Teachers’ Transformative Work: Building a Supportive Community in the Classroom

Teacher smiles at class full of students

On the night of July 12th, 2011, climber Dean Potter scaled Cathedral Peak in Yosemite National Park. Untethered, he then walked across a highline spanning two points at an elevation of 10,911 feet. Backlit by the rising full moon, Potter’s amazing ‘Moonwalk’ was recorded for a television series by National Geographic. It’s not outlandish to compare Potter’s feat to the balance and skill required by teachers to build classroom community for their students.

An effective classroom seeks to balance individual uniqueness with group unity. Each individual must feel safe to speak, act, and explore ideas. A strong classroom community harnesses diverse strengths and weaknesses, finding ways to affirm them authentically. Finally, a successful classroom focuses on mastery while emphasizing progress. A teacher with the focus, skills, and discipline required to build a nurturing community is indeed akin to that highline walker—and their effort for our students’ sake is also worthy of accolades and gratitude!

Balancing Community with Individuality

How does a teacher combine individual personalities and passion with a shared classroom vision? Accomplishing such a delicate balance requires techniques and routines that blend student passions with collective goals. Techniques such as project-based learning and ample student choice contribute to creating community while allowing individual expression. 

Student choice can lead to peer-to-peer connections through workshopping; the writer’s notebook concept is one example of student choice. This approach strikes a positive balance because students choose the content of their writing and then collaborate. The teacher also gets to enjoy the variety of final products. Not only does constant and purposeful choice lead to better motivation, but it also increases attentiveness, participation, and other positive behaviors. Making individual choices and talents a constant aspect of the classroom helps to create an authentic community with a shared purpose.

Safe and Real

Shaping a classroom where students feel safe to speak their minds requires careful but worthwhile attention. Students derive so much benefit in learning from their diverse classmates, yet difficulties can arise from the plurality of opinions in our communities. Students’ intensely held beliefs about the world’s condition and human nature are often quite different. Also, deeply felt experiences can be hard for students to express if they have experienced judgment, yet educating the whole student makes these conversations very important. How does a teacher design space for authentic conversations? Establishing classroom norms helps. Teachers who do this well often have an agreed-upon set of norms for each period; these apply to teachers and students. The teacher can reference the relevant period’s list when prearranged norms are broken. Cornell University affirms that most literature on classroom management emphasizes norm setting for a positive classroom environment. They also relate that these instructors are seen as “more courteous, more willing to answer questions and to hear different points of view, and more encouraging of classroom discussion.”

Teacher vulnerability also helps to create safe spaces. Sometimes, the lesson benefits from an infusion of the teacher’s personal experience. In this way, the teacher models how to act in the community. 

Finally, restorative practice techniques, where students and teachers work out problems, help build confidence that conflict is not scary. The teacher could consider the LARA (Listen, Affirm, Respond, Ask Questions) technique to help create a consistent routine for tough conversations. School and learning communities will be strong with the ability and experience to work through disagreements.

Effort Rather Than Achievement

Lastly, effort is more important than results. Most of us remember that one student with extraordinary intellectual talent—someone who received good grades without seeming to try. However, rewarding achievement fails to honor the students who worked hard. Honoring effort and character will push all students to achieve their potential. With everyone working hard, the whole community gets a boost. In the related book Nurture Shock, the author quotes Carol Dweck on the importance of praising effort. “Emphasizing effort gives a child a variable that they can control . . . they come to see themselves as in control of their success.” A robust work effort will serve all students in and out of school, and rewarding efforts will result in a better community. Focusing on student effort fosters a community that values personal growth and a group that grows together.  

Simple Starting Points

Where might a teacher begin to develop this balance within their classroom? Here are some simple ideas that honor individuals and create community:

  • Make a comfortable space in the room. Physically comfortable students become emotionally comfortable as well.
  • Spend time employing team-building techniques, trust activities, and norm-creation activities. A teacher can do these at the beginning of the year, but it is more valuable to spread them out, especially after winter break.
  • Use activities that communally honor individual choice. Partner clocks are one of many ways to do this.
  • Set up regular classroom meetings where students give valuable feedback.

Our teachers’ work in nurturing these classroom communities is invaluable and deserves recognition. The patience, creativity, and empathy they bring to their classrooms should be highlighted and celebrated more often. In the spirit of Dean Potter’s breathtaking balance, they, too, perform remarkable feats daily. For the teachers who are reading this, may you find encouragement in the knowledge that your efforts are shaping not just the learners of today and tomorrow. Thank you for your unwavering commitment to fostering environments where every student can succeed and feel valued. Here’s to continuing the journey with courage, hope, and the collective belief in the transformative power of education.

About TLC

The Lincoln Center for Family and Youth (TLC) is a social enterprise company serving the Greater Philadelphia Area. Among its five divisions, TLC offers School-based Staffing Solutions, Mobile Coaching and Counseling, and Heather’s Hope: A Center for Victims of Crime. These major programs are united under TLC’s mission to promote positive choices and cultivate meaningful connections through education, counseling, coaching, and consulting.

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