“We will be caring, compassionate, and empathetic.”

“We will listen more and talk less.”

Each team in each of my five classes came up with some remarkable stuff. For each class, I drafted a ballot of each statement the teams had come up with and they voted on the top five. Those special guidelines guide and shape our classroom every day, and the students are bought in because they came up with the statements in the first place, not me.

This gives them ownership and a sense of belonging. It’s a game changer!

(For all the primary teachers out there, check out this resource that might be helpful for you.)

Step 3: Build Relationships

The key to classroom culture is relationships. If they are tense or untrusting, then the whole thing falls apart. I teach almost 150 kids every day. I know how daunting it can feel to make each one of your students feel special, but here are some easy ways to let students know you care without breaking the bank or wearing yourself thin:

Stand at your classroom door and greet each child by name as they come in. We all love hearing our names spoken to us. (As long as it ain’t my momma using my full name when I’m in trouble!) Remembering each of your students’ names and speaking to them directly kicks your day off with them in such a positive way. This will also allow you to notice if one of your students seems upset or unusually distant so that you can check in with them later.

Smile. A lot. And mean it! Your students know when you’re being fake, so find SOMETHING to smile about. Even if it’s because you’re looking forward to hitting the Mexican restaurant up after school with all your teacher friends for margaritas and chips and salsa, find a reason to be happy. Remember that you set the tone in your classroom for students to follow.

Intentionally encourage your students. Take time to circulate the classroom while your students are working and boost them up in specific ways… “I love the way you use color, Alex, to categorize your thoughts,” “Hannah, you do a great job leading your group when things get tough,” “Jess, I saw your mom in Kroger yesterday! She is so proud of the hard work you’ve been putting into pom this year.” These are all easy things to say, but they reflect sincerity and the fact that I know my students and I am paying attention to them and their lives.

Attend your students’ extra-curricular activities. Honestly, this is the hardest one for me. And it’s the one I need the most growth. I have a son in 5th grade and another in 6th. Our afternoons are crammed full of after-school activities and homework and family stuff. But one goal I’ve made for myself this semester is to attend one after-school activity of my students each month. It requires planning and sacrifice, but I know it will make a difference.

I know that shifting the culture of a classroom might feel daunting. I promise you, though, if you pick just one thing from this article to try with your students, it will make a difference.

When it’s all said and done, your students simply need to know that you are present and that you are for them.

When it’s all said and done, your students simply need to know that you are present and that you are for them. Once they know that, their actions will start to reflect it and you’ll see your classroom environment grow and change like never before.

Thank you for caring enough about your students to give them the best kind of learning environment possible… one where they belong.

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