Remember, we all stumble, every one of us. That's why it's a comfort to go hand in hand.
- Emily Kimbrough
The beginning of a new school year always stirs images from my teaching past. Of the glorious moments and disasters, however, I am pleased to say there have been far more positives! The last eight years of my teaching experience were in classrooms for students with severe behavioral and emotional disorders. These classes were always small in terms of the number of students because the intense behaviors tended to multiply the needs of one student threefold. I vividly recall many first weeks of school with a ragtag bunch of kids who were basically the outcasts of the regular school population. They had managed to alienate and make their previous teachers and classmates miserable. And because of the behavior and emotional issues, my classrooms were comparable to being in a room with seven or eight porcupines, each holding a stick of dynamite and a lighted match. Territorial, volatile and explosive! I remember asking myself on numerous occasions how on earth would we ever be able to build a sense of community and work together as a class?
Teachers spend a wealth of time preparing our classroom environment to meet the learning needs of our students. We spend meticulous minutes preparing bulletins boards, nametags, creating schedules and management plans. We fine-tune our external preparations with the utmost scrutiny. But when those preparations are finished and a new school year has begun, we stand face to face with a room full of different personalities, strengths, and perhaps unavoidable emotional baggage. Students bring their own unique diversity to the classroom, but will hopefully have common interests and backgrounds. Unfortunately, in my students' case their common backgrounds were often ones of abuse and poverty. Nonetheless, ours was a mini-society of students who would be living and interacting with one another in a shared environment for the next ten months out of a year. Again, I faced the question many times of how could we become a united group, caring for each other and work cooperatively while respecting each other's individual contributions?
I never really considered before I became a teacher, of actively pursuing the task of building community in my classroom. We played the standard getting-to-know-you games. I taught, modeled and reviewed my classroom rules and expectations in as many interesting ways as I could invent. I could role-play with the masters. Then of course we would get down to the business of meeting those academic goals and modifying behavior. But I found out over the years that the more I made the effort to really know and understand my students early on and give them daily opportunities to learn cooperation and teamwork, the more they felt like a valued member of the class. Establishing a strong foundation of community in a classroom does take more time and effort. But the ultimate benefits to the classroom, teacher and students are immeasurable.
The following components were always part of my classroom community building:
I think in order to for us to become closer to our students initially, we need to go beyond the surface. We need to find out more than just their favorites and what they did on their summer vacation. I realize that establishing a relationship with one's students can be a year long enterprise, but asking questions or pursuing activities which will give us deeper knowledge of our students' talents, dreams and dislikes will give us insight into how we can structure our group.
I use the word purpose in place of expectations. In the classroom we will be establishing many kinds of expectations for behavior and academics throughout the year. I'm speaking of taking time to dialogue with students about the purpose and benefits of community in the classroom. Each individual has a specific purpose to serve and contribution to make to the group.
I believe that classroom communities function best with common goals. Just as individual goals can motivate students, planning group goals can also give students the ability to contribute their own ideas and perspectives which will benefit the class as a whole.
Learning the skills of working cooperatively as a group will equip students with a life long ability to function appropriately and productively with others.
Making the time and effort to establish relationships with your students and build a classroom community is such a worthwhile endeavor. When a student feels like a teacher cares enough about him or her to want to establish a relationship and they feel like an important member of a group, it lays down the foundation for a positive and successful school year for both the teacher and the students.