4 ways to strengthen the learning culture in your classroom

One of my all-time favorite teachers and mentors is Mrs. Strain. She was my art teacher all four years of high school, mostly because she left an indelible impression on me freshman year.

There are so many reasons to sing Mrs. Strain’s praises. For the purposes of this blog post, I’ll stick to one: she expertly developed environments and relationships to maximize learning and minimize disruption, which is a critical part of responsive teaching cycle practices.

Mrs. Strain was so skilled at this that it looked effortless. One of her student teachers once remarked, “There is no classroom management needed in this class. I need to switch placements so I can practice how to handle classroom management issues!” Here’s what that student teacher hadn’t yet realized: Mrs. Strain empowered learners so she didn’t have to manage them. That is the secret sauce!

The power of empowerment

Although it looked effortless, Mrs. Strain worked very hard to empower us. As an art teacher, she had to. Think of all the sharp objects to play with, materials eager to become projectiles, and distracting messes. But misbehaviors and disruptions didn’t happen. Instead, learners met and extended past challenging learning goals with inspiration, creativity, and respectful interaction with one another.

Mrs. Strain was what Zaretta Hammond calls a warm demander. She modeled both caring for and pushing students so they felt safe to take risks and gain confidence. This is critical for addressing learning barriers and educational disparity.

[T]ake a moment to validate everything you are already doing to nurture collaborative learning with your students.

The strength of a learning culture isn’t always formally measured and can often be overlooked or underappreciated. Learners and educators don’t always get recognition for this hard work like they do for good grades, for example. I want to help change that because a strong learning culture not only supports academic achievement but also promotes learner well-being and self-efficacy.

How to build a strong learning culture

Successfully attending to learning environments and relationships is a really big deal that takes a lot of hard work, work you’ve been doing your entire career. These practices are more important than ever after the challenges caused by COVID-19.

Before reading more about ways to strengthen the positive culture you already have in place, please take a moment to validate everything you are already doing to nurture collaborative learning with your students. You’re doing a lot of amazing work, and the goal of this blog post is to help you build on that. Taking time to reflect on your strengths will help you get the most out of this post. Plus there’s no such thing as teachers taking too many minutes to sing their own praises.

So, how did Mrs. Strain successfully empower her learners so she didn’t have to manage them? (Did you really pause to take mental inventory, maybe even give yourself a pat on the back? I hope so.) Let’s break it down.

1. Learn about—and use—learner context

I clearly remember feeling inadequate in Mrs. Strain’s art class at the start of freshman year. I was not confident in my art skills, plus I’m an introvert. I did not want to show peers my artwork for feedback or engage in self-assessment. Some of my classmates were scary and very artistic juniors and seniors! I would just embarrass myself, I thought.

Slowly but surely, Mrs. Strain gained my trust and pulled me out of my shell by getting to know me better: my strengths, interests, funds of knowledge, identities, and needs. She cued me to interact with my classmates one-on-one, shared examples of her artistic mess-ups, and made connections between her lived experiences and mine. Nothing was ever too weird or shocking to Mrs. Strain; she viewed all the information she could learn about me and my classmates as valuable insights that would help her successfully engage us in challenging art projects.

[A] strong learning culture not only supports academic achievement but also promotes learner well-being and self-efficacy.

I didn’t hesitate to engage in peer feedback and self-assessment after a while. Mrs. Strain had bolstered my confidence, affirmed me, and built a rapport with me. Even though I didn’t view myself as an artist or want to pursue a career as one, I ended up taking art classes from her every year of high school because Mrs. Strain had so effectively modeled both push and care. Furthermore, my peers and I didn’t need to express frustration or lack of confidence through misbehavior, task avoidance, or disruption. Mrs. Strain earned our respect by building learning relationships in ways that motivated us to excel.

For more ideas on how to build relationships that fuel learning success, well-being, and self-efficacy, check out the scenarios and other resources in my post “Continue your assessment empowerment work with principle #2: Learning environments and relationships.”

2. Be constructive and empowering

Mrs. Strain didn’t have to worry about students getting into mischief with scissors, clay, glue, or tubes of paint. That didn’t happen in her classroom because she mindfully attended to learning environment structures and expectations that were empowering and constructive, not disempowering or destructive.

For example, instead of lecturing us on why we shouldn’t throw materials or tools, Mrs. Strain asked us to provide reasons for avoiding that behavior that were meaningful to us. “Because I would ruin the shirt I used my babysitting money to buy myself,” a classmate likely said. “Because if I get suspended, my dad will be so mad,” another probably admitted.

We also had routines and jobs. Ten minutes before the end of class, she would let us know it was time to clean up. We took turns rotating responsibilities, from paintbrush washer to floor sweeper. We were teenagers, so we didn’t always do our jobs well. When we didn’t, Mrs. Strain talked with us, instead of wagging her finger and lecturing, to identify why our clean-up jobs were important for our health and safety. I remember being motivated to do my job well because I learned from our discussions that the dust from the clay can be unhealthy. I didn’t want Mrs. Strain, my classmates, or myself to breathe in harmful dust!

3. Establish, communicate, and follow routines

That clean-up routine and the expectations for each tidying job were clear to me and my classmates because Mrs. Strain was committed to establishing and communicating what was expected and, most importantly, being consistent.

I never saw Mrs. Strain’s unit or lesson plans, of course, but I bet they included explicit notes for how to establish and nurture routines and expectations for a safe learning environment. I bet she also left flexibility in her plans for those in-the-moment discussions that needed to happen to maintain a safe learning environment with us. She knew our prefrontal cortexes weren’t fully formed; we would need time for practice and meaningful reminders. I never got the sense that Mrs. Strain viewed this work as an interruption to the course scope and sequence. Quite the opposite. I got the sense that she viewed nurturing learning environments and relationships as central to the success of that scope and sequence.

Mrs. Strain’s approach helped me in the moment: I got the practice and reminders I needed to succeed in her class. It also helped me years later, when I was a teacher myself. Thinking back to my time as her student, I realized I wanted to create a similar experience for my kids, one of trust and empowerment and engagement. I made sure to “bake in” to my unit and lesson plans how to explicitly attend to environments and relationships by collaborating with students. Like Mrs. Strain, I planned ahead and was flexible in the moment to authentically practice and address—with students—how to ensure safe, productive, and respectful learning spaces.

4. Prioritize stress- and trauma-sensitive practices

We’ve all experienced high levels of toxic stress and trauma during the pandemic these last two years. When we explicitly nurture healthy learning environments that support our students to meet and exceed learning goals, we have to rely on trauma-informed and equity practices.

Ask your students to submit their ideas for building nurturing environments and relationships.

I talk more about how to do this in “A step-by-step guide for using stress- and trauma-sensitive practices in your classroom.” Be sure to use our worksheet, “Making a plan to support learning through stress and trauma.” It can help you gather and document your thoughts on what is already working well in your classroom. It can also support you in writing down a specific plan for new things to try—and how to know you’ve succeeded.

Work together

The real beauty of a positive, inspiring, and constructive learning culture is that you get to work closely with your students to get there. That’s why we all do this work, right? The students? So, how can the information you know from listening to them—their needs, worries, and passions—fuel your collaboration with them? How can who they are further help shape what you build together in your classroom?

The changes you make can support the success of all learners. They can take some of the heavy burden of discipline and frustration off your shoulders, too.

I encourage you to think about everything you already do to support an empowering culture in your classroom. Use that as your starting point for plans to make your culture even stronger. Here are some prompts to get you going:

  • Who is your Mrs. Strain? Think about an educator who is an expert at strengthening learning culture. Reflect on what makes them successful. If possible, chat with them to uncover their behind-the-scenes planning approaches or in-the-moment moves.
  • Ask your students to submit their ideas for building nurturing environments and relationships. Kids often have terrific ideas for practicing how to interact and connect. Plus, using students’ ideas is another great way to build trust and partnership, not to mention ease your workload.
  • Ask a trusted colleague to observe you and your students and provide feedback about learning environments and relationships in your classroom. Use your colleague’s feedback to refine your planning approaches and moves.

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