George Lucas Educational Foundation
School Culture

Beginning the New Year on a Positive Note

An educational consultant shares ideas for fostering a positive learning environment gleaned from teachers and administrators around the country.

September 13, 2021
gpointstudio / iStock

For years I’ve been coaching educators that the single most effective thing they can do to establish an environment for learning is to maintain a positive tone and build relationships with students—not to minimize challenges but to emphasize the bright spots that draw kids into learning and make them want to stick with it.

To help educators prepare for 2021–22, I’ve been focusing on the importance of creating procedures for teachers and students that will allow them to concentrate on the job at hand and prevent distractions from escalating in ways that can impede learning or even create safety hazards.

I’ve been meeting with more than three dozen administrators and hundreds of teachers across the country, and together we’re starting to identify what really needs to happen in schools this year. School leaders are feeling an extra sense of urgency because they have a lot of new teachers on emergency authorizations replacing those who left during the school closures.

Here are a few ideas that can save hours of extra effort down the line by creating that just-right environment for learning—where students can commit to learning because they’re confident that you’ve got their back.

Starting the Day

Greet your students at the door: And say hello to other teachers’ students, parents, and administrators in the hallways. A friendly environment benefits everyone, and nothing makes a place feel more welcoming than a greeting. Sometimes students aren’t really sure how to respond, but don’t let that stop you. That simple gesture can set the tone for the entire day.

Get off to a good start in each class: Every minute counts. Have your bell work posted as students enter the classroom:

  • Spark curiosity with a question on the board.
  • Include an independent task that will build understanding of content they’ll be learning in the day’s lesson.
  • Continue work on the current class project.
  • Conduct a spiral review.
  • Have a quick check-in with your students about how they’re feeling that day.
  • Be purposeful and meaningful.

Being Clear With Students

Survey your students: How do they learn best? What gets in the way of their learning? What are their hobbies, interests, jobs, and favorite sports?

Make your expectations clear: Simply posting the objective or goal won’t improve student learning. It’s all about discussing and helping students own their learning. Be absolutely clear what processes and procedures should look, feel, and sound like in order to articulate, coach, and provide feedback to students concerning the basic procedures:

  • Entering and exiting the classroom
  • Having materials ready for class
  • Bell learning
  • Urgency to get to the student learning

For example, tell students how you expect them to walk through the halls before setting out for specials. If a northbound class leaves their room in single file and a southbound class leaves their room freestyling, how long will it take for chaos to ensue?

As a school, decide how you’re going to react to such common occurrences as texting during class or homework going missing. Communicate what you’ve decided and follow through with consistency. Be very clear if any of the student expectations are not being followed—what are the follow-up procedures to clearly articulate to your student?

Knowing your instructional goals is necessary but not sufficient. You have to know what success looks like. Suppose you want your students to work on deep questioning this year. That’s a great goal, but how, exactly, will you assess the quality of the students’ questioning?

Reaching Out to Parents

Survey your students’ parents or caregivers: What do they value in a teacher, a classroom, a school?

  • Make the survey short, simple, and to the point. Have an open-ended question that will encourage parents to continue elaborating on what they value.
  • Make positive phone calls home throughout the school year, but especially at the beginning. Families want to know that you really care about their child. If you have to make a hard call home later in the school year, the parents will already know you’re genuinely interested.

What all of these strategies have in common is the focus on thinking ahead—learning from experience how situations are likely to play out and being prepared with time-tested preventive and responsive measures. New teachers are at a disadvantage here, so it’s up to the rest of us to lay down the critical groundwork that sets the tone for the school year.

We’re all excited and a bit nervous about the return to classrooms. Getting clarity about procedures before students arrive is a good way to preserve the excitement and minimize the possibility for confusion and the added anxiousness of a new school year, while setting everyone up for success on day one.

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