Take CHARGE Day 3: Rituals strengthen relationships
Updated: Feb 12
Take CHARGE of the Classroom
The teacher is the foundation of any classroom. She sets the tone, cultivates the culture, and swings the atmosphere either positively or negatively with her own frame of mind. Upon her foundation rests the individual students, creating a structure that grows every day toward curriculum goals and high achievement. Yet, just as a brick building cannot be built without mortar, a classroom cannot survive without connections. It is the connectedness between the teacher and students, and the students themselves, that make the whole edifice keep from crumbling down.
One way to help create a positive and supportive classroom dynamic is to shift your frame of reference. Your students are not simply the result of a random algorithm in the registrar's computer. Neither are they a motley group of delinquents, sent by an avenging deity to punish you for past sins. They aren't even just a group of kids trying to do the best they can.
Think of your students as your family.
They are your sons, your daughters, your nieces, or your nephews. They are your responsibility. Creating a school family in your classroom is the difference between a non-aggression pact and an alliance. With a non-aggression pact, two sides agree not to attack one another. There are no defensive commitments but there are no threats, either. If attacked by a third party, a non-aggression pact will at least keep the other signatories off your back.
But allies are different. They fight for you. If you are threatened, so are they. When attacked, they come to your aid, in the trenches, shoulder to shoulder. Families are allies, not simply parties in a non-aggression pact. Students need teachers that will fight for them, stand with them, and go the extra mile for them.
They need a school family.
As each holiday season arrives, my family has numerous traditions that it holds to, year in and year out. Every Thanksgiving sees not only a traditional turkey, from which I always get one of the drumsticks, but my wife's homemade cranberry stuffing and the Dallas Cowboys. Likewise, Christmas Eve always brings an evening drive around town looking at Christmas lights with travel mugs of hot chocolate.
On a more regular basis, my family eats dinner together, at the table, every night where we each share a fun fact from the day. For the last few months, we've spent every Friday night playing one of my favorite card games growing up, Nertz. These traditions are something to look forward to, something that we do as a family. They are a part of who we are.
Yet having these rituals don't earn any extra points for my family, as if there were a cosmic scorecard. We'd be related whether we spent time together or not. What they do is help us feel like a family. These are our rituals, what we do uniquely. It's these joint activities, repeated again and again, that form a part of the connectedness that help us all live together.
In the same way, our classrooms should feel like a family. We should view each other as part of a community of individuals that have something in common. When students feel a part of something, when they feel included, their connectedness grows. Everyone wants to feel embraced, like they're on the inside. Students need alliances, not just non-aggression pacts. Why not use rituals to create a school family environment?
How do you want to be greeted?
By now you've probably seen one of many videos on social media about a teacher that greets his or her class at the door every day with a handshake or high-five. You might have even thought it was a bit cheesy and wasted precious instructional minutes. If you're really ambitious, you might have even tried it.
For a week.
The reason these videos frequently pop up so often is they work.
Teachers that greet students at the door, whether it be with a personalized handshake or a simple nod and smile, have tapped into the secret power of rituals. Knowingly or not, they have created a sense of expectancy with these events that students come to cherish. Their repetition, instead of creating boredom, builds a feeling of belonging.
These students know that their classroom is special because their teacher shows how much they are cared for. They know their teacher takes interest in them because they do something regularly. These traditions, over time, form a feeling of mutual regard. Students might not know what happens in other classes, but they know what happens in their own classroom consistently. Any small act, done with repetition for the purpose of showing interest, love, or general kindness, can create a ritual that can transform a mundane educational environment into a family.
Building your own rituals
If you want to create your own ritual, I'd advise you to start small. Rituals, by definition, are done on a consistent basis. If every day is too much, try doing something special once a week, like having a Fun Friday. Whatever you decide, commit to it. It'd be better to do something small consistently than to bite off more than you can chew and fail to follow through.
An easy ritual to implement is to greet students at the door. Even though it's common, it's powerful. It allows teachers to set the right tone for the day, with a smile and warm greeting. Given the option of walking into the classroom to eye contact and a fist bump or a teacher on her computer, most would prefer the former. Relationships drive learning, so strive to create a ritual that strengthens student relationships every day.
One of my favorite rituals while I was in the classroom was reading aloud to my students. Every day, rain or shine, I'd read a chapter (or three) from some of my favorite novels. These books were ones I was interested in, either books I'd read as a child or more recent ones that were so good I had to share. And when I read, I READ. I did voices, changed my prosody to emphasize certain emotions, and stopped at cliffhangers to drive my students nuts. They connected to me through the books I read.
There are many ways to create rituals in your classroom. Take a moment to stop and think about your favorite teacher when you were in school. Picture that teacher in your mind. Think about how that teacher made you feel. What did he or she do that you loved? What rituals did your class have that brought you closer to your teacher? What made you think that your teacher knew you, really knew who you were, and made you feel like you were the most important person in the world?
If I were to ask your students to think about the same questions while thinking about your class, what would they say?
Benefits of building relationships
Relationships are at the core of learning. Before we move into brain state models, social-emotional paradigms, mindfulness, or de-escalation techniques, you need to know that relationships and connectedness are the fuel that drive everything. You can build the most high-powered, super-charged engine in the world, but it won't go anywhere without fuel. All your backward-designed learning objectives with higher-order thinking question stems, application activities, and rigorous performance tasks mean nothing without relationships.
If your students don't feel welcome, if they don't feel like they are a part of a learning community that cares for them, nothing else matters. We'll get to composure and the power of breathing. We'll talk about building empathy and empowering learners. Realize, though, that human connections are inseparable from teaching. You can't have one without the other.
It'd be like celebrating Thanksgiving without a turkey or the Dallas Cowboys.
Action: Identify a ritual you'd like to try out. Make sure you're comfortable with it and can commit to it. Implement it and watch your students start to look forward to it.
Reflection questions: Do you already have a ritual? How does it build a sense of community? Would your students describe your relationship with them as more of an alliance or a non-aggression pact? What can you do to create a school family?
To read Day 4, click here.