A long time ago I noticed that one of the chief differences between a good teacher and a truly great teacher is the ability of a great teacher to build a classroom community where everyone is part of something larger than themselves. Students who are part of classroom communities feel safe, respected, comfortable, and engaged. The positive atmosphere that exists in a classroom community prevents many of the problems that can plague a disorderly class because students work and learn together in harmony instead of disorder and disruption. Like everyone else, I want that for my students.
Some educators may doubt the power of a classroom community or may not want to spend valuable instructional time on something as indeterminate as community building. The benefits of a classroom community, however, clearly outweigh any potential problems. Students who feel a sense of connection to their classmates, their class as a whole, and to their teachers are much more likely to behave with courtesy and self-discipline. The connections in a classroom community encourage persistence in achieving shared goals, tolerance and respect for others, and effective communication skills—all important life skills.
While every classroom is uniquely formed by the teachers and students who create it, I've observed that classrooms where there is a sense of community do have several characteristics in common.
- Teamwork and team spirit is clearly evident. Students often work together on shared goals in various large and small group configurations.
- The overall class atmosphere is inclusive and welcoming. No one is left out. While student differences are recognized, they are also accepted as potential strengths.
- Success and effort are both recognized and celebrated. Students know what to do and are confident that they are either on the right track or are busy learning what to do to succeed.
- The interactions among students and between teacher and students are overwhelmingly positive, friendly, and focused on learning.
- Students are engaged and active as they work together. They share materials, responsibilities, and ideas.
- There is a strong sense of student ownership involving the physical environment as well as in the workload and in instructional choices. Many routine tasks are delegated and managed by students.
In my efforts to build a classroom community, I have found that it takes patience to build a classroom community over the course of a school year. Some students may bond right away; others will take longer to feel comfortable and acclimated to the group.
Building a classroom community cannot be accomplished with one or two actions, but is a process that requires deliberate thought and planning. The first step in the process has to be setting up the physical space so that students can function well as members of a team.
- Take into account the various activities that must be performed in your classroom each day so that you can create flexible arrangements of furniture and materials.
- Be careful to consider traffic flow patterns when planning room arrangements so that students can move about with ease.
- Encourage student ownership of some interactive parts of the room such as word walls, calendars, and message boards. This will make it easier for you to delegate routine tasks.
- Create a bank of shared supplies for those students who may need to borrow paper or pencils.
- Set aside a space with accessible materials, school supplies, books, or handouts that students can locate and distribute themselves.
- Set up a recognition area that showcases student achievements as individuals, groups, or as a class.
Now that you are on the way to building a classroom community for your students by arranging a physical space that is conducive to shared work activities, it’s time to look at the other components of the process. The next posting in this six-part series will cover effective techniques for getting to know your students so that you can create the vital connection that you need with each one. After that, you will explore other components of a classroom community:
- how to improve your own sense of classroom immediacy so that students find it easy to relate to you,
- how to help students get to know each other better,
- how to help students relate well to each other, and
- how to engage students in shared activities that will allow them to develop a sense of belonging to the class.
As a final note, before you begin working on this exciting approach to creating a positive and engaging classroom environment, it’s helpful to take some time to brainstorm the overall vision that you have for a community in your own classroom. What would the ideal community look like in your teaching practice? What would your students be doing? What obstacles can you anticipate? Where can you find help with those obstacles? What outcomes would benefit your students most? What would it mean to your students to be part of a caring and supportive classroom?