Twelve years ago I stepped into my first classroom. I had been hired only a few days earlier in late August, and was given my own fifth grade classroom. I went to the local teacher store and bought a number of motivational posters to decorate my room. I can’t even tell you today what those posters said, but a colleague told me to take a picture of the room when I was done so that I would know how to set up the room the next year (as if my classroom would remain static from one year to the next). In hindsight, something like wall decals would have been better as they wouldn’t have ripped.
I was ill prepared to teach those students placed in front of me that September. Kids walked into the room on Day 1 and sized me up. I graduated with a degree outside of education, but went back to school to get a graduate level certification. My experience to that point of my career consisted of four classes and a semester of student teaching spread out over 10 months.
I did my best for those students in my first year. I dedicated a lot of my time to lesson planning, learning content, and classroom management. All of the time that I spent didn’t help me, however, in managing that classroom. Rather than focusing on classroom management, I was focused on classroom survival. There were a few bright spots. I worked with one student after school to make sure that she got the necessary help to improve in math. A few students succeeded despite my efforts. I feel they would have been successful with any teacher, but would have thrived with any OTHER teacher.
Much has changed since I started with those students. My teaching improved over the years. I eventually focused on improving pedagogy, and studied student motivation to engage them. I focused on relationships, getting to know each student, and began to focus my instruction on individual strengths and needs.
I eventually transitioned from a teaching role to an administrative position and my move from the classroom also coincided with a shift in education to student centered instruction and learning. Now that I observe and train other teachers, I recognize that what I have learned throughout my teaching career has helped me focus on the needs of students.
As I have progressed in my educational career, there is one shift that has helped me to better understand what it is that students need in order to be successful. When I was able to make this shift as a teacher, my students were more successful. When I see this shift in classrooms now, I know that students are getting what they need. As I stated earlier, the limitation that caused me to struggle in my first year was the lack of classroom management. When I shifted from classroom management to classroom ownership, I experienced more success as a teacher and my students experienced more success in their learning.
As a teacher, you must take several steps in order to make this shift:
Honor student voice and choice in the classroom. Students need to have a say in the classroom. When they feel they have a voice in the daily routines and happenings, they are much more likely to be engaged. Consider different ways to provide choice in your classroom and encourage students to bring their passions into the classroom. Provide students with opportunities to choose based on their own learning styles, interests, or specific needs. Use student surveys to give students a voice in the operation of the classroom and the content that is studied.
Simplify rules in your classroom. Many classrooms contain a list of rules that guide daily interactions. Sometimes, students and teachers are beholden to these rules, limiting flexibility when it is necessary, and sometimes not meeting the needs of individual students. There is no list that can address every situation that may arise in the classroom, so think simply. Provide students with a basic framework for your class expectations. Find something that works for you, and gives students a supportive structure that they can reference as they interact everyday. I used the phrase “Be nice. Work hard. Think big.” to guide students in my 5th grade classroom. Specific actions related to these words were modeled for students, and referenced when students stepped out of line. Rather than have a hard line of rules and consequences, these broad guiding principles provided flexibility in meeting the needs of all students.
Reconsider motivational techniques for students. Many teachers utilize reward systems that include points, sticker charts, marbles, and other forms of motivational carrots dangled for students. These systems may work for certain students, while not working for every student. When I was in the classroom, I went through a number of these reward systems, but had to switch often during the year, especially when students lost interest. I didn’t consider that the systems might not work for certain students. We have learned enough about motivation to know that students who are intrinsically motivated are much more likely to succeed in school. Motivate students by engaging them in content and projects that they are passionate about. Include student choice and voice to ensure that students are taking ownership for their own learning.
Support students in meeting your expectations. One of the biggest differences between my early classrooms and the success that I experienced later in my career was the support that I was able to provide students. The shift from simply managing the classroom to providing opportunities for ownership of the classroom requires a great deal of support for students. Desired actions must be modeled for students. Some students will need accommodations to meet your expectations. Not every child will understand classroom routines the first time around. Recognize that every student may need different types of support, therefore…
Give everyone what they need. This requires a focus on fairness, not equity. Whenever one of my own children is raising concerns over inequitable treatment, I reply with a simple statement, “There is a big difference in life between what you want and what you need.” Often, children need different things. Some students might need homework in order to practice necessary skills, while other students can skip the homework without suffering academic difficulty. Some students might perform better when given an oral assessment versus a written assessment. Still, others may be able to demonstrate their learning by completing a performance based assessment. Some students may require more verbal warnings, while some will only respond to positive reaffirmations. Explain to your students on Day 1 that students will be treated fairly, but not always equally.
Allowing students to take ownership over the classroom and their own learning can be difficult. It requires a great deal of planning and effort, but the result can be a meaningful structure that allows all students to be engaged successfully as owners of their learning. What strategies or resources do you utilize to provide students with shared ownership of your classroom? Share in the comments section below.