Teachers and school leaders shape a school’s culture. Similarly, teachers themselves shape classes into micro-communities of their own—and no amount of lesson planning can help fix a classroom culture that’s starting to fracture.

Creating a positive classroom culture takes more nuanced work, according to Edutopia contributor José Vilson: “Most teachers I know want to have a positive relationship with their students,” he notes, “but often don’t know how, or believe that silence and obedience mean they’re learning.”

What is culture?

Before understanding how to go about creating a positive campus and classroom culture, we might benefit from asking exactly what culture is.

At its most fundamental level, a culture is a network of beliefs, behaviors, and attitudes created by people within a community and the interactions between them. The stronger the culture, the more its individual members will overlap to create a system of beliefs, values, and behaviors.

In the context of learning communities, culture can be broken down into several sub-categories.

  • Beliefs: Does every member of the culture believe the same things about pedagogy and the student body?
  • Shared values: How do members of the school feel about its core beliefs?
  • Norms: What behaviors are normalized, and are the behaviors informed by the shared values of the community?
  • Patterns of behavior: Are norms followed?

Each of these components intersects with the others, generating a feedback loop of beliefs and actions. Ideally we want to have positive connections and shared values, where every member feels respected and included within the community.

If culture is a circle, then every connection within the school community reinforces its structural integrity.

Culture as communication

How members of school communities behave, and how they communicate, depends on the explicit and implicit messages imparted by leaders and other members of the community.

Schools with strong, cohesive cultures have open lines of communication between teachers, administrators, counselors, students, and families of students. Weaker learning cultures tend to have limited communications—certain teachers may have little interaction with their principals, administrators may be excluded from the school’s communication networks, and staff members kept ‘out of the loop.’

Broken nodes in a culture’s communication channel make it tough for a cohesive, unified culture to spread.

Classroom communities

While strong top-down teaching cultures affirm things like collaboration, hard work, and transparency through their messaging, individual teachers can also work to grow positive, affirmative learning cultures within their individual classrooms.

Below are some strategies to help create a positive classroom culture.

1. Equal treatment

A positive classroom culture is non-threatening, a place where students feel comfortable contributing to discourse without fear of mockery or judgment. That means no student is singled out regularly, whether for high performance or for underachievement.

Have your classroom rules posted openly, so students can review them and hold you just as accountable for their application as you hold them. “If teachers need to add to the list, they should provide a rationale for the rule so students feel that it’s fair and necessary,” notes Caitrin Blake, a composition instructor at Arapahoe Community College.

You can also develop class rules in collaboration with students, so they can take ownership of their environment, feel valued in the process, and have a clear understanding of expectations.

2. Model behavior

Even the most experienced teachers can forget that they do more than just teach their respective subject areas—they also serve as critical models for student behavior. The best learning environments are led by patient teachers who recognize the need to monitor their own behavior.

Avoid sarcasm and so-called “tough love”; both can be misinterpreted by students who look to teachers for affirmation of their own value. Moreover, students are apt to mimic those social tics with their peers, which can lead to hurt feelings and unintended cruelty.

3. Language matters

Unsurprisingly, how teachers communicate with their students—what language they use—can help foster active participation. While strategies like encouraging risk taking and outside-the-box thinking can help create an environment where students aren’t afraid to engage openly with ideas, subtle shifts in how teachers speak to students can also go a long way in making students feel comfortable sharing.

“I used to just say ‘who has the answer’ or ‘who can tell us how to do this problem,'” says Thom H. Gibson, a middle school math and robotics teacher. “I’ve since shifted to asking students ‘can you share your thinking.’” According to Gibson, doing so reduces the pressure students may feel to steer their response to a single answer.

4. Mindfulness: not just for yogis

Classrooms can get chaotic—it happens. Likewise, every teacher can tell when students are exhausted and the class climate hits an energy drought. Enter “mindfulness,” a term that might seem out of place in school settings. But mindfulness exercises have been shown to be effective teaching tools for creating a calm, focused learning environment.

According to Dr. Patricia C. Broderick, Dr. Patricia C. Broderick, “Virtually all social-emotional learning (SEL) programs and many therapeutic modalities recognize that adaptive development rests on the child’s maturing capacity for emotion regulation.” In other words, how young people regulate their emotions plays a big part in how they grow and adapt.

Incorporating mindfulness into the classroom can have a significant impact by helping students develop positive thinking skills and greater emotional clarity, as well as improve self-regulation and attention-awareness.

5. Social media and blogs for classroom cohesion

For all its faults, social media can be a great way to create a sense of classroom unity among older students. Gibson is a fan of using social media to raise class spirit. “You’re showing that you value the work and efforts going on and that you want to share it with folks outside the classroom,” he says. “Additionally, you’re meeting the students where they’re at…on Instagram.”

Parents can also get in on the action by following along with class accounts. Gibson notes that teachers should research school policy on social media use, and that parents may have to sign waivers to allow their children to participate.

6. Regular check-ins

Open channels of communication aren’t just vital among staff, administration and teachers. Keeping a running dialogue throughout the year with students and their parents can make it easier for teachers to establish positive in-class culture.

Gibson recalls how useful weekly check-ins with students can be: “When I was a 5th grade teacher, we spen[t] the first 15 minutes of every Monday going around the room and students shared what they did over the weekend,” he says. While nobody was obligated to share, many did, and he found that even students with behavioral problems had a reduction in discipline issues following check-ins.

Staying in regular contact with parents, even if simply by email, is another useful strategy that can help ensure that students come into class ready to contribute to a positive classroom culture with the support of their family.

A final word on the teaching and learning dance

Every class is as unique as the students who make it up; your approach as an educator must adapt to the members of your student body. And while there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to making a learning community a positive, affirmative place for students and teachers alike, keeping in mind the aforementioned strategies can go a long way to getting it there.

Philosopher and author Eckhart Tolle writes that “life is the dancer and you are the dance.” As educators, it can benefit us to view our teaching as a kind of dance, altering our steps to the ever-changing music of the class.