M4U1A3 Establishing a Positive Classroom Environment

Classroom management is a great concern for teachers, especially novice teachers. All children deserve to have high aspirations, to believe in themselves and to feel loved and cared for. There are certain conditions that must be satisfied in order for learning to take place.  The classroom environment can support and enhance teaching and learning or impede them.  A positive learning environment allows the teacher to focus on the main purpose of their job, which is educating, rather than excessive time being allotted to disciplining pupils.  Schools are institutions of human socialization.  Therein, children are taught acceptable ways to interact with others, and stereotypes encountered in other aspects of their life (home, socially) are either reinforced or destroyed.  Every single human being on the planet is biased.  Teachers ought to acknowledge that they are biased in many ways unknown to them (i.e. not obvious to them) and that cannot necessarily be dealt with on a conscious level.  Once inherent bias is accepted as natural and unavoidable, there should then be less personal resistance to putting in place systems to prevent one’s personal bias from affecting (adversely or positively) any single student and thereby hindering learning and the eradication of prejudices in the classroom.  E.g. Using equity sticks to ensure student participation is equitable.

According to Robert Marzano (2007), there are three mains aspects to creating a positive classroom environment. These are: (1) caring and concern, (2) guidance and control, and (3) emotional objectivity.

  1. Caring and concern is giving students the feeling or impression that the teacher and the students together form a team which is devoted to the well-being of all participants. Demonstrating caring and concern includes knowing something about the personal lives of students and what they find important in their lives. It is showing affection and making the effort to make the content interesting to them. It is being understanding, and it is maintaining courtesy and dignity between teachers and students. Being caring and showing concern is cherishing students and the teacher displaying their approval of that student as a human being. It is encouragement. It is also sharing laughter and fun. The teacher should recognize that they set the tone of the class and can inspire the class by modeling the enthusiasm they desire to see in their students.
  2. Guidance and control is about discipline, establishing clear rules and procedures and consistently reinforcing positive and negative consequences of actions, both of which are addressed directly. It is being clear on expected behavior, preferably prior to it occurring. It is establishing clear learning goals. The teacher should exude calm, rational behavior, even under duress. Respect should be maintained in all circumstances.
  3. Emotional objectivity is having a realistic attitude toward students where the teacher recognizes each student as being a young learner who is learning both academic content and social norms. It does not mean being unemotional or uncompromising. Rather it is the teacher being aware of the fact that every individual has innate bias and emotions, including themselves. The teacher therefore makes the effort to monitor their thoughts and emotions so that each student is treated fairly. Emotional objectivity is reframing students’ behavior to give them the benefit of the doubt as to why they are acting in a certain way. E.g. Is the student… tired, hungry, moody due to hormones, having an upsetting home life, stressed, etc.? Emotional objectivity is the teacher deciding not to take students’ behavior as a personal affront to them.

There are several variables involved in creating a positive classroom environment: people, experiences, culture, gender and the environment.

  1. People: The category of ‘people’ covers the teacher and students, their personalities, characters and attitudes. This is the most complex category and the variable that is the most difficult to control. ‘Personality’ deals with traits people are born with. ‘Character’ pertains to values and habits (good and bad) that are developed and can be changed – though with effort. ‘Attitude’ is an outlook or perspective that someone takes toward situations or circumstances they encounter. E.g. The old adage “Those in love look at the world with rose colored glasses”. Attitudes are also adjustable. They are the easiest attribute to change.
  2. Experiences: Closely linked to the ‘people’ category is the category of ‘experiences’. This covers past experiences and knowledge of all persons within the classroom environment. Many of these experiences contribute to the formation of individuals’ attitudes. However, regardless of experiences, people who are discerning can decide to adopt a certain attitude, rather than being simply a product of their environment. Teachers should encourage student feedback to better incorporate students’ knowledge into everyone’s learning and to ensure the learning is tailored to the needs of the students. Geneva Gay (2002) talks about “using the cultural knowledge, prior experiences, frames of reference and performance styles of ethnically diverse students to make learning encounters more relevant and effective for all.” Teachers can do things such as set-up heterogeneous teams to prevent students self-segregating, and do regular team-building activities.
  3. Culture: ‘Culture’ deals with the dichotomy between persons of the dominant culture and persons of the non-dominant culture and the cultural heritage and open-mindedness of both groups. Again, individuals can decide to become empathetic by embracing other perspectives and realities in order to better understand each other and promote unity. Values or moral education is pivotal to having a respectful and cherishing multi-cultural environment. Teachers should not stop at receiving what they deem to be the “correct” answer; instead they should continue to solicit other ideas and points of view. Diversity education should go deep. In other words: Teachers should realize that the dominant culture does not often recognize contributions by those of the non-dominant culture. E.g. There are millions of inventions and great accomplishments by black Americans that are virtually unheard of. As such, to combat this societal bias, teachers will have to research and make it a point to bring this to all students’ attention because neither white nor black students nor other students will know of these accomplishments and both need to adjust their warped perception of themselves and others.
  4. Gender: The ‘gender’ category concentrates on best-practices in teaching different genders. Gender roles are influenced by culture, however, – although capacity to learn is the same for both genders, – teachers should realize that there are proven scientific differences between genders that affect the way each learns and processes information and there are biological differences in reward preference by gender. Therefore, not all differences may be blamed on culture. Certainly, many cultures are just now struggling to learn how to value feminine qualities and traditional roles in the workplace, government and religious institutions. i.e. Not women doing what men used to do per se, rather society deciding to assign value to aspects of life that were not previously valued at a societal level. E.g. Talking about your family at work, mandatory paternity leave, sick leave to care for sick children, etc.
  5. Environment: The last category is the ‘environment’. This category describes the school and classroom both physically and in terms of emotional climate. Teachers should build a sense of community by assigning responsibility (through tasks) and leadership roles to students. Practices such as having morning meetings, encouraging equitable participation of every single student and ensuring that the physical classroom is culturally sensitive can contribute to creating an inclusive and comfortable environment where students feel validated and feel comfortable enough to take risks and make mistakes. Teachers should be aware that the subtle power differential in the classroom (because the teacher is in charge) inadvertently endorses the teacher’s culture over that of the students. Therefore, teachers must work to compensate for this in the classroom environment.

Dealing with Conflict

Knowing how to deal with conflict is an essential skill for maintaining a positive classroom environment. To effectively deal with conflict one should first understand some of the reasons why conflict arises.  According to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, people often “act out” when their needs are not being met on some level.  Maslow’s theory claims that the lower levels of the ‘pyramid of needs’ must be satisfied prior to the higher levels being satisfied.  People cannot fully experience self-actualization, esteem and love if they do not feel safe and have their physiological needs met first.  Furthermore, I believe people need comfort, acceptance and the ability to “be themselves” and take risks without judgment being directed at them.  Teachers ought to reflect on this pyramid and what they know about their students’ personal lives prior to making judgments on why a student may be causing conflict in their classroom.  It is important that teachers get to know students well so that they can truly be understanding – without excusing or legitimizing unacceptable behavior.  Moreover, I believe all human beings must experience fun, play and relaxation on a regular basis.  It could be that your students have a stressful home life.  Some students may only truly relax and have fun at school.  In this context educational games can be extremely powerful.  Instead of sacrificing learning time, teachers can fulfil both the learning mandate and the human need to have fun and play.  Humor and laughter can also be effective remedies for stress and conflict.

Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs Pyramid

After all things have been considered, examples of some actions teachers can take to reprimand or discipline disobedient or raucous students are: time-outs, the ‘slow down strategy’, and taking away privileges. It is also critical for teachers to implement positive as well as negative consequences.  Most of all ‘prevention is better than cure’.  Teachers should do their utmost to establish classroom behavior norms from the very first day of lessons – do not allow any unacceptable behavior to go unremarked.  In this way, there will be much less disruption and unruly or rude behavior from students.  Teachers should note that research shows that ‘zero tolerance’ autocratic methods of punishment are extremely ineffective on both adults and children.  Another strategy is the ‘sandwich approach’ of giving feedback.

The prevailing advice on how to deal with bullying is to seek out an ally. I find this advice to be very self-limiting and disempowering: it keeps those bullied in the victim role.  Children are learning social skills that they will need to use in their jobs in the adult world.  The fact is that the adult world can be very ugly at times.  I think it is a great idea to change the entire school culture at every school so that no more bullies will be created.  However, unfortunately, it will take some time before the entire world will also change.  Discrimination exists.  Hatred exists.  Jealousy and psychological sabotage exist.  As someone who has been bullied in the workplace until finally leaving my job, I feel that empowerment is a part of social justice.  In the same way that martial arts can be taught to individuals to protect them against the threat of physical violence, I feel it is our responsibility to teach students techniques and strategies to deal with bullying in the moment.  The vast majority of bullying is emotional and psychological, not physical.  The emersion and explosion of cyber-bullying has cemented the modern reality of bullying being more psychological than physical.  So the classic “Karate Kid” movie strategy of learning martial arts will not help our students.  We need to give them some other tool to use.  Otherwise, we are losing a valuable opportunity to provide students with an even greater social skillset.

I understand all too well the herculean effort required to deal with bullying. I have experienced every emotion and symptom ranging from post-traumatic stress, fear, self-loathing and decreased self-esteem to physical illness, hair loss, depression and despondency.  Nevertheless, simple strategies can be used to turn the tables on bullies.  According to Robert Mace of Teach-Now, who counseled me on this:

Showing aggression in subtle, socially-acceptable, (seemingly non-aggressive) ways can trigger the flight response in another person, causing them to back-off. E.g.

  • Moving into their space when they are bullying you – puts them off balance.
  • Inserting long pauses when they are ‘trumping up’ charges against you – disrupts the script and the momentum of their accusations.
  • Asking them to repeat their question to you and adding: “I don’t think you really understood what you were saying… Could you please repeat the question?”.
  • Calling them out on every single one of their assumptions.

Sum total: making every step of their bullying painful to them and difficult for them.

I am sure there are many other strategies people can use during confrontations. I am not sure if insufficient research has been done on this or if I have simply not come across more resources.  I have searched extensively on this topic since speaking with Robert Mace, but found little guidance.  Regardless, I feel this topic should assume a higher profile and be dissimilated widely.  After all, do we really know how effective finding an ally is in stopping or preventing bullying?  We already know that a high percentage of bullying is never reported.  To a certain extent, is not the victim avoiding dealing with the situation in seeking out an ally?  Also, it can be very hard to find an ally when others are in a similar position to you (e.g. in a job).  I think seeking out an ally is definitely a strategy to be embraced, however, it is just one of many strategies than can be utilized.  Furthermore, it is a more passive strategy which depends on the compliance of others to be successful – an outcome which is never guaranteed.

In conclusion, many factors and variables are involved in creating a positive classroom environment. Despite all these variables, the main traits a teacher should have are to succeed are love, firmness and openness.  This latter trait can apply to being open to learning new ways of doing or seeing things, being open to the fact that their perception of a student may be erroneous, or being open to the fact that they are not and never shall be perfect.  When such receptiveness is coupled with a spirit of love and the appropriate level of restraint (firmness), I believe teachers can accomplish great things and inspire students to attain their full potential.


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