Home

About

Contact
Topics

Beyond the
Classroom

Professional
Development

Teaching
Moments

Classroom
Innovation

The 3 Cs for Creating an Engaged and Positive Classroom Culture

Happy students

Think back to your favorite middle school class. What do you remember most? Was it a stellar lesson on fractions? A research report you presented? Or was it something more?

One of the most memorable aspects of a classroom typically isn't the curriculum—it's the culture. Classroom culture is the way students interact with one another; it's the mood that dominates the room and the sense of confidence or failure students feel when they enter your class. As a teacher, creating an engaged and positive culture is one of the most important aspects of your job. Here are some tips to create a classroom your students will remember.

Replace Insults with Compliments

My first special education class was a war zone. Hardened by prior academic struggles and failures, my students constantly put each other down to lift themselves up. The result was a tense, negative, and disengaged classroom culture that made learning virtually impossible. I knew I had to do something.

So, on a warm and sunny September morning, when Antonio began insulting Marcus, I took action. Expecting me to simply correct him and move on, Antonio quickly grew uncomfortable when I instead stopped the lesson. "Antonio," I said calmly, "please give Marcus a compliment." He laughed, looking at Marcus and then back at me. I stood tough and unmoved, trying to channel my best Michelle Pfeiffer from the movie Dangerous Minds, even though inside I was freaking out. "Nah, man," he replied, seeming both annoyed and uncomfortable. "I'll wait," I said.

With a dismissive chuckle, he complied: "Marcus, I like your shoes." Little did Antonio know this moment was a turning point for our class. I stopped the lesson right then and started a class conversation. We tackled our problem head on and discussed the negative vibe running continuously through our classroom like background music. I proposed a new policy. "From now on," I said, "anyone who says something mean has to replace it with a compliment."

The kids snickered and said it was silly, but cautiously followed. Initially, the compliments were flippant and forced. But little by little, our classroom culture began to shift. The mean-spiritedness that once dominated our classroom began transforming into positive lightheartedness. Through compliments, our class started to bond.

Create Classroom Competitions

Unsurprisingly, my classroom consisted of students who hated school. I tried many strategies to overcome their apathy and lack of motivation, but nothing could counter my students' disengagement or paralyzing fear of failure. I always found it remarkable that my students, who refused to try or be engaged for 20 minutes in class, had no issues focusing and challenging themselves for hours while playing video games. I thought: Wouldn't it be great if I could I create a lesson that would tap into this phenomenon?

Short of standing on my head or eating fire, I knew I couldn't compete with the eye-catching graphics and nonstop action of video games. But there was something video games did offer that I could replicate: competition. I introduced a competition board and hung it on our wall. Designed to increase independent reading time, I set individual goals with each of my students and posted a large graph on the wall charting each student's progress.

The results were impressive. Independent reading time changed from a time of dread and misbehavior to one of focused engagement. My students thrived on competition and loved coloring in the line on the graph, marking the progress toward their individual goal. Success and accomplishment built confidence in my students and led to a much more engaged and enthusiastic culture.

Let Students Plan Reward Celebrations

When these reading goals are reached, it's time to celebrate. Initially, I suggested popcorn and a movie, and offered to bring in the supplies. But one student had other ideas. "Can we plan the party?" Edwin asked. Often one of my more vocally negative students, it was strange for Edwin to volunteer for anything, so, hesitantly, I agreed.

Edwin morphed into an entirely different student. He took control, assigned jobs, and became an enthusiastic leader, demonstrating skills I didn't know he had. Students volunteered to bring in games and treats. Some students made signs and decorated a banner. The entire class was engaged, productive, and proud. Like giving a handmade gift, taking ownership and planning their own classroom celebration was a much more meaningful and satisfying reward. The cooperation, leadership, and collaboration my students displayed far exceeded any lesson I could have planned.

While it's true that students might not remember every lesson you teach, they will remember how your classroom felt. Make sure your classroom culture is one they will want to remember. By using the three Cs of compliments, competition, and celebration, you'll be one step closer to creating an atmosphere your students will treasure.