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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

7 Keys to Building a Successful Learning Environment for Students

By Tom Hierck — December 13, 2016 4 min read
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Today’s guest blog is written by consultant and best selling author Tom Hierck, who has been an educator since 1983 in a career that has spanned all grade levels and many roles in public education.

In a recent blog post on this site Peter DeWitttalked about school climate as a key element in promoting success in today’s schools. He suggests "...we cannot get students to think critically, be creative, work in collaboration, and communicate if we have a school climate that doesn’t address the tough situations that happen in schools for our minoritized populations (students who are pushed into feeling like the minority by another more dominant group)”.

This post resonated with me as I was preparing to launch my new book. “Seven Keys to a Positive Learning Environment in Your Classroom” which was written with an eye towards describing the steps necessary for ALL students to experience academic and behavioral success. In the opening (page 5/6) I state,

Creating a positive classroom learning environment is messy, uneven, complex, and necessary for all teachers to engage in. At its most rewarding, it provides opportunities for teachers to have rich dialogue with their students as they collectively work to create environments that produce high levels of success for all students. At its most challenging, it creates frustration for teachers as they deal with factors related to demographics, home characteristics, and the existing school culture. At both extremes, maintaining a focus on the learning environment is critical.

Hierck and Weber (2014b, p. 114) suggest that creating a positive classroom structure requires some key beliefs or alignments from every teacher.

  • All students are valued and expected to make significant gains in their learning.
  • Factors that may inhibit successful gains are temporary obstacles and challenges.
  • All staff members accept responsibility for all students: students in other classrooms, students in other grade levels, students with disabilities, and students who speak another language at home.
  • The status quo is never accepted; students’ expectations are set appropriately and staff members recognize continuous improvement as the habit of great organizations.
  • Change is an opportunity and all variables are considered.
  • School leaders and educators view adult behaviors as having the most effective and significant influence on student learning and behaviors.

A singular question should drive the process of developing this positive classroom environment: What is your end goal? If it is that all students are able to make a successful transition to the next grade (or college or career), then all subsequent conversations should center on achieving that end goal. The focus will shift from punitive discussions (What do we do when students aren’t successful?) to positive ones (How do we build success for every student?). This step in creating a positive classroom is not about lowering the bar but rather clarifying what it will take to get to and through the bar.

I outline an approach I’ve developed over the course of my career that I’ve labeled “Direct to Correct to Connect” as both a strategy and a reminder of the importance of teaching what we value the most if we it to be what students value (and carry forward) the most.

In the direct approach, the teacher simply tells the student what to do and indicates (or administers) the consequence. This was how I approached situations early in my career. With a simple (and often firm with a “tone”) demand, I told students what to do.

In the correct approach, the teacher moves away from the rush to exacerbate the problem and toward the learning opportunity. I moved towards indicating what I needed the student to do (still from my world view) with the consequence still implied.

In the connect approach, the teacher is not thinking about consequences but is totally immersed in the learning opportunity the behavioral challenge presents. I realized it was best to teach and re-teach based on the expectations we had for the classroom learning environment.

I’ve highlighted seven keys that I believe are essential to building the kinds of learning environments that will maximize the success for every student.

Key 1: Classroom Expectations

Key 2: Targeted Instruction

Key 3: Positive Reinforcement

Key 4: Data-Driven Decisions

Key 5: Differentiation and Enrichment

Key 6: Collaborative Teams

Key 7: Connection to the School-wide System

I believe we are well past the time where a target of anything less than 100% of our students successfully transitioning is acceptable and that these keys are essential for teachers to achieve that objective. Creating a positive classroom learning environment IS a complex but necessary task for all educators.

By fully realizing the seven keys identified, teachers can establish clearer expectations, enhance instruction and assessment practices, and foster quality relationships with students, thereby maximizing the potential of ALL students. In the conclusion to the book I reference some of my own failings as a teacher starting out his new career and the moments when I did not get it right, as a learning opportunity:

This book offers a choice that all educators can make--to be intentionally and explicitly positive, to ensure quality relationships for all students, and to be the difference makers every educator sets out to be when he or she enters the profession. My reflections on the moments of my career when I was negative do not leave me with a sense of pride, nor do they allow me to hide behind the convenient excuse of what the students were doing. Rather, they resulted in some deep introspection and the decision to exercise a better option: to be intentionally positive. The choice to be positive by design does not demand perfection. It demands intention with an eye towards improving the life chances of every student. Being positive by design reflects the choice every educator gets to make daily, and the joy of this work lies not in predicting the future but in creating it.

Ultimately, every educator is left pondering this question: What will your legacy be? In responding to that question you’ll need to consider these two: Will you strive to leave a positive impact on every student you have the good fortune to teach? Will you add something to each one of them during the ten months they are in your care? Parents trust us with their children, the people they value the most. Let’s reward that trust, and ensure that every student has the capacity to make a difference as they tackle the world beyond school.

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The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.