How Can I Help Teachers Build Community in the Classroom?

Written by Diane Sweeney, Leanna Harris, and Julie Steele
From: Moves for Launching a New Year of Student-Centered Coaching (Corwin, 2022)

There is so much to do in the first few weeks of school. Teachers will be reconnecting with their students, setting up classrooms, and many will be learning about new curriculum and programs. While we may feel compelled to jump right into content on the first day of school, this overlooks the importance of building community in the classroom. If we don’t make time for this, we set ourselves up for challenges related to student behavior and engagement as the year progresses. We simply can’t risk setting up a school year where weak teacher and student relationships lead to ongoing behavior challenges. As coaches, we can support teachers as they work to build relationships with their students using the following strategies.

1) Work With Teachers To Create a Sense of Belonging Among Students
Coaching into building relationships with students can feel like a no-go zone for coaches because it sometimes feels sensitive and in some ways private. Yet we know that relationships are the most important factor when it comes to both classroom management and student learning. For this reason, we have to learn how to go there, especially at the beginning of the year. If we learn how to ask questions around relationship building while maintaining positive intent, we set ourselves up to nurture both our relationships with teachers as well as their relationships with students.

2) Work With Teachers To Establish Rituals and Routines
The act of setting classroom expectations through the use of rituals and routines, is a necessary strategy for creating a productive classroom. When students don’t have a clear idea of what’s expected or how they fit into the classroom environment, they may disengage or disrupt the learning.

Working with teachers to break down a lesson into its most basic components creates the opportunity to think through routines for learning. For example, during a co-planning session, a coach may ask the teacher how students will transition throughout the lesson. Some guiding questions may include:

    • What rituals and routines will you create to allow all students the opportunity to participate in the classroom community? 
    • What norms will be created and monitored to ensure that the students’ voices are heard and honored?
    • How will we intervene if rituals and routines aren’t being honored by students?

3) Find Ways to Support Teachers When Community Breaks Down
Things may become delicate if we encounter situations when breakdowns are occurring that are caused by issues related to the classroom community. These situations may lead a principal to try to solve the problem by directing a teacher to work with the coach on their classroom management. We’d argue that this isn’t a productive way to build trust in the coaching program. If the principal would like to nudge a teacher to work with a coach to address these issues, it can be helpful to frame it as follows, “We are aiming to start the school year with strong relationships with our students and your coach could be a good resource on this.” While the difference between these approaches may seem nuanced, the second example is all about providing a learning focused rationale for the recommendation, rather than simply directing a teacher to a coach because the principal said so.

Another way these issues can be addressed is to be proactive in forging conversations around them right from the start. Coaches can take the following steps to initiate these conversations:

  • Send an email to teachers letting them know that you would like to be a thinking partner as they plan how they will build their classroom community. 
  • Create a cohort of teachers who would like to explore this as a group. 
  • Develop professional learning on this topic.

In Closing
As we work to build community, an important role for coaches is to help teachers create belonging and access for all students. Partnering with teachers and the principal will support our students to thrive in ways that go far beyond the lesson of the day.