4 Steps to Classroom Turnaround: How do you turn around a class that you’ve let get out of control?
I recently walked into a classroom to hear a teacher tell a student across the room “Jason, you’re on step 6 on the consequence chart.” It was only 9:40 am! I wondered to myself what this student could have possibly done so wrong to be on step 6 of 7 so early in the day. It was obvious to me that there was a broken relationship between the teacher and Jason in dire need of repair.
Unfortunately, I hear these types of statements too often when visiting classrooms around the country. Some teachers feel that misbehavior and low academic achievement is solely on the student and independent of the teacher. This is a dangerous mindset that breathes implicit bias, a toxic classroom culture, and students underperforming because students don’t believe that the teacher has their best interest at the forefront. While a principal’s leadership is integral to turning around a school, there is much research to support that the teacher is the single most influential factor to student success (Hattie, 2015).
No-Nonsense Nurturers understand the long-term impact on student learning, trust, and relationships when firing off consequences too quickly. When I debriefed with this teacher, he said he felt hopeless in being able to turn his classroom around as he blamed students and administration for the misbehaviors. He took no ownership for his role in student behavior. Coaching him out of a state of despair required me to step into his shoes and show empathy as I reflected on my first year of teaching. In all honesty, I remember once scrolling my classroom roster hoping not to see some student names that other teachers told me avoid. Starting the year with a deficit-based mindset already put my students at a disadvantage because I subconsciously dealt with their behavior and neglected to get to know certain students as a person.
This teacher lacked the experience and wherewithal to understand that despite receiving one day of professional development on classroom management, and feeling like he’s “been thrown to the wolves with no support from administration”, there were still factors within his locus of control. I asked him to tell me something that Jason likes to do outside of school and he replied “I don’t know. I haven’t really had the time to find out yet.” So during our debrief, I supported the teacher with understanding four simple steps that No-Nonsense Nurturers implement year-round that yield major turnaround on student outcomes:
Step 1: No-Nonsense Nurturers plan ahead to effectively build relationships with students through the use of precise directions to ensure academic success. No matter the time of year, teachers sometimes feel that it is too late to set clear expectations because the classroom culture has already been set. For any teacher to successfully turn around their classroom, s/he must commit to providing precise directions to students for every transition and multistep activity. The most successful teachers convey clear expectations to their students without assuming that kids “should know” what to do. That mistake in my first year of teaching left my students unsure of how to be successful, causing a strain on our relationship. Inconsistent practices should never be seen as the only consistent thing. No-Nonsense Nurturers avoid running off a list of things students should and should not do. Instead, they give precise directions that tell students what to do and how to do it. This predictability is imperative to repairing damaged relationships with students and turning around a classroom because students will feel safe and take risks knowing that the teacher has high expectations for them.
Step 2: After setting clear expectations, No-Nonsense Nurturers narrate the positive behaviors they want to see. Although very critical, this is often the most difficult of the four steps for teachers to do because it’s human nature to address the undesirable behaviors we see, while ignoring the positive. Constantly focusing on negative behaviors can lead some teachers to unexpectedly lower the bar, and praise simple behaviors, such as sitting in a chair. Remaining positive and acknowledging students following your expectations has many effective outcomes for both the student and the teacher. Students who receive consequences quickly can internalize that they are viewed as a bad student, causing a negative mindset about themselves. Negative mindsets in the brain respond to negative memories three times more than positive (Hammond & Jackson, 2015). Instead, teachers can shift students’ mindsets by validating them through the use of narration to reduce the negative mindsets students may hold of themselves.
Step 3: While narration is imperative to building positive relationships, No-Nonsense Nurturers go a step further by implementing classroom incentives that motivate and sustain student engagement. Providing classroom incentives is not a “reward” to students for following expectations. Incentives are a predetermined point system created with students to help them achieve success and work together toward a common goal. For example, an incentive system can be around teamwork. The teacher can use the incentive system to create a community- or team-oriented culture by giving shout-outs and points whenever students support and invest in each other through positive encouragement. Also, when teachers consistently implement the classwide incentive system, it helps to decrease the negative encounters they’re likely to face if they only focus on the consequences. Incentive systems can be implemented any time during the school year to reinforce positive behaviors.
Consequences should be given after a student chooses to not follow the expectations. It’s erroneous for teachers to believe that it’s effective to go straight to consequences rather than remain positive and give incentives when students follow the expectations. Our brains have mirror neurons that encourage us to match body language, which signals trust and support. For example, have you ever smiled at someone and they smiled back? If you answered yes, that is your mirror neuron matching their body language. The brain feels safest and relaxed when we are connected to others we trust to treat us well (Hammond & Jackson, 2015). Students are more likely to follow the lead of the teacher and take risks in an environment where they feel safe, trust the adult, and have a positive relationship. So, when turning around a classroom, it’s never too late to change your practice. Try greeting students at the door with handshakes, high-fives, or a chant before the start of class. As a teacher, I never allowed any student to enter the class without getting a personal greeting from me at the door. Why? Because relationships begin at the door! Greeting my students at the door allowed me to make eye contact with each one and mitigate any distractions they may be entering with that would prevent them from engaging 100% during class.
Lastly, I supported this teacher in creating a year-long plan on how he was going to build positive relationships with his students, particularly Jason. He had to establish trust with Jason. Consistently implementing the first three steps was a start, but it’s not a checklist. And certainly not something that a No-Nonsense Nurturer does for one day.
Step 4: Ongoing relationship-building goes beyond knowing the students’ parents, or the neighborhood they live in. Relationship-building takes place inside and outside of the classroom because it’s harder to repair damaged relationships than it is to build a positive rapport from the onset. However, for those counting down to the last day of school, it’s not too late to turn around your classroom! The very first step is to have an honest conversation with your class where you own your role in the class not doing well. Apologizing to students is difficult for many adults, because they believe students are solely responsible for their success in school. Many times students aren’t successful in school because they haven’t positively connected with an adult that has consistently set high expectations for them, got to know them as a person, or honored them or their culture. Apologizing only humanizes you and shows students that when you make mistakes, you own it and fix it. Remember, you are modeling for students how to be positive citizens. Your students know when you are unplanned and don’t have high expectations for them, even when you say you do, because your behavior doesn’t match.
After apologizing, tell students that for the remainder of the year, you will be taking a different approach to your teaching to ensure their academic success. That’s a great time to create an open forum to find out from students what things they want to engage in that would successfully sustain their engagement. Tie their responses to an incentive system, honor their wishes, and tell them that you might need them to help you remain consistent with giving them points every time they show grit and perseverance to remain academically engaged. I’ve seen teachers use this as a “game” where they challenge students to pay attention to their practice and call the teacher out when the teacher is not being consistent with the promise s/he made. Believe it or not, this can actually strengthen your relationships with students because it not only humanizes you, but it shows that you are honest about your growth areas.
Classroom turnaround doesn’t start with the principal, but with the teacher, regardless of the school culture and climate. When I visited this teacher’s classroom just two days after our talk, his student on-task behavior increased from 50 to 93 percent! Implementing these steps consistently creates a positive classroom culture where students feel an alliance with their peers and the teacher, so they are better able to self-regulate their behavior through good and challenging times. When students feel safe, they take risks and are likely to exceed expectations.
Hammond, Z., & Jackson, Y. (2015). Culturally responsive teaching and the brain: promoting authentic engagement and rigor among culturally and linguistically diverse students. Thousand Oaks, California: Corwin, a SAGE company.
Hattie, J., Masters, D., & Birch, K. (2015). Visible Learning into Action: International Case Studies of Impact.
By Karen Baptiste, CT3 associate
To read more about Karen’s background as a special educator in New York City, click here.
Click here to read Karen’s article in Education Week Teacher on how No-Nonsense Nurturers in a variety of classrooms can use the Universal Design for Learning framework to support all students, not only those receiving special education services.
In the fall of 2017, Karen’s article on Courageous Conversations was featured in The 74. In it, she reflects on the power of having courageous conversations about race at the school level; conversations that get teachers and school staff out of their comfort zones and into a safe space of addressing their own biases to create shared goals that make schools better. This article was also shared in Education Week Teacher.