Classroom Community: A teacher's guide

Jean Hoffmann

How can schools create a positive classroom community where everyone feels valued?

What is a classroom community?

Identifying who is in the classroom community and prioritizing connections will enable students and families to feel a sense of belonging, strengthen student learning and offer opportunities for families and community members to share skills while create lasting partnerships.

How can strategies and tools for building a class community strengthen student learning?

Prior to the start of the school it, it is important for teachers to commit to the belief that all students and families are important and to welcome the relationships to cultivate. All children and families are an asset and value to the classroom community. Students can learn from their peers in the classroom and families can share in student learning. 

Creating a classroom community is presented in five broad categories

-Identifying people in the class community and tools for creating relationships

-Connecting with families

-Putting key strategies for building a learning community into practice 

-Making student learning come alive in the class curriculum

-Prioritizing connections to fellow teachers to seek tools, skills, ideas, and partnerships to strengthen the class community

This article focuses on the class community in the primary school years. Students are at the central focus of the classroom community which builds outwards to include student interests, families, school personnel, community members, local businesses, and other teachers. Relationships are prioritized to maximize student learning, minimize behavior concerns, and strengthen lasting partnerships.

Identifying who is in your classroom community

Who is in the classroom community?

-Students

-Families

-Community Helpers

-Local Businesses

-School Personnel

-Fellow Teachers

The main relationships in the class community are the students. Creating a welcoming environment and getting to know student interests and needs are at the centre of the community. Optimize opportunities to connect with students prior to the start of the school year.  Some schools value home visits to meet the student and their family. This can ease the transition to school especially when the children are at the beginning of their school journey. Students are met in the environment they feel most comfortable, their own homes. Families can fill out some class paperwork, but the focus is to start the relationship with the student. Open houses and teacher meet and greets are another way to jumpstart the relationships with students and families. Students can see their class prior to the first day and this strategy can minimize the students' nervous behaviour on the first day of school. 

Building a class community on day one starts with going over expectations. Start the morning with a student discussion to plan for ways to support maximum learning. Class meetings are a great way to do this! Start with class rules; have the students and peers co-create the class rules. Work together to determine four or five rules the students need to foster learning, minimize behaviour and partner with their peers in a safe environment. As a class community, it is important to get on the same page. When students can agree on the class rules they created, have them sign them (or a painted handprint for young children) to show their intent for a safe learning community. 

As the school year progresses, it is helpful to keep notes on the students to identify their interests for embedding into the curriculum. Simple notecards in a recipe box is an easy way to begin. Jot down the student's name and observations about their interests and backgrounds to refer to when planning inquiry learning lessons. When incorporating students' interests into the class learning, the students are not only more engaged, but this strategy minimizes negative behaviour. Write down which peers get along or have struggles, ideas for upcoming learning based on what students discuss in class and a note to remind yourself about family attributes. Being a responsive teacher to student relationship is central to building a welcoming class community. 

Creating positive classroom communities
Creating positive classroom communities

Connecting with families in your community

Prioritizing relationships with families is a key strategy to ease difficult situations as they arise throughout the school year. If the family considers the relationship with the teacher important and there is mutual respect, when tough conversations need to happen, they go much smoother. 

How do you build a relationship with students' families?

Accept the unique attributes and characteristics that make up the family. Families are as unique as the students and creating a welcoming and accepting tone starts you off on the right foot.

Use parent and guardian first names. This is the #1 piece of advice for teachers. Taking the time to get to know the family members' first names and using it in conversation, shows the value you put on the relationship. This is a rare strategy teachers use, but it is incredibly helpful!

Share child development and parenting resources. On the back of the weekly class newsletter, consider putting resources for parents to learn about the development of their child, strategies to support parenting and fun, local resources, and events the family may enjoy. Parents As Teachers (parentsasteachers.org) has parent pages that pinpoint relevant development at specific ages. The bonus is, if there is a challenge for a particular student, for example, friendship concerns or transitions, the information goes on the back of every newsletter, so the family does not feel targeted. This strategy can help to avoid uncomfortable conversations or a resentful parent who feels a teacher is giving unsolicited advice. 

Ask for family volunteers! Send home a volunteer sheet at the beginning of the year and include a section for parents and guardians to share their interests. They can be field trip chaperones, assist with art projects and prepare bulletin boards and book orders. When learning about the families, consider if they have unique talents to share with the class. Past volunteers have led monthly science lessons (the mother's background was in science), a classically trained ballerina performed a dance, a guardian who was a firefighter showed his gear and equipment, and a musician parent performed songs. This type of volunteering strengthens the relationships with the families and helps learning to come alive for the students! 

Family Nights! Plan nights after school for families to get involved in their child's learning. Make them simple and fun; consider offering a snack or light meal to encourage busy families to join. Typically, offer two to three family nights per school year. It is another opportunity to build the school-family partnership and to participate in positive discussions. The students can get together to interact with peers and showcase their learning.  Some successful Family Night topics to consider for young students are: Book Bingo (bingo with books as prizes), shirt decorating (for students to wear on field trips), Very Important Person Day (a child can choose any family member to come to visit at school and join in on activities), Ice Cream Social at a local park, and a spaghetti dinner. To be inclusive to all families, avoid Donuts for Dads and Muffins for Moms since families have unique make-up. These nights can make a student feel "other than" if they do not have a mom or dad in their lives. 

Building a Classroom Community

Remember the school neighbourhood: When building the class community, consider what skills and learning the students and peers can gain from the people in the nearby community. Have a discussion with the students to ask for ideas on what they would like to learn about. You may be surprised! Consider which community members could be an asset to the learning taking place in the class. Over the years, I would set aside a few weeks to teach about the community and neighbourhood and invite community members to visit the class. To ease them into the classroom, I would ask them to read a short book about their career followed by a student-led discussion. Student learning is powerful when they are learning from a person who uses their skills on the job. Visitors to the class to consider are:

Firefighters

Police Officers

Librarians

Dentists

Mail Carriers

Construction Workers

Nurses

Doctors

Consider community businesses in the neighbourhood for students to learn from. Successful visits have included a laundromat, grocery store, and post office. Here is a link to preschool students learning about a community taco truck: (https://www.naeyc.org/resources/blog/preschoolers-investigate-taco-truck). Community businesses within walking distance are great! Students ask the workers great questions, prompting interesting discussion and learning. When students are engaged in their learning, difficult behaviours are avoided or limited. 

Using the curriculum to foster a positive classroom community

As the curriculum allows, prioritize inquiry learning in the class community. Ask the students and peers what they want to learn about. It can be fascinating to see learning unfold when it is guided by student interests. Ask yourself as the instructor, what can I do to make student learning come alive? How can I facilitate student learning? Learn more about inquiry learning here: (https://www.modelteaching.com/education-articles/lesson-curriculum-planning/inquiry-based-learning-what-it-looks-like-in-a-classroom-setting). 

Consider the example of an orange. Pretend for a moment, a student does not know what an orange is and wants to learn about an orange. There are many ways an instructor can go about facilitating the student's learning about an orange:

1) Show the student a photo of an orange. Note some descriptions in the photo and discuss with the peers their experiences with oranges, if any. 

2) Give the student a pretend orange to hold onto from the dramatic play area. Discuss the attributes and experiences of oranges with peers. 

3) Hand the student a real orange. Have the student smell, touch, and taste the orange. Have a student-led discussion with peers to take note of their preferences and observations.

4) Have a fruit grower from a community orange orchard come in and teach the student about oranges. Include the planting and care of the trees, the harvest, and different varieties. Offer the student different varieties to try and foster a student-led discussion of questions with the fruit grower. 

All the above examples teach students about oranges, but which option offers the most meaningful learning? There is not an orange grove in every community but ponder who and what is in the community to maximize learning. Have a class meeting to discuss student interests. 

6] Teachers and School Personnel: Important members of your community

  • Fellow teachers are invaluable members of the classroom community. They can offer great resources and become partners in your students' learning
  • Find the best teachers in the school to connect with and learn from. The best teachers are the best for a reason. What are they doing to have success in the classroom? How do they build a community with their students? The easiest way to find out is to observe and ask. Teachers love to share ideas. It is not necessary to recreate the teaching wheel; find the best ideas and "steal" them! Do not worry, the best ideas are meant to be stolen. Be sure to share your ideas with other teachers as well. 
  • Partner up with a different grade level and become buddies. Class buddies are the best and help both sets of students learn. Aim for a grade at least three levels apart. For example, early childhood and 3rd grade. Approximately once per month, schedule time for both classes to come together for learning. The younger students learn from the older students and the older students learn the value of relationships and helping others. 
  • Consider which school personnel could strengthen learning in your class. The school psychologist may enjoy leading guidance and social-emotional lessons and the speech pathologist could support the class learning with phonics lessons. 

Positive classroom communities
Positive classroom communities

Final thoughts on developing your classroom community

Join groups of like-minded educators. Consider your area of expertise and find groups on social media or nationwide memberships. LinkedIn (www.linkedin.com) offers several interest groups; get ideas and stay current on research in your field. Early childhood educators may enjoy membership with the National Association for the Education of Young Children (www.naeyc.org).  Members can enjoy resources, a discussion group, and articles on current best practices. 

Commit to creating an action plan to build a class community and maximize learning for your students. Start small; take one or two ideas and start implementing them. You will create invaluable relationships with students, families, teachers, and the community as a whole for an exciting, welcoming and supportive learning environment.