Nurturing a Positive Classroom Environment: 5 Questions for Educators

Posted on Tue, Jul 01, 2014 @ 12:07 PM

positive classroom environmentLike most teachers, I spend a lot of time in my classroom during the summer. After almost an entire year in the same room, I am in dire need of a change! As I look at my own classroom environment—the way desks are arranged, the kinds of pictures and posters that cover the wall, the way my classroom library is arranged—I try to imagine it full of students and wonder, “Is this a safe space? Is it clean and inviting? What does this classroom say about me, my students, and my approach to teaching? These questions are even more at the forefront of my mind this summer since reading Patrick Allen’s book, Conferring: The Keystone of Reader’s Workshop.

Although his text is especially useful for reading teachers, Allen devotes a nice little section of his book to exploring the physical environment of his own classroom. Below I have listed a few of Allen’s questions, along with his short self-reflections. These have really helped me look at my own classroom through a different lens, so I thought I’d share a few of them with you.

Nurturing a Positive Classroom Environment: 5 Questions for Teachers

If someone walked into our classroom, who would he or she say owned it?
I want my students to take ownership in our workspace, to know that it is our classroom—not just mine. I am careful to place my area in a distant corner of the room so that there is more room for students to move about and so that their desks and workspaces take prominence. Although I make logistical decisions about where furniture is placed, there is always opportunity to change. I want every visitor who comes into our classroom to sense that the room belongs to learners. If our students have a sense that the classroom belongs to everyone, it encourages community and adds depth to the types of responses that occur.

Have I added a personal touch?
My students know me well. Ask them now and they can tell you which book I’m currently reading, my current writing project, my plans for the weekend, my family stories…and they know because I believe it is imperative that I invite them to get a glimpse into my life. They see pictures of my four kids. They notice the colorful placemats under book baskets, the lamps, and the strings of lights above their work areas. All of this adds up to much more than objects. Personal touches set a milieu of comfort.

Is this a room that I would want my own children to be a part of?
Often when I am sitting with my students, gathered around the chart paper or the document camera projecting a piece of text we’re working on together, I wonder if my son Jens is being asked to gather around his teacher to contemplate a particular thinking strategy or to discuss the qualities of a wonderfully written piece of text. I also wonder if my daughter Lauryn is listening to a lovely book by Patricia MacLachlan and being asked to mull over a memory it sparks or a sensory image it creates. It is with the eyes, ears, and voice of the teacher I want my own children to have, that I interact with my students, especially as I work with them one-on-one.

Does the room look like a teacher supply catalog blew up?
Our room has blank space on the walls strategically placed throughout the room. Rarely will you find a poster supplied by our local teacher supply store. My funds are better spent purchasing books. Besides, I don’t think students really pay attention to posters that say, “How to Choose a Good Book,” or “Ten Things Readers Need.” Rather, I think that the language and the thinking that adorns our walls should be that of the children. This takes time, but I never feel the need to fill the walls with “stuff” until we’ve had the time to bring it together as a group of learners. The walls should be a public display of students’ ideas.

How low can you go? How are materials arranged?
I try to put things in the reach and view of children. I learned this lesson from my mother-in-law; she absolutely despises walking into someone’s home and seeing pictures hung so high on the wall that you have to crane your neck to see them. The same should be true of our classrooms. If it is meaningful information, students should be able to see it clearly. If students are encouraged to revisit previous learnings on charts you created together, they are more apt to reuse them while working independently if they are hung at their eye level.

Does the room reek of “cute” or reverberate thinking/learning?
Thinking is hard work. Cuteness isn’t. If someone walks into my classroom and says, “That is soooooo cute!” I immediately ask myself about thoughtfulness. If someone is observing me teach and says, “Your kids are so cute!” or “That lesson was such a cute idea!” I immediately ask myself about thoughtfulness of my activities. I don’t want my classroom to mirror strong evidence of “cuteness.” I want my classroom to reverberate with a sense of thinking.

Photo credit: dcJohn / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)

A Teacher's Guide to Summer Travel

Topics: Educational Leadership, Educational Leadership Degree, Educational Leadership Master's Programs, educational leaders, school climate, Positive Classroom Environment

Learning to Drive the Bus: 5 Ways to Build a Positive School Culture

Posted on Tue, Feb 18, 2014 @ 10:02 AM

positive school cultureThere’s been an awful lot of ink spilled on the benefits of building a positive school culture—and just as much on the importance of nurturing positive relationships with students. All that ink leads me to the conclusion that these things are important to educators.

But if building better relationships and creating positive schools matters to us, why aren’t more schools positive places?

According to Jon Gordon, author of The Positive School Manifesto, the answer is simple: Building a culture of care is hard work. Not only that, it requires a special breed of leadership—the kind that’s determined and passionate enough to make positivity contagious.  

Learning to Drive the Bus: 5 Ways to Build a Positive School Culture

Positive leaders required
Positive school cultures are created by principals who make the health of their organization a priority, lead the initiative, and are engaged in the process—even when it’s a struggle. Many of us start off with good intentions, but find it difficult to remain positive in the face of resistance and skepticism. Do not tolerate negativity! Weed it out and press on.

Build a positive leadership team
While principals can certainly be the spark for creating positive energy, they’ll need teachers and staff to fan and carry the flame. Invite your leadership team on the bus by setting up a workshop where you create a vision, a road map, an action plan, and a set of initiatives to move the school in the right direction.

Develop a fleet of bus drivers
You’ll be driving the bus at first, but you’re eventually going to need a fleet of bus drivers to join you. To recruit drivers, start talking. Share the school’s vision with everyone.

Conversations should happen between principals and teachers, teachers and staff, staff and students, students and parents. Each person needs to understand the school vision and identify how their personal vision, job and effort contribute to the overarching vision.

Tend to the roots of the tree
In a world driven by test scores, budgets and short-term results, it’s easy to be distracted by outcomes rather than the process. Don’t fall into this trap. Tend to the roots of your tree and you’ll always be pleased with the fruit it supplies. If you ignore the root, eventually the tree will dry up—and so will the fruit.

Weed out negativity
To create a positive school culture, you must deal with the cost of negativity head on. Ask yourself the following questions: How are we going to deal with negativity, challenges and energy vampires?

Dwight Cooper, the CEO of a nurse staffing company that was voted one of the best places to work by The Society of Human Resource Management (SHRM), asked himself this question; his answer was a company policy he called The No Complaining Rule. This rule states that “Employees are not allowed to mindlessly complain to their co-workers. If they have a complaint, they can take it to a manager or someone who can do something about the problem, BUT they must also offer one or two possible solutions.”

Give this rule a try: it may lead to new ideas, innovation and success.  

Stay tuned for part II; we have five more tips to share with you next week!


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Topics: Educational Leadership Degree, Educational Leadership Master's Programs, effective principal, educational leaders, new principal, excellent leaders, school culture, positive school culture, school climate

Is it getting cold in here? What happened to the school climate?

Posted on Fri, Mar 22, 2013 @ 16:03 PM

School ClimateIndeed, we are a culture consumed by hard data and academic accountability. Although the attention to quantifiable problems in our schools is not completely without merit, it is disconcerting that as teachers and administrators rise to meet the challenges of state and national standards, they are finding it increasingly difficult to spend the time necessary to building relationships and a healthy school climate. While we can’t change the expectations placed on administrators, we do have a few simple steps you can take to attend to your school climate.

Is it getting cold in here? What happened to the school climate?

Do continue teaching
What is your major field of study? Every principal has one. When was the last time you collaborated with students, prepared a lesson plan or taught a class?  If it’s been a while, break out the WD-40, become a “special sub” and take over for every teacher one time per year.  This will keep your “pedagogical chops” sharp; furthermore, it will give students the opportunity to view you—the person who runs the school, speaks to their parents and helps design the curriculum—through a completely different lens. Bet on them going home that night and telling their parents, “Guess what? The principal was our teacher today!”

Don’t bandy around “excellence” without interrogating its meaning
“Excellence…” the ubiquitous buzzword that’s managed to find its way into nearly every tagline and company slogan on the planet. Educators are keen on this word, too, but what does “excellence” truly mean? What do we mean when we say that excellence is our goal?” Surely, we all strive to have excellent schools, but do we—principals, teachers and staff—have a shared vision of what this looks like? Here’s an idea we got from M. Scott Norton’s and Larry Kelly’s book, The Principal As a Learning-Leader:

Before your next faculty and staff meeting, ask each of them, “What does excellence mean to you?” and give them a week to craft a two-sentence response. Their responses will be the subject of discussion and debate the following week.

Do take transitional students under your wing
Remember the day you crossed the border from middle school into high school? Even if you were one of the lucky ones who adjusted quickly, there was still a learning curve. Keep in mind that it can be intimidating for freshmen to enter what Susan Ohanian aptly describes as “a maze of corridors, fast-paced schedules, and rigorous course requirements.”

Helping these new students transition is a shared responsibility, but administrators will need to be the impetus behind it. One way to do this is by creating “articulation programs” that include taking students on a tour of the building and setting up a one-to-one mentor program so that when the new student arrives they are familiar with the layout and have an ally—someone they can approach with questions that older students take for granted. Give mentors a pin or an armband so that they can easily be identified as the person who will provide assistance.

Don’t forget that there are easy ways to facilitate creative environments
Do our learning environments support students’ natural instinct to discover and create? In their book, The Third Teacher: 79 Ways You Can Use Design to Transform Teaching & Learning Trung Le and Rick Dewar tell us about one school in Lincolnshire, Illinois that has integrated artwork directly into the school building by setting up art galleries dedicated exclusively to student artwork. The school has even set up a program where students can sell their artwork to the school. Not only do students receive a small sum of money for their work, they also have the satisfaction of knowing that their work will be on permanent display.

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Topics: Educational Leadership, Educational Leadership Degree, Educational Leadership Master's Programs, effective principal, Becoming an effective principal, aspiring school administrator, school climate

Between a rock and a hard-data place: Nurturing school climate

Posted on Tue, Mar 12, 2013 @ 09:03 AM

school climateAs you read this, take note of all the other mental baggage competing for your attention. Are you distracted by someone or something in the next room? Are you tired or distressed about something?  If you are experiencing any of these feelings, chances are that they’re going to impair your ability to concentrate or think critically about what you are reading.

Now imagine that you’re a student. Perhaps you feel disconnected from your teachers and peers; meanwhile, life at home is slowly unraveling. Are you having a tough time concentrating on what you’re reading? Most likely, yes.

Intuition tells us that creating a positive school climate, an environment where students feel safe and engaged, is crucial to our students’ academic success. And a growing body of research confirms this. Yet according to a recent Education Week article, groups preparing future school administrators are finding that training on school climate and culture is, generally speaking, inadequate. Why though?

Perhaps it is because school climate—unlike absenteeism, graduation rates and test scores—is difficult to quantify. And in a culture consumed by hard data and academic accountability, it has become increasingly difficult for “turnaround leaders” to spend the time necessary to build relationships and a healthy school climate.

This is disconcerting, especially if you buy Clyde A. Cole’s argument that quantifiable problems (high dropout rates, low test scores) are actually the symptoms of a poor school climate, not the other way around.

If Cole, an executive director of content and curriculum for New Leaders, is right, perhaps it’s time that we give more attention to our school climate after all. How though?

Here’s what Rachel J. Neill, a principal at Quail Hollow Middle School in Charlotte, N.C. has done:

Last year, in her first as principal at Quail Hollow, Ms. Neill held individual and group meetings with teachers to identify what they thought was working at their school and what needed to be changed.

She then instituted a quarterly anonymous online survey for teachers to weigh in on how things were progressing throughout the year. After the first survey, Ms. Neill said, a teacher protested, arguing that even though the survey was anonymous, submissions could be traced to individual computers and used in future teacher evaluations.

"I genuinely just wanted to get feedback," Ms. Neill said. "On one hand, I had to have that conversation and say, 'I really hope you trust me.'

"On the other hand, I had to prove that in my actions, taking the survey data back to the teachers and saying, 'Here's what we found; here are the changes we're making based on the feedback' … and for people to see that it didn't show up in anyone's evaluation."

In Westfield, Ms. Scallion has started school culture training for all assistant principals on track to become school leaders. She meets with them monthly to review school data, such as student-behavior incidents and climate surveys, and look at various case studies.

"I look at them as my talent pool for future principals. Effective principals are intentional, consciously trying to influence school climate," Ms. Scallion said. "We ignore it at our peril and our students' peril, because students need to be in an environment where they not only feel physically safe, but feel emotionally supported and successful."

To read the rest of Sparks’ article on school climate, click here. We also recommend reading “The Challenge of Assessing School Climate, an article by Jonathan Cohen, Terry Pickeral and Molly McCloskey. 


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Topics: Educational Leadership, Educational Leadership Degree, Educational Leadership Master's Programs, effective principal, Becoming an effective principal, aspiring school administrator, school climate

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