Back to Basics: A Foundation for Excellence

Making Culture a Priority

If you truly want to be an effective teacher, shaping and maintaining a strong classroom culture must be a priority from the first day of school until the last. Often, we focus the first few weeks of the school year on establishing routines. Classical’s founding Dean, Ms. Darlene Jackson, has seen historically how late August and September feel calm, focused, and urgent. The teachers seem invested in classroom culture initiatives to launch the school year. However, she can pinpoint a cultural shift in October, when teachers grow more comfortable with their systems and there is greater focus placed on academics. With this comes an influx of behavioral consequences in October and November. The trick to prevent this, according to Ms. Jackson, is to leave classroom management a priority alongside instruction, never sacrificing one for the other.

Rationale for Structure

Ms. Jackson’s ideologies about classroom management align with those shared by Smith, Fisher, and Frey in Better Than Carrots and Sticks (2015). The concept of an “intentionally inviting teacher” is what we do strive for. The ideal is a teacher who is consistently positive while upholding high expectations, and above all else, is purposeful. To be invested in a classroom management system, we must understand and accept that children benefit from structure. They benefit from understanding expectations, why we have certain rules in place, and there must be clarity around consequences to ensure systems are fair. For the sake of predictability, management systems must be visibly followed regardless of whether things are going well, or behavior is getting loose. As Ms. Jackson likes to say, “force is temporary, but routines are permanent.”

Evidence of a Strong Culture

According to Ms. Jackson, when children respond positively to any adult in a school building, it signals that they understand expectations and value the culture established at their school. It is also testament to the teacher’s consistency with their class and the high value that they place on routines even beyond the first six weeks of school. When a teacher is inconsistent and class management and culture is not prioritized, it is noticeable in how scholars transition and follow instructions with other teachers in the building.

Some teachers attempt to manage through relationships. In these cases, accountability and the high bar of expectations slips. After a while, in Ms. Jackson’s experience, those relationships suffer. Scholars begin to resist direction, and behavior and culture might become loose. When there are attempts to reset the expectation at that point, there is greater resistance because it feels sudden, and consequences feel unfair and unpredictable.

When a Reset is Required

If your classroom routines are not as crisp and urgent as you envisioned at the start of the year, allocate time for a reset. The return from a long weekend or holiday break is a good time to revive your classroom culture. When it comes to reinvesting your scholars in classroom culture, Ms. Jackson recommends:

  • figuring out how to achieve scholar buy-in, ideally through intrinsic motivation.
  • pre-planning messaging to ensure that expectations are clearly communicated.
  • investing scholars in the process, giving them voice to share ideal community norms.
  • leveraging your school community to aid in the reset (school leaders, coaches, deans).

Spend time reflecting on current procedures and identifying how they can be improved. Model, practice, and follow through with your expectations and recommit to excellence from that point forward. Recognize that you likely won’t see improvement immediately, as the cultural shift to excellence will take time. Know that investing scholars in a community reset will give them greater ownership and help spearhead change. Implement rituals that aid community culture building. Establish a class contract and encourage students to hold their classmates accountable for what they committed to. For example, you might have students wait for all eyes before presenting an idea to the class, or ‘hire’ an ‘equity monitor’ in the upper grades to assess how the class is doing regarding meeting its character and community goals.

In terms of physical space in a classroom, it is also a good idea to clear clutter during a reset and rearrange seating; sometimes a tangible change to the environment can help make things feel calmer.

Consistency is Key

Resets must not become ad hoc reactions to a problem, but a proactive step to keep procedures tight, calm, predictable and consistent. To ensure long-term success and a strong classroom culture across the year, routines and expectations must

  • be logical and serve a purpose.
  • be consistent with little variation.
  • be explicitly taught and practiced.
  • involve students’ intrinsic buy-in.
  • be visibly upheld and celebrated daily.

There are ways to pause and revive your classroom culture when you feel it slipping away or getting shaky. Leverage the supports and resources your school leadership team offers. Remember that consistency sticks and, over time, reduces the need for major resets.

Teachers are not merely downloading information to students; they serve the role of a coach, mentor, and guide. This requires that they shape not only academic behaviors but help to develop their students’ character, sense of citizenship and responsibility. What better place to help shape these values than in school?



This post was contributed by Ms. Jackson, Dean of Students, and Ms. Emanuele, Specials Project Manager. As a non-CMO charter network, we rely on the thoughts, opinions, and innovations of our staff to move our mission forward and provide an excellent academic option to families in the South Bronx. To hear more from our staff, check out the next post! Or, click here to learn more.


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