Creating a Positive Classroom Culture: Tips from Opportunity Culture Educators

by | October 5, 2022

By Paola Gilliam, October 5, 2022

With many students struggling with unresolved social-emotional issues brought on or intensified by Covid shutdowns, what are some simple strategies Opportunity Culture educators use to help create calm, safe spaces that support their students’ academic growth?

The National Center for Education Statistics found that 87 percent of public schools reported negative impacts from Covid on student social-emotional development during the 2021–22 school year. Schools reported a rise in classroom disruptions because of student misconduct, acts of disrespect toward teachers, and more fighting and threats of physical attacks between students.

Karen Vicory, a multi-classroom leader in Ector County, build relationships with students to improve classroom behavior.

In interviews, Opportunity Culture educators echoed those trends.

Alongside academics, the biggest gap is “where our students are socially, where they are lacking their empathy for one another,” said Karen Vicory, a multi-classroom leader at Wilson and Young Middle School in Ector County Independent School District (ISD), Texas.

Educators emphasized the need to first build relationships and connections with students, so they could relearn procedures and improve classroom behavior and engagement.

“[2021–22] was a big social-emotional learning year,” said Holly Mathias, a team reach teacher in Hertford County Public Schools, North Carolina. “We had to reach these children before we could even teach them—we had to develop ‘yes, you’re safe, yes, you’re loved, yes, you’re respected, this is what we expect of you, this is what you can expect of us.’ And once we meet those barriers, the learning can truly take place.”

Small-Group Learning

Extensive use of small groups helps build strong relationships with students, educators said, and in those groups, they can provide focused tutoring, a research-backed strategy recommended for learning recovery.

When Opportunity Culture teachers, multi-classroom leaders, and paraprofessionals such as reach associates lead small-group instruction, students get a lot of personal time with multiple adults who share the same expectations, said Gabby McIntyre, a multi-classroom leader at Yarbrough Elementary in Midland ISD in Texas. “That is helping not only their academics but… their emotional well-being—their behaviors are improving.”

Then, students “get really excited when it’s time to come learn,” Mathias said.

Susan Hendricks, the principal of Ross Elementary in Ector County before becoming the district’s director of leadership in August, encouraged her staff to use small groups to build a positive classroom culture.

“Something I always tell my teachers is that any time that you have a behavior issue, pull them in your small groups… I promise you start building that relationship, you start making them confident,” Hendricks said. “It builds their confidence and their skills, and they’re more likely to participate and raise their hand.”

Strategies for Teacher Residents

For inexperienced educators, learning how to manage classroom disruptions could easily consume most of their time.

As an Ector County teacher resident not much older than her students, Kailey Tate acknowledged that “managing classrooms was actually something I was a little afraid of.”

Opportunity Culture teacher residents serve on multi-classroom leader (MCL) teams, where they get a year of experience learning how to lead a classroom under the guidance of an excellent educator.

Tate learned firsthand from seeing her MCL’s great leadership in action.

“[I watched] how she gets the students to take accountability for their actions rather than us taking full accountability in the classroom and constantly having to get on to them for breaking the rules and stuff—putting that in their hands and letting them know that they’re growing up now and they need to be accountable,” said Tate, who became a regular teacher this year in Ector County. “So, once we did that, a lot of the disruption stopped and so, managing the classroom became a lot easier, and now it just flows.”

Kailey Tate, a teacher resident in Ector County, learned classroom management strategies from her multi-classroom leader.
Audriana Munoz, a teacher resident in Ector County, used strategies to keep students on task and created backup plans.

“The biggest takeaway I’ve learned from my MCL is TVB. [I’d] never heard about it, but it’s ‘time, voice, body,’” said Audriana Munoz, an Opportunity Culture teacher resident who also became a regular teacher in Ector County. “They say you’re able to get more student on-task behavior when you use all three before you start anything.

“So, you give them the time that they are going to be doing what their expectation is, their voice level, and what’s expected that their body looks like. So, for example, in the hallway before lunch, we say it should take us only two minutes to get to cafeteria, voice level is at zero, you have walking feet with your hands to yourself.”

Munoz learned the need for thorough lesson planning, with differentiated plans and backup plans for when things go wrong.

Chloe Reeves, a former Opportunity Culture resident in Midland ISD, also learned the importance of planning ahead and setting classroom norms.

“Set your procedures, get your procedures down, because you don’t want to be in any reteaching procedures halfway through the year—procedures, procedures, procedures,” Reeves said.

Destany Hernandez, a former Opportunity Culture resident and current teacher in Midland ISD, and Tate learned methods of awarding points as positive reinforcement.

Traci Sides, a reach associate in Midland, uses student feedback to motivate students.

When Hernandez’s students worked together, they were trying to earn points as a group, furthering their collaboration and creating a supportive classroom.

Traci Sides, a reach associate in Midland ISD, said she and her MCL used student feedback to motivate students and keep the classroom feeling positive. They routinely gave students sticky notes on which to share thoughts about what they find fun during class, what they would like changed, and questions about why they did certain routines.

“Oh, we got amazing feedback. We took that feedback, and we structured it around what they wanted to do—we changed it. It’s motivating to them, it’s motivating to us,” Sides said. “Every single day, we try to make the environment, the atmosphere, fun and still get a lot done.”

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