Classroom Strategies, Research and Reflections

Creating a Culture of Shared Norms and High Expectations in Your Classroom (2019 Blog Competition Finalist)

How to create a culture that facilitates powerful learning for ALL learners

A culture of high academic expectations in the classroom does not come from only the teacher – in fact, I would say it can’t! If the learners don’t have high academic expectations of themselves, they will never reach their academic and personal goals. So how do educators create the conditions that allow for engaging, rigorous, inspiring, and fully inclusive learning? One way is to involve the learners in everything that happens in the classroom.

I believe the presence of a strong culture that supports learner agency is the first step toward creating high academic expectations. If the learners don’t have the expectations for themselves, how can we possibly cajole it out of them? It starts with setting the classroom/school expectations with the learners, not for the learners.

Classroom rules, expectations, what the learners need to do to keep a safe, functioning environment— all of these things can be set up with the learners and not by only the teachers. Why take the valuable time away from academics to spend time discussing classroom expectations with learners (and maybe even end up with exactly the same norms you might have had you designed them by yourself)? The answer is that the learners will now hold themselves accountable for their decisions in the classroom. The rules and expectations were designed and discussed by them, so when they do something out of bounds, they can work with each other to make it whole.

The power dynamic of teacher vs learner goes away at that point, and they become partners in their learning. This can happen at every level, from kindergarten to senior year of high school. Once the environment is set up by the learners, the academic learning can begin. The procedures have already been decided by the learners: What happens when the teacher is busy and I need help? What is the procedure to go to the bathroom? How do we line up for lunch? What happens during independent work time and small group time? All these questions have been discussed, decided upon, and posted for all to see.

These questions may seem like trivial things to decide ahead of time, but they’re actually critically important if you want learners in their desks and learning. Across the country, learners are being suspended or permanently removed from schools because of relatively minor infractions and breaking of school rules. Disproportionately learners suspended or expelled are learners of color. We need those learners to stay in our classrooms and schools if they’re going to be successful in college and their future careers. When learners have help to articulate the classroom norms, when they set the expectations themselves, when they’re clear on what is and is not in-bounds in your classroom, then all learners have a feeling in the classroom that their voices are heard and accepted, and that the teacher has created the conditions for learning. There will be trust between the learner and the teacher, and there will be more “buy-in” by the learner as a result. We all know that relationships matter, but we also know that we don’t have the same strong relationships with all of our learners. Involving them in the bigger decisions will begin to create relationships with even the most reluctant learners.

These techniques also work when talking about lessons, practice, and assessment, but that is a topic for another day. The time taken to create the conditions for learning will pay off in the latter part of the school year, when the classroom will be a smooth-running machine. Your learners are still kids—they’re still developing and they may stumble and slip up from time to time, but they’ll recover and self-correct far more quickly when they understand the “why.” And then they’ll get back to learning. High academic expectations won’t be something we need to “hold kids accountable” for meeting; because of the relationships you’ve built and the conditions you have created, they’ll be doing it for themselves.

6 thoughts on “Creating a Culture of Shared Norms and High Expectations in Your Classroom (2019 Blog Competition Finalist)

  1. Amen! This nailed it! “When learners have help to articulate the classroom norms, when they set the expectations themselves, when they’re clear on what is and is not in-bounds in your classroom, then all learners have a feeling in the classroom that their voices are heard and accepted, and that the teacher has created the conditions for learning. There will be trust between the learner and the teacher, and there will be more “buy-in” by the learner as a result.”. It took me a while as an educator to fully trust students, but the more I have, the more they have shown themselves to be trustworthy as they grew in owning their learning. I’m a reformed control freak because of this concept! TRUST THEM as THEY TRUST YOU.
    Awesome, love this post Mr. Shea!

  2. This is highly interesting, from the parent perspective. For me, it’s hard to know when I’m pushing too much routine, and I question whether I’m infringing on their time to just “be.” It’s great to read how this can be nuanced as setting shared expectations, rather than giving orders.

  3. This article speaks truth. I have promoted class meetings ever since meeting Jane Nelsen. I used her techniques in my own middle school room and as a coach I have shared her books and boght them for many teachers. Once kids set up their own norms and procedures for how they want their class to be they stick to it and they appreciate being asked. Yes today many students come to us with many emotional issues and the aftereffects of trauma, however just talking and modeling how to handle issues helps these kids cope and they learn! It just takes a focused approach to establishing classroom climate and expectations and this takes time. Time that is well spent the beginning of the year and taught every day. When teachers are pressured to get in so much beginning of the year testing and sticking to pacing guides and maps they do not spend enogh time setting the tone and culture for the whole year. IF they would ( and I see many teachers doing so ) that time invested pays off later and through out the entire year.

  4. I completely agree with this statement: High academic expectations won’t be something we need to “hold kids accountable” for meeting; because of the relationships you’ve built and the conditions you have created, they’ll be doing it for themselves.

  5. Authors Rhiannon Hartman Dunn, Shannon Hahne and Matthew Shea have written impressive blogs about inclusion. One spoke from the position of a Reading Specialist; and, every point mentioned about using the word “author” spoke truth to me (and I immediately applied it with this post). Another spoke about taking risks to work through feelings that make one feel uncomfortable. That too is a very valuable skill to develop in a useful teaching toolbox; however, if the question is to be most inclusive in helping all students, I have to choose the blog about establishing norms with students. This is not subject specific and is applicable to all disciplines. Thank you Mr. Shea for outlining a method for any teacher to begin the great work he or she has no matter who the students are that populates one’s class.

Leave a Reply to Stephanie Canter Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

About the Author: Matthew Shea is the Director of Teaching and Learning for Winthrop Public Schools in Maine. He has been involved with learner-centered, proficiency-based education for over a decade as a teacher and administrator. He co-hosts the Personalized Learning with Matt and Courtney podcast, which is a teacher-focused pod offering tips for teachers, interviews with interesting educators, and much more. He can be found on Twitter at @plearnmc.