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


About fifteen seconds into today's vocabulary test Lamar slammed his pencil on his desk and announced he was giving up because he couldn't remember any of the words he studied real hard last night. I urged Lamar, in my most encouraging voice, to give it one more try. As a grade for the test, Lamar asked if I would use the the mock quiz his mother made for him last night on some Internet computer program. He said he made a good grade on it. I said no, but still with a teacherly tone of encouragement. I almost made myself gag.


When Sheldon gets into that weird habit of using cuss words in his conversations and you know he really isn't doing it deliberately, don't give him a wonderful nickname, like "Cuss Master," which is the one I gave him, which then acts to encourage him even more to use profanity in his conversations for the rest of the week until he can get in to see his therapist.


The next day, on another river, the Nantahala, which means "Asperger's boys will bicker incessantly" in Cherokee, Irving, Dill, Beauregard, Earl, Benny, and I were in raft number 601. Of course there was an amount of bickering. It's what they do. It's what they enjoy. They're really good at it, so now, as their teacher, I enthusiastically encourage something they're good at. A river and sun and cigarette-seasoned local fellow named Creed was our raft guide who said after about two minutes on the river ... You freaks sure do squabble a lot. I looked at Creed ... with an expression of teacherly approval. Squabble. Bicker. Both work, but squabble's even better.


If you were a television reporter with nothing better to do than to go up to people on the street and ask people on the street their opinions on monumental world events I'll bet this is what some person with a neck that's red would say to this question ... Do you think a little seventy pound kid could thoroughly disrupt and discombobulate a P.E. class where kids were actually encouraged to scream and yell and run around? The person with a neck that's red and any other sensible person would say ... But you're not talking about a certain kid named Dwayne.


One of our players, Ted, who had recently sawed off a big mole on his face with a razor blade, on his way down court to set up on offense, would often stop by to get a drink of water. We coached him out of the habit by screaming at him and shoving him back onto the court in a way that looked like, from the parent's perspective across the court, the kindly administering of hugely encouraging words and an affectionate pat or two on the back. You have to practice it and hope they can't read your lips. Another time he dropped by during the game and said he was having a heart attack. I told him having a heart attack would most likely get him out of homework ... so play hard.


Lucy's mother tapped a finger on a piece of paper she brought with her. It looked like a print-out of her grades. Lucy's mother shouted at me ... How can you give her these grades! I didn't know what to say. I sat there with a dumb look on my face. The other teachers, too. Uh ... I said ... she earned those grades. I said that's the result of her effort, despite my constant encouragement. The mother shouted at me some more ... This is not her!

Rebeca Lozano's picture
Rebeca Lozano
Spanish Language Teacher , PYP and IBDP International Baccalaureate & IGCSE

when students come to class with the homework not done; they normally used "I am sorry". At least this is happening to me since I am teaching. I say to them that sorry is becaming an empty meaning word. So not let them to say sorry when they have not done homework and the reason why is because they say sorry to me, when actually they should be sorry with them I explain them that They do not do the homework for me, they do the homework to improve their learning, for their own improvement. So.... What is the point to use this word? Once they understand it they do homework, ;) I also practice that the thing we have to do is to avoid to do things that they might requiere the word Sorry!

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.

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