Two steps for supporting teachers with classroom culture challenges

As a middle school principal, I’m so proud of how my team tackles instructional challenges, and I’m always here to promote their growth and support their practice. But we leaders know that sometimes when we visit a classroom, we’ll see a teacher facing challenges not with instruction but with student connections or class expectations – especially during the transitional time right after winter break.

When school started last fall, the teachers in my building put so much care into prioritizing rapport, routines, and relationships in every class, and that approach really paid off.  When we shifted into content instruction, our students were excited and invested – and when their energies faded in November and December, our strong learning culture kept them invested in new growth. But when students return from winter break, it can be easy for them to feel out of touch with the classroom culture we built last fall – and it’s not always easy for teachers to renew connections and reset expectations. That’s why my admin team and I have taken two steps to help our teachers sustain a positive, productive culture in their classrooms throughout the school year:

1. We make relationships, expectations and culture a team priority.

I believe that if we put connection-building and expectation-setting together for students, starting in the first week of school, we can make it empowering for them to sign onto our school’s culture and goals. But I also know that our teachers need to keep promoting connections and expectations for students all year – which means my admin team and I need to find ways to support that work. That’s why, when my team got together for back-to-school PD, we collaborated on a shared collection of resources to sustain classroom culture and student rapport and combat feelings of isolation. I want every teacher to feel like we’re all there for them when they’re struggling with classroom procedures or student connections. So I encouraged each educator to contribute their go-to activities and strategies for building and maintaining an environment that keeps students invested in growing together. 

We built a lesson collection that includes everything from attention-getters to engagement strategies for direct instruction, from organizing group work to monitoring student data. (If you’d like to take a look at our lesson collection, I’m including a link below.) I designed that process to equip teachers for Week One, but I also designed it to empower teachers in Week Five or Week Ten – and to get students reinvested in classroom cultures and processes after winter break. 

By empowering my team to pool strategies, I set the stage for a year of sharing support and collaborating on challenges. So now, if the transition back from winter break feels rocky for students and teachers who need a classroom culture reset, they know they can return to their colleagues’ tried-and-true resources for inspiration. And, even more importantly, they know they can go right to the source – the teacher down the hall – for support and advice.

2. We take a “coach approach” to teacher observations and classroom challenges.

In recent years, my admin team and I have drawn inspiration from the book “The Coach Approach to School Leadership,” which means we build teacher observations and evaluations on the message, “I got you. We all got you. We are here to build your capacity as a teacher, not to tear you down.” That means we’re here to support their teaching practice and student outcomes, but just as importantly, we’re here to support their classroom management and student relationships. Early last fall, we focused our walkthroughs on helping teachers build relationships and routines and used a “classroom culture checklist” to ask: Are teachers promoting respectful discussion? Are they modeling classroom processes? (You can find a link to our checklist below.) Now that teachers are deep into content instruction, it’s my role to help them sustain those relationships and routines – because that’s how I can help them keep the learning going as student energies rise and fall throughout the school year.

For example, I recently observed that one new teacher, who came to us from a high school, has done an incredible job of building a rapport with his students and using that rapport to get them excited about new content. But I also saw that his students are getting distracted or disruptive during transitions, and he’s losing momentum while he gets their attention back or works with them on class norms. I pulled out that classroom culture checklist, put on my coaching hat, and said, “Let’s walk through your transitions: Do you need to adapt your strategies for the middle school attention span or just model more frequently? Let’s check your wall: Are there procedure charts you could co-create with students to keep them in touch with expectations and put them in charge of transitions?” 

That’s a debrief that could have been stressful for the teacher, who might have been thinking, “Great, my principal’s going to think I can’t manage my class” – but instead, I’m transparent about my goal, which is always to provide support and solutions. That’s why I offer one-on-one coaching sessions with me and the rest of the admin team, and that’s why I create regular PLC gatherings for my team to coach and teach one another. I also take those debriefs as another chance to leverage our team’s collective expertise: I’ll offer to model some strategies or cover classes so teachers can take turns modeling for one another. So the next day, that teacher isn’t walking into class feeling stressed about improving transitions after a tough observation – he’s walking in feeling supported in his practice and energized to try new strategies with his students.

When my team and I first got together to start planning for this year, I told them, “We are a whole school of PD.” All our teachers bring so much knowledge and skill into our building – not just in how they teach but in how they create meaningful connections and promote an inspiring learning environment for our students. But I know that despite all their knowledge and skill, every teacher will have tough days – so I took these steps to make sure that on those days, teachers know that our whole school of PD is here to support them. These two steps have really paid off in creating a team culture that makes our educators feel supported and empowered in all they do for our students. So as we head into a new semester of learning, I love seeing my team’s energy and excitement for the work ahead – because they know we’re all in it together.

Our lesson collection for establishing (and re-establishing!) classroom culture:

Our classroom culture checklist: