George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Believe it or not, I had a bit of a freak-out before the first day of school. All summer, I had prepared my curriculum, re-thought my lesson plans, reflected on the energies I would put out to my students, and got plenty of professional development (specifically in science and math integration). Yet, a few hours before I went to bed, I posted on Facebook, "Always nervous about the first day of school with the students. Not because I'm scared of them, but because I want to do right by them." Despite my best efforts, I always feel like I can do better. Then, on the first day, I received a text message from one of my former students saying how much she missed her teachers -- including me.

This reminded me that, despite some of my mistakes, I did a few things well last year, and these strengths continue to be the signature I leave on every class of students. Most teachers I know want to have a positive relationship with their students, but often don't know how, or believe that silence and obedience mean they're learning. Building a relationship means that you've opened a door for them to learn, making them receptive to what you have to say and giving them confidence to contribute as well.

Here are some positive trends that I've noticed:

1) Rarely Use the Word "Wrong"

Students need to know that you're not going to press a buzzer every time they make a comment or ask a question, no matter how ridiculous. Starting the year off by accepting their errors and misgivings means that you get to know them and their style of learning. Also, you get to show them the way you'll respond to questions for the rest of the year. The word "wrong" in a classroom is similar to the phrase "You can't do that" in improv. It's a non-starter and often inhibits further participation. We have so many ways to say that an answer is incorrect without using the word that keep students thinking, "I might as well not."

2) Take Arguments Outside

We as teachers have nothing to gain and everything to lose by going back and forth in an argument with a student in class. Even in extreme situations, having a tit-for-tat with a student for longer than a few seconds looks worse for us as adults than it does for the student. Instead, pull the student aside or outside and have the dispute there. Then, when pulled outside, let them voice their grievance. We often have no idea why they acted as they did, or if we were wrong. Once they've voiced their problem, reply with a firm and affirmative reminder of the procedure for proper classroom behavior. Once they've calmed down, let them return to the classroom, give them space, and resume your teaching.

3) On-the-Spot Affirmation Works, Too

Most people who do professional development these days tell you not to give outright positive feedback, and to an extent, I agree. No teacher wants a student who constantly needs affirmation, because they never build self-sufficiency that way. Thus, we are asked to just give a quick nod, or a statement like, "You're on the right track." Yet every so often, when a child has had a bad stretch, or has dug themselves deep into a hole of frustration, a quick "Yes, that's exactly right" or a pat on the back will return the student to the right frame of mind. As teachers, we have to read the student to know if he or she needs that extra jolt. The times I've used it with my class, it has the effect of an espresso in the morning. I'll take that.

Much of what I do as a teacher aligns with my core beliefs about how schools should function, and with my own classroom management style. You may have more suggestions for building such an environment, and you should. We as educators can do better, specifically for students who already feel like school has nothing to offer them. The best way to do that starts with the relationships with the young people we serve daily.

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heather's picture

Building a positive, trusting classroom environment is so important to establish when setting the tone for the school year. Students want to feel comfortable to express themselves freely and not have the fear of rejection. It's so important for teachers to develop personal relationships with their students so they can understand them as an individual which will allow the teacher to best meet their needs. Telling a student that they are "wrong" at any point could turn them off completely for the rest of the year which could affect many aspects of the individual. Teachers must constantly be aware of what they say and how they say it.

Alecia's picture
ALT in Japan

Being committed to student learning involves knowing our students as learners and as individuals. Once students realize that we genuinely care for them then we are on the right path to creating a positive and trusting learning community. Thank you for sharing your insights.

Martin Richards's picture
Martin Richards
I train educators to use a coaching approach in their teaching practice

Using a simple technique for noticing how many negative utterances she made, a class teacher gave herself the chance to pause and find a more positive expression for what she really wanted to say.

The technique?
A box of 1000 paper clips. She took out one paper clip for every negative utterance. She put one paper clip back in the box when she found a more positive way of expressing herself.

Allies in the classroom
Perhaps the most powerful thing she did was to ally with her students. In a heartfelt statement she told them that she wanted to have a more encouraging atmosphere in the classroom, and that she was going to use a simple technique to give herself feedback. She asked the students to signal her when they felt her utterances were not positive enough. Sure enough, the first few lessons were heavy with signals and hints, and lots of paper clips were taken from the box. Soon however, the box of paper clips remained untouched for weeks.

You can guess the effect on the students' perceptions of the positivity of their own language.

Martin Richards's picture
Martin Richards
I train educators to use a coaching approach in their teaching practice

the Dixie Diarist stuns and amazes me with her honesty and willingness to openly share the realities of the working life.

Rock ON!

TODD SENTELL's picture
Author of the hilarious schoolhouse memoir, "Can't Wait to Get There. Can't Wait to Leave"

I'm a he ... man ... type of guy!

LilLaura's picture
2nd grade teacher from NOVA

I am always so excited and anxious the night before the first day of school. Probably even more than the students! It is so important to create that positive learning environment where students feel safe and comfortable from day one. I agree that students should be talked to outside of the room for certain situations because the last thing you want to do is embarrass the child. At times when I get frustrated, I always try to remind myself to think about the situation as if it was my principal and I. (Principal is the teacher, and I am the student.) I wouldn't want my principal to raise her voice at me, embarrass me in front of others, or make school an non enjoyable place to be. So I should never create an environment where my students feel that way. I need to treat them the way that I would want to be treated.

Judith's picture

I am currently student teaching in a fourth grade classroom, and I found your blog very helpful. I recently adopted a technique that my master teacher uses. As an informal assessment, my master teacher has the students write their math response on white boards and asks them to raise their boards when they are finished. If the response if correct my master teacher says "right", if the answer is incorrect she says "left" (instead of wrong). When I told my professor about the new technique I had adopted, she was disappointed. She was disappointed because she said that it wasn't "my style", and that she believed that I had veered from truly connecting with my students. As you can imagine, this was a little hurtful because as a new teacher, I am still trying to discover "my style". I found your approach very encouraging. From now on I will try to not be as judgmental, which will in turn create more trust within the classroom.

Lolita1212's picture

Hi Jose,
Great post! I've read several of your other post and came across this one. As a future teacher I am anxious about starting off the first day. No amount of preparation can prepare you for what is there to come. Having these three positive and trusting trends to look for are great. Using words such as wrong I believe can leave a bad taste on student's mouth. Negative words can have a major impact in students on how much they are willing to learn. As well as not confronting student inside the classroom. You made a great point about taking arguments outside, especially when you have 20 other students staring at an argument between an adult and a child. In addition having that on-the-spot affirmation can be great for students. Even as adults we like to hear we are in the right track and see things such as nod as mentioned. As well as just feeling appreciated for our hard work. Thank you for the post, enjoyed reading it.

Bluebonnet2017's picture

Hello Lolita1212, I agree with you when you say that no amount of preparation can prepare us for what is there to come. Theory and praxis are two very different things. I am very anxious as well about teaching soon, and all these postings with professional advise are very helpful. I think that being clear and consistent in the way we interact with our students will set a good beginning.

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