Is Your Classroom Welcoming for Students?
By Nicole Ayers
"Uno!" The last few cards are played and another tally mark is placed on the board for the winner. Sometimes they deal me in, but most days I sit back and simply enjoy the fact that a handful of teenagers choose to come to my classroom and hang out. On any given morning you can find a dozen or more students making themselves at home in my class--some are "regulars" and some visit on occasion. I don't sponsor an official club, but I have an open-door policy in my classroom. In fact, forming a club would make it seem forced and detract from the organic vibe of students creating a place where they feel comfortable at school.
Different students come at different times for different reasons: some to play games, some to get help with homework, and others simply to relax in a safe and welcoming environment before they start their day.
So, what makes my room so welcoming for students, and how can you make your room inviting as well?
1. Cards and Games
I have a small section of shelving set aside for students to help themselves to cards and games. Students enjoy games like Uno and war, as they offer a mental break from the stresses of their coursework. Other great games include chess, checkers, and dominoes. If you want to be a real superstar you can have spoons available for...well, playing spoons. These simple, accessible games give students space to relax their minds, make new friends, and make positive associations with the classroom.
2. Flexible Seating
By now, plenty of educators have heard of the flexible seating trend. While there are lots of impressive examples online, you don't have to take out a loan or turn your classroom into a Pinterest board to make kids feel comfortable. In fact, I do not have the option to go fully flexible in my classroom, since my room is used for testing and still needs to be equipped with a full set of desks. Nevertheless, a few bean bag chairs and exercise balls can make a powerful statement to students: "Make yourself at home; you are welcome here." Insider tip: stands for exercise balls can be expensive; use a cheap frisbee (turned upside down) to keep the balls from rolling away.
3. Make Real Connections
This may seem obvious, but genuine relationships really are the key to building a positive classroom environment. Do you enjoy being around your students? Do they enjoy being around you? If the answer to either of those questions is no, it will be challenging to teach math or reading or anything else. As Rita Pierson memorably reminds us, "Kids don't learn from people they don't like." While card games and exercise balls are relatively small gestures to make a student feel welcome, our job is ultimately about teaching students and equipping them for the future. It's hard to do that if we don't first focus on building a positive relationship with each student.
As with parenting, our primary role is not to pal around with our students or try to be their best friends--we are first and foremost educators and must fulfill the responsibilities and ethical duties of our profession--but we can still make an honest effort to get to know our students on a more personal level and find things about them to acknowledge and appreciate. I tell my students all the time how much I appreciate them and enjoy having them around, and I truly mean it. You should tell your kids how much they mean to you, too.
Nicole Ayers is a STEM Algebra II Pre-AP teacher at Texas High School in Texarkana, Texas. She was named 2017 T-STEM Teacher of the Year for the Ross Perot STEM Academy, and is a Social and Emotional Learning Fellow for the National Network of State Teachers of the Year.