Steve Schertzer

Creating classroom culture

Cultivating universal values and striving for excellence


"Excellence is an art won by training and habituation. We do not act rightly because we have virtue or excellence, but rather we have those because we have acted rightly. We are what we repeated do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit."

---- Aristotle.

Perusing through a few of the teacher's websites recently I came across a message from a newbie asking what he should do on his first day of class. He begins teaching in the EPIK program in Korea the beginning of this month and, naturally, he's a bit apprehensive. I have a soft spot for newbies. It may not come across that way at times, but I do. Many newbies, although lacking in experience, come into teaching with enthusiasm and genuinely want to do well. Unfortunately, this business and profession being what it is, pays little attention and has even less time to devote to helping new teachers through their first few months of uncertainty, (and sometimes terror.)

But fear no more, newbies. There are some good teachers out there to get you through these first rough few months of uncertainty. From those who say, "Lay down the law the first week of class. You're not their friend, you're their teacher", to those who offer good introductory first day lessons, there is a lot of good advice out there if one knows where to look.

Some of the "first day" lessons found on many teacher's websites are fine. We've all used those ubiquitous "Find Someone Who...." worksheets; some of us too often. But I have recently discovered something that I think all teachers can use which will make life in the classroom so much easier.

I have recently read two books about teaching, "There Are No Shortcuts" and "Teach Like Your Hair's On Fire", both written by an extraordinary teacher in Los Angeles named Rafe Esquith. He teaches in a year round inner-city elementary school where most of his 10 year old students are financially poor and from Asia and Latin America where English is not spoken at home. In the first chapter of "Teach Like Your Hair's On Fire", Esquith talks about creating a classroom culture where students are expected to behave a certain way. These are not simply rules; they are behavioral expectations that are actively taught and learned. Esquith's behavioral expectations are straightforward:

1) Be nice.
2) Work hard.
3) There are no shortcuts.

His students listen. They are well behaved, even when he takes them on field trips across the country! They work hard. They read Twain's "Huckleberry Finn", Wilder's "Our Town", Salinger's "Catcher in the Rye", Harper's "To Kill a Mockingbird", and many others including "The Autobiography of Malcolm X" and "The Diary of Anne Frank." They also perform one unabridged Shakespearian play every year. Did I mention that Esquith's students are 10 years old? And his students know that there are no shortcuts when it comes to learning anything, whether it be English, Math, or Science. Now this got me thinking. Ten year olds who rarely act out in class, read the classics, and perform and understand Shakespeare? How does Esquith do it? Well, he's a great teacher having won the American Teacher Award and the National Metal of Arts. And creating a classroom culture sure helps students focus on the task at hand.

Before elaborating on each of my classroom culture objectives, a preamble about my classroom and how I prepare the students for each lesson. I have between 32 to 36 students in each of my middle-school classes. With the help of my co-teachers, we chose the top four students in each class to become student-teachers. We have also divided all the classes into four groups of eight or nine with one of the student-teachers leading each group. (Five groups of six or seven students would be fine as well.) Those foreign teachers who are already teaching in the Korean public school system know that we see each class but once a week. (Only on rare occasions do foreign teachers see the same class more often. By contrast, the Korean teachers have the same classes three times a week.) So, obviously, this does not leave the foreign teacher with much time to make a substantial educational impact. We simply must do the best we can with what we have been given.

For one or two weeks, (depending on the length and content), I teach my lesson. The following week I hand over the same lesson to my four student-teachers in each of my classes and they teach it to their students in much the same way I taught it to them. (They are given a bit of leeway.) This gives my students the opportunity to show me how much of each lesson they understood, or if they understood anything at all! What isn't understood we do again and again until it is understood. Many of the younger and inexperienced teachers tend to breeze through things much too quickly, afraid of repeating certain things that need reviewing. I have made that mistake many times.

I use an audio-lingual method combined with Stephen Krashen's "Linguistic scaffolding" theory which builds upon previous lessons. I use questions and answers and build upon them by using the five W follow-up questions plus How. The reasons for this are as follows: (a) The vast majority of the students are beginners, so a conversational approach would be useless; (b) These lessons are far more structured giving the students the discipline needed to learn a second language more effectively; (c) Given the structure and question/answer sessions, English is taught and learned a lot quicker than using a conversational approach; and, (d) This method places the teacher where he or she belongs--- at the center of the classroom where his or her authority is recognized and respected.

With each question/answer lesson, I use the same simple and time honored EFL structure taught in almost all TESOL courses: Teacher to co-teacher (to demonstrate); teacher to student; student to teacher; and finally, student to student. There are times when I use the whole period (40-45 minutes) to model the activity. Again, don't be afraid to keep repeating until they get it.

Now for creating classroom culture. I define classroom culture as the process of instilling certain universal values and behavioral expectations in your students to promote their well-being, facilitate learning, and to ensure any future success they may have. After all, success in the present leads to success in the future. My classroom culture objectives are as follows:

1) Always come to class prepared: The students must bring their notebook, pen, pencil, eraser, dictionary, etc. Whatever they need to help them learn English. This includes a positive attitude. Merely coming to class prepared is not enough. My students must also be prepared. This means sitting quietly in their seats and in their groups before I enter the classroom.

2) Always keep the classroom clean: If I see any paper on the floor, I tell the students to pick it up. A dirty classroom should never be tolerated. I will not start the lesson until the classroom is clean. I want my students to not only respect their teachers and each other, but to respect the sanctity of the classroom and the school as well.

3) Be polite and show respect:
This doesn't only mean saying "Please" and "Thank you." It also means never throwing things across the classroom. Far too often I've seen students throw everything from pencils to books to their classmates. This also should never be tolerated. When someone needs a pencil or an eraser, a student must physically get up, walk over to the student in need, and hand it to him in a respectful manner. Students must also use the proper honorific when referring to their teacher. We must teach right speech AND right action.

4) Pay attention and cooperate: This means teaching the students to listen to the teacher and listen to one another. Listening is the first step towards cooperating with each other in order to get the job done and do the job well.

5) Work hard and as a team: Team work is important in my classroom. I'm not looking for individual superstars. I want students who are team players. Everyone learns more that way. In working as a team, my students learn to plan their lessons carefully and to think before they act.

6) Sacrifice your time and share your understanding: Now we're getting to the heart of the matter. If a student understands something then he/she has an obligation to help another who does not yet understand. The students must help and support each other. I love to see a student physically get up, walk over to another, and kindly explain what he has just learned to someone who is struggling. If one team does not succeed in reaching the class/lesson objectives, then the other teams are responsible for helping them until they do. This shows respect, cooperation, and responsibility, and if we can teach our students that, then we are beginning to succeed as educators.

7) Be responsible for one another: Now we're deep into the heart of the matter. This is the crux of my classroom culture. Teaching my students to be responsible. Response-able. Or able to respond. Isn't this what compassionate people do in a compassionate society? Isn't this our main responsibility at educators--- to take on the responsibility of teaching others how to be responsible? What a thrill it truly is to see students taking responsibility for themselves AND others. If we can teach our students to naturally respond to others in need, then we are truly succeeding as educators.

8) There are no free rides: I don't want slackers in my class. If I see a student not pulling his weight, I let him know. The team is relying on him. The team either succeeds or fails--- as a team. The class either succeeds or fails--- as a class. In my classes, you will not get away with doing nothing--- and that includes my co-teachers and myself! There are no free rides.

Here is a point by point, truncated version of how I teach classroom culture.

*** Go over classroom culture. (Dictate it to the students; they write it in their notebook.)
*** Choose the student-teachers to write the classroom culture objectives on the board.
*** Check for spelling and other errors.
*** Co-teacher translates to ensure understanding.
*** Give each group leader two big sheets of white paper (B4) along with markers, (black, blue, and red.)
*** Each group is responsible for writing two of the eight classroom culture objectives as well as draw a corresponding picture to illustrate their understanding of them.
*** Each of the groups will act out their classroom culture objectives in the form of a three to five minute skit (in English, of course) in front of the class. (They will be given the appropriate time to practice.)
*** The posters will then be hung on the walls of the classroom and referred to when needed.

All this will usually take somewhere between two to two and a half hours, or about three 45 minute classes at my middle-school. It can take a bit longer, (and perhaps should take longer since this is important), or the teacher can alter the activity based upon the level of the students, the length of the class, or whether the teacher is teaching at an elementary school, a middle-school, or a high-school. But it's well worth the time and effort. Of course each teacher should be free to create their own classroom culture objectives. Whatever works for you. The teacher can also take their classroom culture objectives and walk their students through them one by one. Personally I love to take the boys, have them walk over to the girls, and watch as they hand a girl a pencil or an eraser in a kind and respectful manner. You'll get a lot of shy giggles out of this, but there is a serious component at play here. Boys who learn to respect girls grow up to be men who respect women.

Something interesting happened recently regarding number three, "Be polite and show respect." I had just finished handing out the paper and markers to each group when I noticed, out of the corner of my eye, one boy who took the opportunity to throw the cap of a glue stick at one of his classmates. I firmly told him that this behavior is not allowed and demonstrated this by throwing his glue stick at the blackboard. I then handed him a sheet of paper and a marker and told him to do number three. What picture did he draw to illustrate "Be polite and show respect?" He drew a picture of two boys standing opposite one another with one of the boys throwing an object at the other. Between the two boys are the words, "Don't throw glue cap." Well, maybe I'm getting through after all.

Teachers must ask themselves some very important questions before attempting to apply classroom culture objectives in their classes. These are the questions I've asked myself, (and still ask.) Besides teaching English, what else do I want to teach my students? What do I truly want them to learn? Besides teaching my students English effectively, how else can I be an example for them? What are my main or primary responsibilities as an educator? What do I want to accomplish? And, how can I continue to improve myself and my teaching while still holding true to my principles and values? Very important questions, indeed. Here are some of the answers I've come up with through reflection and introspection.

The three most important values in my classroom are, (in no particular order), respect, responsibility, and cooperation. I hate competitive classrooms. That's my bias. It's unfortunate that new teachers today are taught to put their students into groups for the primary or sole purpose of competing against another group, usually at the expense of respect, responsibility, and cooperation. A little bit of competition can be fun at times, but when teachers and students use a competitive game to run roughshod over others, then all educational value is lost. A great opportunity was lost by the teacher to teach the fine art of cooperation and taking responsibility for others.

A big problem with the public school system in any country around the world is the fact that so many teachers don't want to take on the responsibility of teaching their young students how to behave responsibly. Far too many teachers want to make their students feel good as opposed to teaching them how to do good. This may feed the teacher's fragile ego, especially those teachers with low self-esteem. But we are not doing students any favors by being their friend or, heaven forbid, allowing them to dictate curriculum.

I want my students to know that I'm in charge. I want them to know that I also have their best interests in mind. They need to know that in my classroom they will learn and learn quickly. They need to know that my classes are based on cooperation, not competition. My students need to know that they are also teachers; that they have a responsibility to help others in need. My students need to know that in my classroom we don't laugh or make fun of anyone, we assist and support them. I want my students to respect others who work hard and set an example. And I want them to respect the sanctity of the classroom by keeping it clean. Yes I want my students to feel good, but only because they have done good.

Let's take my classroom culture objectives and turn them inside-out. It is not too far of a stretch to imagine a classroom where most of the students don't come to class prepared; where the classroom is usually dirty; where many of the students are impolite, don't show respect, don't pay attention, are uncooperative, don't work hard or as a team, don't sacrifice their time or share their understanding, are ir-responsible, and think of the classroom as one free ride. Walk into just about any public school in any nation and, odds are, you'll see much of this in action. Read the open forums and message boards of just about any teacher's/ex-pat website and, odds are, there will be dozens of teachers on any given day complaining about their students, their school, or the educational system. Who in their right mind would want to work in an atmosphere like this? But thousands of teachers around the world do.

The bottom line here is that we can do much better than this. Every parent and teacher has an obligation to do better.
It is a huge tragedy beyond human comprehension that there are millions of children around the world that never learn respect, responsibility, and cooperation either at home or in school. Whether it be that parents are too busy or that teachers are too apathetic, adults are failing children, (their own and others), the world over. By creating a classroom culture where children learn to respect one another, cooperate with each other, and take responsibility for their actions, teachers are compelled to treat each student as their own. This is the golden rule of the classroom: Teach each and every child the way you would want your children to be taught.

Creating and adhering to good classroom culture objectives does several things:

(1) Classroom culture allows the teacher to get things right from the beginning;
(2) The students learn exactly what is expected of them;
(3) The students learn to focus on the task a hand;
(4) Classroom culture helps to mitigate the likelihood of serious and repeated disciplinary problems.

Of course there will always be problems. No school or class is trouble free. Dealing with the problems that inevitably arise will be a lot easier when teachers and students stick to a classroom culture that allows for everyone to grow, learn, and succeed. I consider classroom culture to be a precursor to classroom management, although the two are interrelated. What we teach at the beginning lessens the likelihood that students will act out during the year. If we teach students respect and responsibility right from the start, then they should not behave in a disrespectful manner during the year. And what could be more important for an educator than to teach respect and responsibility in a world full of disrespect and irresponsibility?

We imagined a hellish scenario where there is no classroom culture. A "Lord of the Flies" classroom where students run roughshod and control whatever is left of the learning environment. Now let's imagine a classroom where the students and their teacher work side-by-side in an atmosphere of cooperation and trust. A classroom that is always kept clean and where the students are prepared to learn. A classroom where polite students listen to one another and cooperate with each other to complete a given task with pride. A classroom where the students respect not only the teacher and each other, but also the classroom as a sacred place of learning and sharing. Imagine a classroom where students work hard, sacrifice their time and energy, and share their understanding with their fellow classmates. A classroom where each and every student is treated equally and valued for who they truly are. A classroom where each and every student is given the opportunity to reach his or her potential. Imagine a classroom where each student naturally takes responsibility for every other student. A classroom where the good students help to lift others up. Imagine.

This is what I imagine everyday. Am I there? Not even close. But I am getting closer day by day. It's hard work, and I will never give up. Imagine a classroom like that and work towards it. As educators, I do not think we can do better than that.




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