The importance of back to school collaboration activities in creating an effective classroom learning environment

If your classroom is chaotic in January, you likely made a mistake at the beginning of the year. One of the most impactful lessons I learned in my first five years of teaching was the importance of back-to-school community building in the classroom. When you’re lesson planning in August, the temptation to scrap the team-building games and morning circles is strong. You’ve probably spent the whole summer planning an engaging and academically enriching curriculum. Why not just start those fun lessons right away?

Because skipping practice and engagement with the collaborative structures in your classroom can lead to a mid-year breakdown. Here are just a few examples of what the consequences of moving right into your academic curriculum might look like in January

  • Students are consistently disruptive during the teacher-directed portions of your lessons
  • You are incapable of making a seating chart because too many students have developed bad habits and social interactions
  • It feels like you’re not leading a horse to water during instruction, you’re dragging it
  • The classroom environment is disorganized and your supplies are lost or broken

While these examples might feel more at home in a dystopian novel, I’ve watched them occur over the years in my and my peers’ classrooms. Even when you do those great get-to-know-you activities in August, you may still have minor flare-ups in the winter months. How can you rein your students back in and reset? 

Here are a few suggestions:

  1. Go back to basics. Stock up on think sheets. When you have many students disrupting learning, bring the class out in the hall, line them up and bring them back in for a reset. Talk to students about your expectations as they enter the room. Returning to your basic and slightly more restrictive boundaries will create a safe learning environment.
  2. Kick it elementary style. As a middle school teacher, I use circle time weekly for connection and discussion. This technique is often overlooked by secondary teachers and it’s a mistake to discard this powerful tool. Even a quick standing circle can help students really see each other and feel heard. I always start by asking students to go around the circle and greet their neighbors, share a reminder of circle norms, then ask questions that are answered when a student has the talking piece. 
  3. Ask for help. I’m never shy about asking my colleagues to observe classes that are challenging. A few years ago a fellow teacher observed one of my consistently chaotic science classes and recommended I use a clock and tight deadlines to encourage a sense of urgency. Less time to fool around = less behavior problems. He was right and using a clock and shorter learning times was critical to more efficient learning time. Whether you ask for help from an instructional coach, a trusted teacher-friend, or your administrators, setting aside your ego to ask for help can restore the balance in your classroom. 

Better yet, be proactive! Kick off your year with back-to-school fun and collaborative activities to improve your classroom environment all year. Check back soon for a blog post that includes my favorite activities for starting the school year. 

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