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How to Create a Positive Classroom Culture for Secondary Students

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    There’s a reason why more and more educators are talking about classroom culture—it matters.  Create a positive classroom culture to support your student’s overall social and emotional needs and academic success. Read this post to learn actionable steps that can help.

    Behind every successful classroom is a dedicated teacher working to create a positive classroom culture for their students. Because, let’s face it, having a positive classroom culture is a vital element of student learning and overall success.

    But talking about it is one thing. Creating a positive classroom culture is another—and it takes some work. I don’t say that to intimidate you, but I think it’s important to understand that classroom culture doesn’t just develop out of thin air. But since you’re here, I have a feeling you’re up for the task.  (And don’t worry. With the right steps, it’s totally doable.)

    So how do you create a positive classroom culture for your students?

    But First, What is Classroom Culture?

    Classroom culture is an essential aspect of the classroom environment that establishes the social-emotional tone of the space. Many people think classroom culture begins and ends with the physical space. While I appreciate a gorgeous, well-planned bulletin board as much as the next teacher, classroom culture goes beyond how your classroom looks. It’s about how students feel while they’re there.

    Are they:

    • Motivated and eager to learn?
    • Engaged in the materials?
    • Comfortable taking risks?
    • Accountable for their actions?
    • Supportive of their peers?

    Do they feel:

    • Seen and supported by their teacher?
    • Respected by their peers?
    • Connected to their learning?
    • Ownership over their learning?

    These are all essential elements of a positive classroom culture that reflects and supports who students are and how they learn.

    Why is Classroom Culture Important?

    In the simplest terms, classroom culture is important because it helps set the stage for students’ success. Yes, a strong, positive classroom culture supports students’ academic learning and success. However, it also plays an imperative role in social-emotional learning and development.

    A positive classroom culture can lead to the following:

    • Increased student motivation, participation, engagement, learning, and autonomy
    • Improved student confidence, relationships, attitude, and outcomes
    • Decreased student behavior issues

    Additionally, a positive classroom culture benefits the teacher too. Teaching in a positive classroom culture is more enjoyable and can even help battle teacher burnout.

    Overall, as you establish a strong and positive classroom culture, you’ll notice stronger relationships between you and your students and your students and each other. When you foster this type of community among your students, it’s more enjoyable for everyone to be in class.

    Positive Culture Is a Shared Responsibility

    Creating a positive classroom culture requires a collaborative effort between the teacher and students. You should get students involved in establishing the classroom culture whenever possible. (Don’t worry. I’ll give you a few ideas in the next section.) Yet, we can’t sit back and expect students to take the reins here. It’s important to acknowledge that it’s the teacher who must take the first step.


    How to Create a Positive Classroom Culture

    When it comes to positive classroom culture, a little effort can go a long way. The most important thing to do is get started. Follow the actionable steps below to start creating (or reinforcing) a positive culture in your classroom.

    1. Get to Know Your Students

    Relationships are an essential building block of building a positive classroom culture. While you can foster relationships among students with icebreakers and collaborative work, establishing student-teacher relationships is also crucial. Make it a point to get to know your students—and I don’t mean simply knowing their names. Strive to learn about your students. Pay attention to their learning styles and preferences. Acknowledge their strengths. Note their weaknesses. Ask questions. Discuss their interests. Wish students luck with any big games, competitions, or performances outside of your class.

    The more you know about your students, the more you can create a classroom where they feel like they belong and have an opportunity to succeed. Knowing your students will help establish a positive student-teacher relationship and lay the foundation for a welcoming learning environment and positive classroom culture. 

    2. Set Clear and Consistent Expectations

    Setting clear expectations for your students (and consistently enforcing them) promotes a positive culture and a productive classroom. Get students involved in creating classroom expectations by discussing expectations that reflect kindness, respect, fairness, and empathy.  This collaborative approach ensures everyone is on the same page and helps students take ownership of their behaviors and consequences. Setting clear expectations will help set the tone for the rest of the year while clarifying what you expect from students and what they can expect from you and each other.

    However, don’t set them and forget them. Enforce your expectations throughout the year to build a sense of consistency and trust. This type of consistency helps students understand clear expectations, boundaries, and consequences instead of leaving them guessing. While there may be times when you need to acknowledge extenuating circumstances, be wary of being too lenient too often.

    3.  Establish Routines

    Establishing clear routines is another way to foster a positive classroom culture where students feel comfortable and ready to learn. Routines help minimize uncertainty by giving students a sense of comfort, normalcy, and direction. By knowing what to expect and do, and when, students can put more time and effort into learning with confidence.

    While you can vary your routines daily or week to week, be sure students know what you expect of them. Post the daily routine on the board or Google Classroom so students can see it right when they arrive at class and get to work. Begin each day with an engaging question of the day, a bell ringer, or independent reading. Make it clear if, when, and where they should turn in work. Whatever your routines are, clearly relaying them to students is vital.

    4. Promote Taking Risks 

    A big part of having a positive classroom culture is prompting risk-taking in learning. It’s about empowering students to try while minimizing the fear of making mistakes. Talk with your students about how mistakes are an important part of the learning process. (I like to emphasize to my students that failure is often a precursor to success.) Having these conversations will promote a learning environment where students feel comfortable asking and exploring questions—one where students are willing to take risks and try new things.

    When students feel a sense of psychological safety, they are more likely to be confident and engaged learners. Additionally, this sense of safety promotes sparks in creativity and innovation. You can promote psychological safety by paying attention to your students’ needs, listening to their concerns, and encouraging them to ask questions. Ultimately, it’s about emphasizing the learning journey rather than solely focusing on the destination.

    5. Connect Learning to their Lives

    How many times have your students cried out, “Why does this even matter?” or, my other personal favorite, “When are we ever going to use this in real life?” Students want to understand the connection between what they’re learning and the real world. If you want to create a positive classroom culture where students are eager and motivated to learn, make that connection clear to them as often as you can.

    With a little effort and creative thinking, there are ways to make just about anything relatable and relevant. Gearing up to read an “outdated” classic? Find a thematic connection to the modern world or incorporate modern supplementary materials, like short stories, memes, or current events. When we help students establish personal relevance to the material, they’re more likely to want to engage, participate, and learn. The more relevant you can make the material, the more initiative and ownership students are likely to take.

    6. Keep It Going

    If you want to create a positive classroom culture, I recommend you start from day one. However, even if it’s the middle of the year, you can work toward creating a positive culture in your classroom by implementing these tips. Regardless of when you start laying the foundation for a positive culture, it’s important to keep it going. Creating a positive culture isn’t a one-and-done thing. It’s something you have to foster all year long. Continue to foster relationships with your students. Remain clear and consistent in your routines. Encourage collaboration. Provide support. Celebrate successes. Keep the conversations going to keep the culture flowing.

    No matter the time of year, do your best to remain a role model for contributing to a positive classroom culture. If you can do that, your students will follow.

    7. Return to Your Why.

    It’s easy to get caught up in the millions of responsibilities we have as teachers. It’s okay (and completely normal) to have an “off day” here and there where you feel like you’re not showing up as your best for your students. However, when the going gets tough, and you feel like your positive classroom culture is slipping through your fingers, return to your why.

    Remember why you entered the profession in the first place. What about the job lights you up?  The truth is, teaching is hard. But it’s also incredibly rewarding when we are guided by our why. Changes are you go into teaching to inspire your students to learn. To share your excitement for learning. To prepare students for life beyond the classroom. It’s about more than strict rules and learning standards, right? It’s about helping students tap into their potential and be the best versions of themselves. Reminding yourself of those things can help you find your way back to promoting a positive classroom culture.

    Bonus Tips

    • Encourage Collaboration: Collaboration helps students build critical interpersonal skills like teamwork, patience, and perspective. However, it also promotes an inclusive and positive classroom culture. Collaborative learning can occur in small or large groups or between two partners. Regardless, the more collaborative a learning environment, the more students can learn from one another. Just ensure they do so with respect, cooperation, and kindness.
    • Audit the Physical Classroom: Classroom culture and physical learning environment go hand in hand. Do a quick audit of your physical classroom. Are your bookshelves filled with novels representing your students’ diverse backgrounds, identities, and interests? Are your classroom expectations displayed clearly? Do you provide easily accessible resources for students who need additional support? Do you celebrate your students’ success by displaying their work on the walls? You’d be surprised how impactful the physical classroom can be on a student’s learning.
    • Celebrate student successes: Just as you encourage students to take risks, acknowledge their hard work. Celebrate student successes, both big and small, throughout the learning journey. Take time to verbally acknowledge student strengths, leave positive feedback on assignments, and hang up completed student work around the classroom. These small acts of celebration can go a long way in making a student feel seen.

    A Final Thought on Classroom Culture

    As modern education emphasizes test scores and rigor, it’s easy for classroom culture to be forgotten. Ironically, having a strong positive culture in your classroom doesn’t mean you have to abolish rules and loosen up on rigor. Instead, positive classroom culture is all about striking the right balance between community, support, engagement, and, yes, expectations.

    Fostering a positive classroom culture can enhance students’ engagement and achievement and support their social and emotional needs. While creating a positive classroom culture can feel like a big undertaking, I hope these tips are helpful to you. If you have any additional tips, please share them in the comments below.

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