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.