In their seminal work on building trusting relationships in schools, Anthony S. Bryk and Barbara Schneider discuss how building classroom community can stop the deterioration of social assets present in the classroom and enhance overall student achievement. Their book, Trust in Schools: A Core Resource for Improvement, lays the framework for how schools and educators can make substantive changes that will positively impact student learning. The authors studied how relational trust impacts classroom community and student learning in three public schools in the Chicago area. Their work showed that schools in which scores on standardized tests improved had higher levels of relational trust among the existing relationships in the school community, as compared to schools that did not show improvement. In addition, they concluded that high levels of relational trust correlated with effective school governance focusing on school improvement. High functioning schools are social institutions that depend on the relationships among community members. Relational trust is the “glue” that helps a school strive for excellence.

The 2009 Center for Teaching Faculty Cohort decided to spend time studying what it means to build an effective classroom community. From a brainstorming session with eleven teachers from Westminster Schools and Drew Charter School, we put together our list of factors that go into building classroom community:

• Mutual respect
• Trust
• Setting classroom norms
• The presence of student voice
• Feeling valued
• Patience
• Persistence
• Collaboration and cooperation
• Students feeling safe
• Teacher flexibility
• Openness to others’ ideas
• Bring conflicts to resolution
• Humor
• Good communication
• Humanity
• Promote learning from others
• Promote learning from mistakes
• Develop responsibility in class with class jobs
• Creating a welcoming environment

Many of these qualities were observed by Byrk and Schneider in schools and classrooms where high relational trust was present. In the CFT Faculty cohort, we discussed how these qualities can be promoted by the teacher and sustained over time. In one activity, groups were asked to conceive of an image that depicts a classroom community. Below are the two images that were developed: (1) the image of a nest holding the precious child in its grasp; and (2) the image of hands of different shapes and colors coming together in a collaborative spirit.

Image: Students in a Nest
Image: Students in a Nest

Hands: Community collaborating
Hands: Community collaborating

In his book, Beyond Discipline: From Compliance to Community, Alfie Kohn defines community as, “a place in which students feel cared about and are encourage to care about each other.” Kohn points out that an authentic classroom community “is constructed over time by people with a common purpose who come to know and trust each other.” This description embodies a number of the qualities that our cohort described as being important from their experience.

Susan Johnson, one of the cohort members from Westminster School, shared with the cohort a video of her 5th grade class meeting. The video demonstrated how an effective class meeting structure helps build a collaborative environment in which students’ voices are heard and valued. Ms. Johnson uses class meetings to set class norms, discuss issues important to the class, and help students feel safe and comfortable in the classroom. While Ms. Johnson is a member of the class meeting, she creates an environment in which her students play a central role in the organization and performance of the group.

In Edutopia, Grace Rubenstein, writes about the classroom of Robben Seadler at Franklin Elementary School in Louisville (Jefferson County), KY. Ms. Seadler uses morning meeting (see a video on morning meeting) as a means to help students become self-aware, caring, and connected to their peers. The article, Start with the Heart, discusses the success Jefferson County Public Schools is having with the program, CARE for Kids, started by Superintendent Sheldon Berman. Ms. Seadler comments in the article that, “the better the relationship you have with the kids, the more they’re going to want to learn, and the more they’re going to take ownership of what you’re trying to teach them.” Clearly, her experience with the program has transformed her classroom and improved her students’ achievement.

In Start with the Heart, five essential strategies for success in building community through CARE for Kids program are described:

1. Setting a supportive tone through morning meetings;
2. Setting and reinforcing expectations with kids’ input;
3. Directly teaching social and emotional skills;
4. Using precise teacher language; and
5. Practicing developmental discipline.

These strategies, when implemented successfully in the classroom, have been shown to positively change student behavior. From the work of Ms. Johnson and Ms. Seadler, teachers in a private and public setting respectively, it is clear that the potential for transforming student behavior is independent of the type of school. It is more about the commitment of the teacher to creating a classroom community.

As teachers, we are the role models that students look to for guidance. Alfie Kohn points out in his book that “teachers need to be part of a community of adults in school.” Unless teachers strive to collaborate with one another, following some of the same principles outlined above, to create a community of educators in school it is less likely that effective classroom communities will be created that will ultimately impact student learning in positive ways.