In middle school, one of the most important things a teacher can do is create a climate of caring and concern in the classroom. A negative classroom climate can crush learning for the student as an adolescent, and if the climate is negative enough, can convince some students that they will never be able to __(fill in the blank)___. It seems like there is so much uncertainty among 12-14 year-olds. Often these students struggle just to “find” themselves, let along figure out where they “fit in” in the constantly changing landscape of school life. Even the lucky ones who kind of feel secure can be uprooted when someone else changes the rules on them.
Because it is such a challenging time in their lives, middle school students often take excess stress out on each other—verbally or even physically. Others give the silent treatment or shun. Friendships are broken, feelings are hurt, and life is, overall, tough.
All of that is happening before and after my students sit in my class. So how can I make my class a haven from that?
Also, I teach in China. 80% of my students are ethnic Chinese and the rest are ethnic Koreans. None of them speak English natively. Considering all of these variables, how can I create a healthy climate in my classroom?
As a new(ish) teacher, my short answer is, “good question, I’m trying to figure it out now…” but as I study and gain further experience, I have learned some really critical things:
1) A well-managed classroom is better for everyone, and management begins even before the first student ever steps foot in the door on the first day.
For example: how is the classroom arranged? Do I want to communicate collaborative effort with the seating arrangement? Then it needs to allow for students to see each other as opposed to only me.
Example two: What are the nonverbal cues on my walls saying? Do I only have quotes from well-known thinkers from my home country? Or have I included other regions of the world? Did I recognize the Korean students who are in the minority in my class? Does everyone feel like this is a place where we honor great people from all over the world?
2) 10-1 ratio of positive interactions to negative interactions may be impossible for some students, but it is critical to both try to reach this ratio, and also to know which students are not receiving this amount of positive reinforcement.
My students in China are used to being praised for high test scores and for modeling excellent behavior. This is good. I can also praise for these reasons. However, what has been fun and challenging for me is to find other ways to praise. Talented doodler? Creative storyteller? Above average social/leadership skills? These are all things that students can get in trouble for here, but I can try to find ways to encourage, because they actually are valuable skills and should be developed. Even more than that, many of these students do not perform well on tests and are not used to being praised. A few kind words go a long ways for some of them.
3) Consistent consequences are critical
Not only do the consequences need to be consistently applied, but they also need to be emotionless. Fortunately it only requires 3-5 consistent applications of a rule before the whole class understands it and buys in. However, if I am inconsistent, the entire year will pass before the whole class buys in. Some will push the limits, while others will simply not believe limits exist at all.
4) Never be afraid to love a child
Some of these students are homosexual, or overweight, or don’t feel good in their own skin for another reason. A few of them do not have anywhere to turn for love. It is important that, as a teacher, I can show interest and concern for each of my students by calling them by name, and learning about them individually. This is challenging, no doubt—I have over 200 total students—but it is possible over the course of a semester and I never know for whom this personal care is critical.