Community in the Classroom

Question 1

I am curious how to develop a community in your classroom that is encouraging for everyone in the classroom, so that every student is a friend with every other student? Is that even possible?

It is unrealistic to expect every student in the classroom to be a friend of every other student. I do, however, believe that each student can be taught to respect every other student. Developing a sense of community starts long before you begin teaching your students. It begins with an approach to teaching based in your philosophy of education. When you base your teaching on the fundamental principles that every student is created by God, precious to God, and therefore deserving of respect regardless of abilities or gifts, you have a firm foundation. Each student contributes to the classroom in some way. Each student is gifted regardless of how s/he learns academically. We also have to recognize that we are all broken and live in a broken world, but God’s grace is bigger than our own brokenness or our students’ brokenness. By asking for God’s help, we can expect to receive the grace and wisdom to handle the circumstances that present themselves.

Each time we take an action regarding classroom organization or curriculum, we have to check if it is consistent with our fundamental principles. If our practices are based on competition, we have to question whether we are trying to build a sense of community. If however, learning involves sharing knowledge and working together, community will be enhanced.

If our behavior and curriculum practices seek to find the strengths in our students and build on these, a sense of community will be fostered. As students begin to truly know each other, finding out what they can do, rather than what they cannot do, a greater sense of appreciation of the gifts of each becomes evident. A student may comment on a fellow student’s ability to draw, and the student in turn may respond, “I can show you how to do that.” When our classroom climate is one in which students learn from and with each other as well as from a variety of resources, rather than from the teacher as the only source of information, community happens. When curriculum plans include a diversity of approaches to meet the different learning needs, there is greater opportunity for students to learn together, rub shoulders with (and thus appreciate) their fellow students’ gifts and abilities. It follows that when the teacher models legitimate praise of students, students will also learn this behavior. Affirming others is a concept that can be taught.

Creating a community of professional learners may mean that teachers together become involved in exploring ideas of building classroom community. This may include planning to meet the diverse learning needs of students, creating enduring understandings for lessons and units, integrating media as a teaching and learning tool, fostering literacy development, and exploring and incorporating different learning styles. In the process, we may gain a greater respect for our colleagues and even find we have a new friend or two.

Question 2

We have had two mothers in our education class to tell us their experience with children with special needs. One of them was a huge advocate for children with special needs. She was very nice, but a little scary, while the other one was easygoing and less scary. What do you suggest for a teacher who has the advocate’s child in their classroom? Should she be afraid, and watch her every move in fear that she may be caught doing something that the mother does not approve of? Or should she do the best she knows how and not let the mother bother her?

I believe you have answered your own question in your last statement, but I sense you are seeking reassurance. I think that there are many teachers who have the same uneasiness that you are expressing. We believe that each student is specially created by God and therefore capable of learning in his or her unique way. The introduction of a child with special needs presents a challenge for which some of us are not prepared.

Building a relationship with the parents of the child with special needs is crucially important. We can never underestimate the love a parent has for a child or how much they want the very best for their child. The parents know their child far better than anyone else because they have lived each day with the child and know what works and what does not work. This information helps in establishing routines at the beginning of the year. This does not mean, however, that you cannot challenge an assumption or practice if you believe you have sound educational reasons for doing so as you get to know the child. Having a healthy open communication with the parents allows you to explore alternate ways of doing things with the child. If the parents know that you love their child and will do anything to help their child learn, you will likely gain their trust and approval to move ahead with the child’s education in a manner in which you are comfortable. There will be times when you do things that do not work, but as with all situations in the classroom, you can learn from this and do things differently next time. I trust you will also consult educational literature and research to help direct your teaching practices with this particular special need.

Should this parent wish to help in the classroom, I suggest she be given tasks similar to those given to the other parents. This may avoid the parent focusing only on the needs of her child. I found it most beneficial to give each parent helper a written list of the tasks to be done with a child or group of children, as well as all the materials needed for the tasks. I realize this takes planning time, but is well worth the effort. You will have to use discernment in deciding if the parent helper will work with her own child in the classroom. All parents benefit from having an orientation so that they become familiar with your philosophy and teaching style, as well as the guidelines for appropriate action and confidentiality. As parents help in the classroom, they gain a greater sense of how their children are being cared for, and positive comments only serve to build a stronger school community.

Question 3

As a college student, I have a question regarding my experience in a teacher-aiding placement. The cooperating teacher that I am working with is a veteran teacher who I’m sure has done things the exact same way for twenty years. Although she is a wonderful teacher, her teaching style is very traditional and she doesn’t have any variety in the way she teaches. She doesn’t like to try new things and uses no technology. Students learn very differently these days, and they respond well to technology because it’s familiar to them. What would be some suggestions of how to introduce her to small changes she could make in this area in order to reach students? I wouldn’t want to offend her since she is a great teacher, but I think part of being a teacher is adjusting to the changing times and adapting to how students currently learn best.

As indicated in the answer to question 1, we can build community among staff members as well as in our own classrooms. I assume your experience with this teacher allowed you to develop a professional relationship. I suggest you get to know her personally and ask questions about her teaching. What are her joys? What are her challenges? One of her challenges may be learning to keep up with technology. She may appreciate having someone teach her. Be patient. Some, like myself, who did not grow up with technology don’t catch on as quickly as those of you who did. While it comes as second nature to you, it takes time and much practice for others. It is like learning a new language. Sometimes it is embarrassing because the students know more than the teacher. It has to become a priority, however. To prepare our students to be transforming agents in this culture and beyond, we have to set aside our personal fears for the sake of the kingdom. Education communities have a responsibility not only to keep up with but also to evaluate the tools that are on the forefront of education. Technology is on the forefront today.