George Lucas Educational Foundation
Classroom Management

How to Create a Welcoming Classroom Environment

After visiting thousands of classrooms, the authors share a high-level overview of the common elements they’ve seen in rooms that hum with learning.

March 19, 2024
SolStock / Getty Images

Creating that just right classroom environment is something all teachers strive to achieve. When we try to articulate what that specific environment looks and sounds like, what keeps coming up is the feel. We believe there is something that simply feels empowering, safe, joyful, rigorous, prepared, and passionate. Together, we’ve visited several thousand classrooms over many years, and here we compile a high-level list of what we have noticed in highly effective, welcoming classrooms.

The classroom

Appearances: Let’s start with the look of these classrooms. Student work is displayed to showcase their effort and learning progress. A working wall features resources, sentence stems, subject-specific vocabulary with accompanying images, and anchor charts for easy reference during lessons.

The classroom is organized, ensuring that everything has its designated space for easy access to supplies and materials—papers, books, folders, etc.—maintaining an open, clutter-free environment that reduces anxiety and promotes productivity.

Students are grouped collaboratively to foster discussion, processing, and creation together. Motivational posters, quotes, and encouraging phrases decorate the walls. Lighting sets a high-expectation tone, especially in classrooms without windows where teachers use inexpensive mirrors with curtains to provide the appearance of a window. The teacher’s workspace is minimal or nonexistent, which helps to prioritize student focus.

Sound: Now, let’s explore the sound of these highly effective classrooms. There’s a constant hum of learning, filled with student-to-student questioning and interactions with the teacher. Laughter and cheerful chatter between students and the teacher indicate a sense of camaraderie and a safe space where everyone feels free to be themselves.

Before class begins, upbeat music sets a welcoming tone for the day or period. During collaborative projects, calm background music creates a productive atmosphere. When it’s time for independent work or high-stakes tests, there’s an understanding of the need for complete silence to ensure that everyone can focus and perform their best, thanks to the strong sense of community.

What the classroom looks and sounds like adds up to the feel—that amazing sensation when a teacher creates the perfect atmosphere. It wraps around you like a cozy blanket as soon as you walk through the door. The teacher’s words and actions radiate joy, and students are happy because they feel like they belong in this environment. They understand the routines and expectations, and everyone is fully engaged in learning. There’s a genuine desire to share their passion for the subject with others. Every aspect is intentional, from seating arrangements to discussion structures, resources, activities, teacher facilitation, pace, and the overall tone.

The teacher

We’ve also observed distinct teacher traits in highly effective classrooms. Whether we step into five third-grade classrooms or visit all eight math department classrooms, certain characteristics stand out. Here’s our concise list of what’s needed to be a highly effective teacher.

Solid routines and procedures: Every minute of every day, ensure smooth processes; the classroom could almost run itself. Through practice, timing, and repetition, every student knows what to do and when. Devote the first week to surveying students, building relationships, and establishing clear expectations for the entire year or semester.

Continuous feedback: Guide students toward improvement by highlighting what they’re doing well, what needs correction, and how they can improve. Provide specific, actionable feedback tailored to individual needs.

Variety: Regularly make changes, such as with seating arrangements, collaborative groups, incentives, music, and projects to keep everyone engaged and attentive.

Clarity: Establish high expectations by providing examples, clear rubrics, demonstrations, and techniques like the fishbowl method. Continuously express a belief in students’ abilities to learn and grow.

Purposeful planning: Use every minute; consider how to engage students from the moment the lesson begins until it ends. Constantly assess understanding and spark curiosity for the next day’s learning.

Multiple levels of instruction: Plan for diverse learners to achieve greater student success. Invest time in creating varied levels of questions, differentiated small groups, and differentiated homework assignments and assessment options that meet individual students’ needs.

Relevance of learning: Connect the content to students’ lives to achieve greater success, rather than simply stating the day’s learning target. Making these connections grabs the students’ attention and increases engagement.

Checking for understanding: Always check for understanding during lessons. This can be done with a quick thumbs up, sideways, or down to show understanding; a math problem on a whiteboard or index card; a think-pair-share activity; or drawing an image related to the lesson. Checking mid-lesson informs where adjustments are needed and ensures that all students are on track.

Positive acknowledgment: Consistently praise student effort through verbal encouragement, high-fives, stickers, raffle tickets, or class rewards. Recognize students’ grit and hard work, which will foster motivation and cultivate a growth mindset, promoting resiliency into adulthood.

Family communication: Start communicating with families before the school year begins, expressing excitement to have their child in the classroom for the year or semester. Maintain regular contact through weekly or monthly emails, messages, and newsletters, keeping parents informed about classroom activities and upcoming events. When issues arise, promptly reach out to parents, fostering a sense of trust and appreciation.

Passion and content knowledge: Be passionate and infuse enthusiasm into teaching, sparking excitement among students. Ask high-level questions that engage students and encourage deep investigation of the content. This dynamic interaction between teachers and students is one of our favorites to observe in classrooms.

Becoming a highly effective teacher is achievable through adjustments to the classroom environment. While it may require some shifts in thinking or pivoting to meet student needs, the rewards are immeasurable—for both teachers and students.

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  • Differentiated Instruction
  • Learning Environments

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