If you are a teacher, then you are either back to work or you can feel the last days of your summer vacation beginning to slip away. For the majority of us, the beginning of the school year marks the time where we focus on establishing culture in our classroom. In our minds, we have a vision of what we want our space to look like and how we want the students to act while in the classroom. We build the norms and expectations of the classroom to accommodate the teaching style and content that we need to cover.
We always consider the way that we would like the classroom to run. How often do we challenge ourselves to think deeply about how the students will feel as a result of the classroom structure? It is very easy to fall in the trap and belief that compliance by our students is a signal that they feel comfortable in the space. Too often in urban schools, teachers govern their students through use of fear. Students are controlled by a system of carrots and sticks often called PBIS— a system based on punishment and rewards for acting in a certain way. Teachers are asked to use tickets that result in prizes to reward positive behavior. The culture that is created often asks the students to sacrifice their own identity so that they can fit the mold of a “good student.” Do we really want to create classroom spaces in which we are asking students to sacrifice their cultural identity in an effort to create a “positive culture?”
It is easy to walk into a classroom where students are sitting quietly, listening to the teacher and believe that the students are being well-served. Although it is important that the students have respect for and listen to the teacher, but should this be the only lens through which we perceive a positive classroom culture? We need to be looking more closely and asking better questions such as:
Does the culture created value the cultural identities of all learners? Are students comfortable with sharing their thoughts and speaking their truths? Do the students feel valued and loved? What does the classroom space feel like for a student?
In many ways systems that do not place these types of questions at the forefront of their culture make a lot of sense. They give teachers and administrators a way of educating students efficiently. There seems to be an ongoing struggle in education between the need for efficiency and the desire to educate the whole child. As high stakes testing becomes increasingly influential in the argument for efficiency, we must ask ourselves: Are we trying to create compliant automatons or creative thinkers with unique identities? Although the road to the latter is far more difficult, I hope that it is the one we as a nation will choose. As you begin the new year with a new group of students, challenge yourself to think about the type of culture you want to create and the systems you use to create it. Take the time to look at these systems through the student eye. Do the systems truly honor the unique cultural identities of your learners or are they built simply on compliance?