Creating a Classroom Community

Jenning Prevatte, M.Ed. 

What makes a great classroom? A great teacher? A great student? How do we engage students? These are questions that all educators at all levels ask. They are one of the most crucial questions in education. If we know the answer to these, we can inspire, connect, and engage all learners...right? These questions are the foundation of what we strive to accomplish as be great educators. They are also questions I get asked a lot. Especially how do educators engage students, keep them engaged, and reengage them when they are disengaged?

As a college professor in teacher preparation, I have a unique opportunity to converse with various pre-service and in-service educators at all grade levels, including my colleagues teaching in other disciplines. I am often asked what the secret is to engage students. How do you get them to be active participants in the learning process? During a recent presentation on the power of scaffolding, I was asked how you reengage disengaged learners. These are tough questions! They do not have simple answers, and they take intentional actions.

When considering an engaged learner, we must first recognize that engagement is viewed in three cognitive, emotional, and physical domains. Regardless of the learner's age, all learners engage in the learning process (or don't, for that matter) through these three domains.  So, how do we engage students cognitively, emotionally, and physically? All great teachers strive to do this but, at times, struggle.

Through my experience, engagement begins with a foundation of connection. We learn with people we feel connected to, psychologically safe, and inspired by. This is simple neuroscience. So, from my perspective, the foundation of engagement is building positive relationships with every student in the classroom. I know you are saying, I do that! Or, But how? Or with every student? Every family? 100% of the time?

The answer to these questions in my early teaching years was no. Sad, I know. But I have learned that connection is the secret sauce to engaging students. One of my favorite quotes is from Rita Pierson; Every Kid Needs a Champion. In a TED Talk, she states, "Kids don't learn from people they don't like." And isn't that true?

So, how do we connect with our students? It happens through multiple small acts rather than one big gesture. Developing a connection with learners on a personal level by providing time to build a learning community and get to know each learner is a great place to start. Building a positive learning community requires teachers to consider the relationships between learner-learner, learner-teacher, teacher-learner, and learner-self. A connection that inspires a deep level of engagement and a brave space to feel psychologically safe requires understanding each individual in the learning environment.

One way to develop a positive learning community is by creating norms considering the classroom's four relational elements: learner-learner, learner-teacher, teacher-learner, and learner-self. This is a step to humanizing the classroom and ensuring everyone's voice is valued. When a student feels that their voice is valued, it builds trust. And trust is critical to connection and a strong relationship.

Other ideas for building connections include participating in events important to students, families, and the community and sharing and celebrating classroom successes. Also, I have found that students will test you in multiple ways to evaluate if you are the type of educator that follows through with what you say. So, say what you mean and mean what you say at all educational levels. I am just as much a part of the learning community as the students are, and I must also live by the classroom norms. I let my students know they need to hold me accountable to these norms just as much as they hold each other accountable. I create learning partnerships with my students to enhance the learning community.

So, what small acts do you integrate into your classroom to build a positive learning community? I am an advocate for engaging in reflective practice. In the spirit of reflecting, write down ways to connect with your students, families, colleagues, or the community you work with. Consider adding one new way to connect; try something different this year. And do not forget, take time to celebrate yourself and the work you do!

Are you looking for a great book to support the classroom community with younger learners? One of my favorites is, Have You Filled a Bucket Today? A Guide to Daily Happiness for Kids, by Carol McCloud. It is part of the bucket-filling book series. This book is about how people have an invisible bucket that follows them everywhere they go. When positive things happen or are said, it fills their bucket, and when mean or negative things are said, it dips from their bucket. This book and others in the series are great ways to build connections with students. There are books for early childhood and K-12.

If you are a secondary or higher education educator, I have created a one-pager on how I create classroom norms. It has successfully supported engagement, attendance, and building a strong learning community. You can download it from my Toolkit.

Always remember!

You are talented! You are brilliant!

You connect, engage, and inspire the future!