As you probably already know, the first two weeks of school are crucial in setting the right tone for the year. If a positive classroom climate isn’t created, where students don’t feel accepted, safe, and respected, it makes for one long year. Setting the right tone is intentional and takes some forethought, but it is definitely worth it. For me, the tone I want to set for the year is for every student to feel safe and comfortable in the class, to know that ideas can be freely shared without feeling scared or ashamed. I want my students to know that I deeply care for them, both in their personal well-being and their success in my class, and that I will do everything I can to help them be successful.
So with that in mind, I think about how I can create a warm and inviting classroom where students are relaxed and ready to learn. Here are five things I do, some at the beginning of the year, and some throughout the year, to set a positive tone in my classroom.
At the beginning of the year…
1. Greet students at the door
The first class on the first day of school is important. Impressions last, whether that’s a good one or a bad one. On that first day, I stand outside my classroom door with a clipboard, the class roster, and a pencil. As each student walks in, I greet him or her, smile, and ask the name. I check it off the list and then let the student enter the room. If a student goes by a nickname, or the pronunciation of the name is different than it looks, then I write it down. That way, I don’t embarrass myself or the student when I say the name later. Plus, as you know, getting to know 180 students isn’t easy, and trying to remember everyone’s name takes time. For me, it’s about a month. (I have tried to memorize names in less time, but it is really hard for me–I have to give myself grace in this area.)
I am not always at my door between passing periods, but I really try to get out and welcome students as they come in. The more I can stand and smile and check in with students as they walk in, the easier the class period goes. Taking time out of my busy schedule (and the curriculum I have to teach!) to ask how their day is going is valuable.
2. Parent letter
I saw this on-line a few years ago and loved it. You can find the letter template here.
The first week of school I send an email home to parents/guardians. In the email I ask parents to write a letter sharing things about their child. Things they’re proud of in their child, a little bit of background, and anything I need to be aware of. Sometimes parents send pictures of their summer with their child. Sometimes they write a two-page thoughtful letter. Sometimes they just write a few paragraphs. I love it all. What’s great is that it allows me to get to know each student a little better. It’s also great because parents get to brag on their kid a bit, and as a parent myself, who doesn’t like that?
To me, these letters also reinforce the fact that I care for their child and want to build a positive partnership with parents. You can never have enough people rooting for students.
Throughout the year…
3. Reading conferences
This is another great way to get to know students. Every time I meet with a student, the first thing I ask is, “How are you?” Even though 95% of the time their answer is “Fine,” it at least begins to open up a conversation. When I start asking questions about their book, helping them make connections from the book to their life, or even just asking what types of books or characters they like, it’s building a connection. It’s letting them know I care not only about what they’re reading, but them as a person. I find likes and dislikes about all kinds of things and jot it down in my notes.
Any time a student recommends a book for me I write it down. Last year, a book a student recommended was on sale at my local bookstore, so I bought it. I’ll never forget the look on the student’s face when I told him I bought the book he recommended and planned on reading it, based on how much he loved it. Surprise and [proud] in one look. That small act helped build a connection. Plus, having other students overhear our conversation sent the message that what they have to say is important and valuable.
4. Postcard home
My goal last year was to send a positive note home to each student. By the time this idea occurred to me, it was the middle of November. Calculating how many students I had and how much time I had left, meant writing 10 postcards a week until the end of May. It was a lot, but it was worth it. And apparently there was quite a lot of buzz at school. (Another teacher told me at first the kids thought it was weird that a teacher would write a nice note home, but after some time, those who hadn’t received one yet were looking forward to it.) How sad that for the majority of middle school students, receiving something positive from school wasn’t the norm.
5. Box of Stuff
The idea is simple. Every time a student does something positive (and this can be anything–they brought their independent reading book, they were trying to use the new vocabulary they learned, they were being kind to someone else), I give them a ticket. They write their name on the ticket and place it in the tin with their class period labeled on it. Fridays I pull out 3-5 names and they get to choose from the Box of Stuff. I spent all my parent money purchasing little things middle schoolers would like–squishy animals, fun erasers, stress balls, scratch-and-sniff bookmarks. bendable stick figures. My goal is to catch kids making positive choices. I also keep track of who is winning and being intentional about “catching” all students, so everyone wins at least once this year.
What things are you doing in your classroom to build community and a positive culture? I’d love to hear your ideas!