Lauren Hodson | August 2018

Changing Classroom Culture for the Better

“Teach empathy as a life skill, not a lesson plan.”

I saw this somewhere recently and it really struck a chord with me. I noticed that a group of students I had were kind of… well, I hate to say it, but… mean. They would cut each other down at every opportunity. They could be insensitive, uncaring, selfish, and sometimes downright nasty. This also made them less than enjoyable to be with. A pit in my stomach would form when I knew they were about to come to art and I was dreading seeing them with every passing minute.

Toxic Behavior

I was at a loss of what to do because I had never seen this type of toxic and negative groupthink in an entire class before. Usually, in every class there are some grumblers, but the positive students tend to overpower them. In this group, it seemed to be the opposite. The positive students were turning to the dark side, and fast. Before I knew it, the negativity had stained the entire group like a red shirt washed with a load of whites.

I started looking for some suggestions. It is difficult to “make” students be nice to one another in middle school. They already know the game and I knew that it would be an uphill battle since I only saw them for 50 minutes every other day. So, I decided to change the environment and my attitude. I decided that positivity, encouragement, and kindness would have to play a strong role in every one of our classes together. Like the saying goes, “Teach empathy as a life skill, not a lesson plan.”

accelerator membership

Though we had loads of curriculum to barrel through, nothing would get authentically accomplished if students were feeling insecure, on guard, and preyed upon. So, I formed a new warm-up activity that had nothing to do with art but had everything to do with how we treat ourselves and others in our lives, the classroom, and the world. I call them “Think-Abouts.”

How I Used “Think-Abouts” to Remake a Negative Class Culture

It is consistent, habit-forming, and there is always follow through.

We focus on one “Think-About” every class. As students enter the room, they read the statement on the board. On a piece of paper, they write their interpretation of the statement and what it means to them. Anything that comes to their mind can go on the paper. It is confidential, so they can really open up. I have learned so much about these students and often find the root of why they may have acted out in the first place. Sometimes I follow the statement with a specific question or request. I may ask them to recount a time that the statement has applied to them. I may ask them to pledge to be part of the solution.

Example: “Progress is more important than perfection.” What is something that you are working toward that you have not achieved yet?

The strangest thing started to happen

That mean, nasty, class became just a little nicer with each day. It was like the Grinch with a growing heart. Whenever they strayed from the day’s “Think-About,” I would gently remind them of it. All of a sudden, the students were interested in sharing their responses and their experiences. It did not take long, and it was so transformative.

They still have a way to go, but they are getting better and becoming more aware. And that is all I can ask for.

“Think-About” Suggestions

Empathy and Kindness

  • Unexpected kindness is the most powerful and least expensive thing you can give someone.
  • May my heart be kind, my mind fierce, and my spirit brave.
  • Sometimes I will encounter people on their very worst day, and I should remember that it’s not necessarily a reflection of who they always are.
  • I must remember there are multiple layers of every person that cannot always be seen.
  • One kind word can change someone’s entire day.
  • Be kind to unkind people. They need it the most.
  • When you are kind, it not only changes you, it changes the world.
  • It’s okay to be angry, it is not okay to be cruel.
  • We rise by lifting others.

Empowerment and Encouragement

  • No one is you and that is your power.
  • Progress is more important than perfection.
  • The only way out is through.
  • You become what you believe.
  • I show up.
  • I cannot control other people, but I can always control myself.
  • I should never care if my positivity or ambition makes negative people feel uncomfortable.
  • No one is forcing me to keep toxic friends in my life.
  • Complaining will not fix my problems, all it will do is hold me in place.
  • Asking for help shows strength, not weakness.
  • I will never let anyone make me feel bad for having big dreams.
  • I am something the world needs.
  • Be proud of how far you’ve come.
  • The world is changed by your example, not just your opinion.
  • Do the right thing. Even when no one is looking.

No solution is perfect, and all classes are different, but if we make kindness and encouragement a priority every class, it may change the world, or at least your classroom. Try warming up each day with a reminder and a little reflection.

So, I leave you with a Think-About:

“Teachers are the pilots of the class. As long as you lead the way, others will follow. Now land the plane.”

About the Author

Lauren Hodson is a middle school visual and computer art educator in Plymouth, Massachusetts. As a mentor teacher and professional development presenter, Lauren is passionate about creativity and making art accessible for everyone. Her passions in STEAM and Arts Integration are at the root of her goal to collaborate with classroom teachers everywhere.