The thing I worry about most is the nature of my students’ interactions with me, with my subject, and with our shared environment. Lately, I’ve come to think of all these things as (my part of) the culture they encounter in, and around, school.
I want to be clear, in my use of the term “culture”, that I am not referring to climate of the school. The attitudes, behaviours, and discourse of the people in the school are like the motion of iron filings, and the pattern they form locally is the climate. Culture is the magnetic field.
Culture is, as Geertz puts it, “an ordered system of meaning and symbols, in terms of which social interaction takes place” (p 144). The meaning includes things like our values and our core beliefs, the symbols include the things we put on our walls and the vocabulary we adopt; the social interaction is education.
Creating a positive culture in a school or classroom has become a popular discussion-point for the education advice sector (example, example). Teachers should collaborate, listen, enact classroom rules that promote respect and sharing, and directly instruct children about community values. That’s a good start, and it is probably enough for the beginning teacher. But for those of us who really, genuinely care about our students, we are often compelled to do more.
Jose Vilson, in typically concise honesty, described what he learned teaching a difficult class during his first year in the classroom: “When I took off my mask and invested myself in a group of kids, the homeroom became a home. For all of us” (p 87). For him, the next step to creating a positive classroom culture was appreciating the students as individuals, with hopes and needs and fears. How else can we reach out to students, and establish the sort of culture the beginning teachers cannot?
Love Your Students
Love your students. Take them for who they are, flaws and all, and love them anyway. Love them when they are causing trouble, and you will see their misbehaviour as symptomatic of some deeper need. Love them when they do poorly on assessments, and they will learn that some things are more important than test scores. Love them for their humanity when fellow teachers blame them for their failures. Don’t be afraid to tell them so, at the right time.
I once had a troublesome high school math class that missed the deadline for an important project. They assumed I would treat them as their other teachers did: admonishment, an extended deadline, and complaints home. I told them that my love for them wasn’t contingent on their work.. They should finish it at their own pace, but that it was necessary for the course. That changed the dynamic of our classroom: mutual trust and affection meant that we could navigate problems, rather than butting heads against them.
Accept Friend and Follow Requests
We all know that our social media need to be sanitized. So what’s the problem with connecting with our students online? I tried to answer that question last year.
On Facebook, I can wish happy birthday and celebrate achievements outside of school. I can keep an eye out for dangers, too, and help students learn about privacy and the internet.
Develop Respect Beyond “Mister”
My students have called me a lot of things, but they rarely call me my name. Even after years of developing and displaying their deep respect for me as their teacher, my students use an awkward and unnecessary formality: “Mr Doucette”. I would rather that my students show their respect for me and my classes through their actions, and by accepting me as a human being — which is something quite difficult when you’re not even allowed to use my name.
Several years ago, I developed a teacher costume. At the time, as a young male teacher, I needed to send the appropriate cue to female students whose crushes distracted them from their work. I typically wear a white or blue shirt with a bow tie, a v-neck sweater or cardigan, a tweed jacket, corduroy trousers, and brown dress shoes. It is almost comically professorial, and it makes me a well-known character in my school.
Recently, however, I’ve found that my style of dress makes it difficult for students to conceptualize me as a human beyond the teacher character they’ve framed in their minds. I wonder how I could dress in such a way as to promote positive classroom culture? I’ve got a great hoodie that says “Niceness is Priceless”, and I’ve worn it a few times.
Eliminate Implicit Bias and Stereotype Threat
Implicit bias is probably affecting how most teachers act in the classroom. During the past two years, I’ve kept a careful eye out, and caught myself a few times: calling more frequently on boys than girls, presuming girls are more interested in the social sciences and boys in the physical sciences, and “mansplaining” to my peers more than once. I think I’m getting better at treating everyone as an individual worthy of their own types, rather than relying on stereotypes.
Stereotype threat, on the other hand, is something I cannot eliminate, because it is brought into the class by my students. I can try to ensure that all students know their particulars are not relevant to academic success in my class. For some students, who struggle, I have had mini-interventions that seemed to be successful.
Surround Ourselves with Cultural Artifacts
The walls of my classroom are covered in student work and colourful, engaging, and useful posters. I’m happy with that. But these cultural artifacts are of my designs. Even the student work was created according to tasks and rubrics I designed. If the classroom is truly to become a shared cultural space, then I think the walls need to reflect our shared culture, even if that means posters of Rey and Biebs.