By Dr. Clementine Msengi
We all had favorite teachers as kids. But do you remember what made certain teachers your favorites? Carl Jung has said, “One looks back with appreciation to the brilliant teachers, but with gratitude to those who touched our human feelings. The curriculum is so much necessary raw material, but warmth is the vital element for the growing plant and for the soul of the child.”
The foundation for effective learning is positive personal relationships and trust. Building a positive classroom environment is a critical first task for all educators. This requires forethought, consistency, commitment, and a heartfelt interest in helping all students learn. As a professor in education and also as an educator who teaches effective mentoring, I offer the following suggestions to all teachers who hope to build a firm foundation of trust from their first day of class.
Focus on relationships.
Teacher-student relationships set the social climate of the classroom, which influences how students perform. Research demonstrates that when students feel respected by their teachers, they are more successful academically and contribute more positively.
Research conducted by Catherine C. Lewis, Eric Schaps, and Marilyn S. Watson with The Child Development Project has demonstrated that when kids care about one another, are motivated by important, challenging work, and are respected by their teachers, they are more apt to care about learning and be more successful. The opposite is also true. When students do not trust their peers or their instructor, fear and failure typically follow.
Commit to finding or making time to talk to students both inside and outside the classroom. Maintaining a high rate of positive interaction with students and show genuine interest in their lives. Praise students for good choices, and be specific. “Good job” and “Great work” can sound insincere. Recognize specific acts of character, integrity, and hard work or service to others. Challenge yourself to make at least two positive statements to each student in your class every day, then build from there.
Teach social skills.
What are these valuable social skills? Sharing, listening to others, disagreeing respectfully, honesty, sensitivity, concern for others, respect, reliability, responsibility, a sense of humor, and service, to name a few. Many students have never learned these skills because they never have been taught them. If this is true, these skills should become part of your classroom curriculum.
Teach problem solving skills.
Students aren’t prepared for life or the workplace until they have mastered problem solving skills. This is as relevant for preschoolers as it is for college students. Becoming an adult who can navigate competently in a complex world requires specific skills: communicating effectively, working well with others, respectfully expressing opinions and beliefs, understanding and respecting the viewpoints of others, and the ability to disagree, negotiate, and compromise. Skill in problem-solving increases student confidence, improves relationships and academic performance, as well as one’s overall quality of life.
Robin Wagner, Karen Blasé, & Hewitt “Rusty” Clark of the University of South Florida at Tampa devised an effective problem-solving framework that helps student work through a consistent process. It is called the SODAS Problem-Solving Method:
What is the problem (who, what, when, where, how)?
What are the facts?
What are the feelings?
Generate possible options.
Reinforce students for their contributions.
What can be done to solve the problem? What is the goal? How can it be achieved? What else could be done?
Role-play a demonstration of the solution and take notes.
A Advantages and Disadvantages
Explore the advantages of each option (Options can be revised or combined).
Positives and benefits. What is important?
Explore the disadvantages of each option (Options can be revised or combined).
How might people, including family members and others be affected?
Guide students in choose an option that is safe and resolves the problem identified in the first step. Is the step practical and possible? What will be required to implement it (who, what, where, when, and how). Refine options as needed. Is the solution appropriate for the situation?
For more information on the SODAS problem-solving framework, go to
Teach students to respect school rules and policies.
Your classroom is part of the larger school culture. Reflect the vision for your educational institution, and develop classroom expectations that are consistent with a shared vision. Consistency builds trust and an environment of safety.
Be a role model.
An instructor who expects respect should demonstrate respect for students. Students often learn more by watching us than from what we teach. What do your speech, body language, and verbal communication say to your students? Are you open, warm, and approachable? Are you trustworthy and dependable? Are your evaluation and teaching methods fair and realistic? Do you create opportunities for success, or are you a teacher who “never gives an A”? You set the tone for success in your classroom. Your students will believe in themselves if you let them know that you believe in them.
Communicate clear expectations.
Your classroom policies and expectations tell your students whether or not your learning environment is positive and whether or not you believe in them. Your policies tell students that you believe they can achieve the standards you have set for them. Clearly state consequences for late assignments, absences, etc. Make sure your consequences are appropriate, immediate, and consistent. Equally important, they need to be delivered with empathy, not in anger.
State your policies positively. This helps create a positive classroom. Keep rules short and simple (“Turn assignments in on time”). Keep rules general (Be respectful and kind). Publish your grading rubrics and be sure that students understand them.
As educators, we may have a stellar knowledge of content and teaching technique. But if our students to not feel safe, respected, affirmed, or are not given the tools to solve problems or enjoy positive social relationships, our instruction will be ineffective. Communicate clearly, and always ask for clarification to make sure students have understood.
As Maria Montessori said, “The greatest sign of success for a teach is to be able to say, ‘The children are now working as if I did not exist.’”
I’d love to hear your comments, experiences, and positive suggestions for other readers.
Note: The statements and opinions in this blog are those of Dr. Clementine Msengi. They do not represent her employer or other personal/professional affiliates.