Most educators know that students learn more with teachers who have a strong and caring relationship with them. However, what’s often overlooked, particularly on the secondary level, is the importance of equally strong and healthy relationships among the students. After all, students are people first, and people simply do best when they can relax, when they can trust those around them, when they can share mutual respect and even appreciation for one another. All of this builds a sense of community.
That’s exactly what elementary schools have traditionally been better at doing, with all the students remaining together with one teacher all day. More recently, elementary teachers have relied on the concept of morning meetings to build that feeling of community in the classroom. With students beginning the day by sitting together on a rug, they discuss general-interest topics such as news items and upcoming school events as well as sharing personal topics, including their current emotions. And it works, drawing students together and creating class unity along with support for one another.
But middle school and high school are a different world, where cliques so often form and “in” and “out” groups pit themselves against each other. Besides, appearing “cool” can be paramount. Yet students need that sense of trusted community just as much as, if not more than, younger students. So with secondary students’ schedules precluding the possibility of morning meetings every period, to say nothing of the time constraints, teachers need to interweave community-building into their classroom culture.
This not only provides the comfort and support system students need, but fosters the SEL skills integral to being a decent person not only in school but in life as well: empathy, compassion, understanding, collaboration, communication, and so much more. Since it’s incumbent on teachers to provide the atmosphere in which all of these qualities develop and thrive, here’s my take on it:
- Set Rules of Engagement
Each teacher must decide what behaviors (only three to five) are essential to positive classroom interactions, and then make adherence to those behaviors the rules for engagement in that classroom.
- Students Need to Know Names
Despite the fact that some students have more than one class together, they don’t always know one another’s names. When teachers ensure that they know and use names, it automatically makes interactions more personal.
- Develop Unifying Activities
In addition to academic activities done in groups, which naturally requires students to interact positively, students get to know one another and care about each other through activities designed specifically for that purpose. “What I really like about you” requires every student to list all their classmates and write one sentence about each. I collated the information in January and distributed the lists on Valentine’s Day, watching smiles spread across faces every period. Many students told me they re-read their lists on tough days and were encouraged.
Similarly, “What I will remember” required my high school seniors to write the positive memories they had of each class member. Assigned in early May, I distributed those lists on the last day of class. It’s the expression of sincerely kind thoughts that drew the students together in each instance.
- Spotlight Talent
Since every student has a talent, academic or otherwise, creating assignments that provide leeway for students to showcase those talents uitfies students as well, highlighting areas of similarity as well as areas of singular excellence.
The point is that building a classroom atmosphere in which students genuinely get to know one another and then develop trust, respect and support, builds a community, unifying students in ways that extend beyond the classroom. If we are going to educate the whole child, preparing them to be productive members of society, this is one part.