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Classroom Environment


What matters to students when they walk into our classrooms?  What does research into how the brain learns teach us about creating an environment in which students can and do learn?


From decades of research into how the brain learns, we know that we learn best when we feel safe and when we are interested and engaged. All of us, however, have different thresholds for risk and different interests, so how do we as teachers create a classroom environment that makes our students feel safe and also engages their interests?


In September, I will be teaching in a new school. Like any teacher new to a school, I won't have the benefit of twenty years of reputation to help me forge relationships with my students on that first day. I will have to build that reputation and all those relationships anew.


Working as a substitute teacher and learning support person these last several months, I have had much time to observe and reflect on the question of what helps students like and respect teachers, what makes them feel safe and able to learn in their classrooms and what engages them so that they want to do the hard work of learning something new. I have also had a lot of practice meeting students for the first time and needing to manage a classroom of new personalities, new skills, new procedures, etc.

So, what is it we do that matters to kids on our first day - or any day? What will help me make my classroom a safe place for students, a place they will enjoy spending time, and a place where they will learn math and learn to love math?


As I have considered these questions, my mind has repeatedly traveled back to a trip I took to my friend Ellen's house over New Year's. Ellen's house is a three hour drive from mine, and yet it is a drive I make with some regularity. Why? When I go to Ellen's house, I feel welcomed, known and loved. Ellen always greets me at the door with a big smile and a warm hug - and a supply of all my favorite foods. While I can't replicate the hug (or even the food) on my first day of class, I feel pretty confident I can replicate that warm feeling I get when I arrive at Ellen's house. Her smile is key - a huge and genuine cheesy smile, the kind that makes your eyes crinkle in the corners. It always says to me "I am soooo glad you are here! PLEASE come in!" This is exactly how I want my students to feel on their first day this fall - welcomed and wanted. Everything I have read about first impressions and first classes talks about the importance of our non-verbal communication and the need to align what we do with what we say. If I want my students to feel welcomed, I have to welcome them as Ellen (or any best friend) welcomes us when we visit - at the door or in the room with a warm smile. I have learned this particularly as a substitute teacher this year.  I can't begin the day sitting behind the desk answering email, texting friends, or even frantically sketching out lesson plans. I have to be present in the room, ready for my students, and eager to hear about their time on the bus or playground that morning, the story of what their dog did last night, how their game went, or any other anecdote they care to share. As I listen, I also gather important information that helps me connect what we are about to learn or study together with what they know or care about.


I am also thinking about what I have seen as a learning support teacher this spring. l feel welcomed when I walk into Ellen's house to find my favorite foods prepared, so the students I work with like walking into those classrooms where everything they need is ready for them at the outset, where the organization of the class makes it obvious that the teacher knows what interests them and what they need to succeed and has taken the time to prepare it for them. 


This suggests to me that I need to get to know my students, their names, their skills, their experiences, their interests and their needs quickly. To help me get to know students, I usually give them the attached questionnaire as homework on the first day. My friend Scott uses this one. I also feel it is important to help them get to know one another and typically devote much of our first class to activities designed to help students learn more about one another (and about me). My friend Todd, a world history teacher, has his students introduce themselves several times, using all the languages they know. Of course, he speaks three languages himself, so he models this for them which breaks the ice a bit. All these activities help us build a classroom community where the students have relationships with one another in addition to their relationships with us. Todd's approach also makes the diversity of his students visible, and the time he spent to develop his own facility with languages makes it obvious that he values the unique differences and experiences each of his students brings. I believe that all these activities help students feel safer taking risks, asking questions, offering ideas and suggestions - in short, learning.


Finally, it seems to be uncomfortably true that our mindsets, our expectations matter. Because we spend so much of our time in the company of people we like, people who think like we do, people we know are terrific, we don't always see the truth of that statement.  Yet, our expectations of students matter greatly, mostly because we communicate our beliefs about students so clearly (yet often unintentionally) in what we do and how we speak (the difficulty of questions we ask, our tone of voice, the time we wait for an answer, our response to incorrect answers and so much more).  If we believe our students can learn, they will.  If we are willing to meet them where they are and accept them for who they are, they will meet us and accept us in the same way. If I expect a class to be a great class, then it usually is. My positive can do/will do attitude also models for my students how I want them to think about themselves. I want them to view themselves as able to do anything with the right guidance and effort, to feel in control of their own learning and success. As I have learned through experience and reading, my mindset, my belief in my students has a significant impact on what they achieve.


So, my To Do List for September 1 reads as follows:


  • Smile a lot.

  • Be kind.

  • Lead with curiosity; ask lots of questions.

  • Borrow heavily from Stephen Covey, and seek first to understand.

  • Be yourself.

  • Smile some more.

  • Believe in yourself AND in your students.

  • Do your homework. Read student files, ask questions, and use any other method to get to know your students.

  • Prepare, prepare, and prepare some more.

  • Remember what it was like not to know something or to struggle with something. Hold that feeling in mind as you plan.

  • Ask more questions.

  • Be present.

  • Listen carefully.

  • Put yourself in your students' shoes; design accordingly.

  • Be passionate about math.

  • Expect great things.

  • Don't judge.

  • Offer food.

  • Assume the best.

  • Smile.

Building Relationships

Managing a Classroom

Fostering Cultural Awareness

Some Thoughts:

Our relationships with students are of primary importance, and their relationships with one another are equally important.  When students feel safe in our classrooms, when they believe we care about them as people and when they feel supported by their peers, they invest more effort in our classes and are more successful academically. It is important to understand as well that shaping the climate of the classroom is our responsibility.  To be sure, some years are easier than others, but ultimately it is our actions, our example - what we do, how we do it, and what we allow - that shapes the culture in our classes.



1. Smile. Research suggests that teachers who smile are perceived as more approachable.


2. Learn students' names as quickly as you can and then use their names everyday. 


3. Greet them as they enter class and ask about their day and their activities.  Make sure you listen to their answers.


4. Ask them questions about themselves, how they learn, what they enjoy, what they feel they are good at.  (For help, here is a sample questionnaire.  Feel free to modify. Scott MacClintic also shared his opening questionnaire through this link.)


5. Use your knowledge to create activities specifically for them - word problems using their names, writing exercises about topics they enjoy,etc. OR ask them to design the activities (within your parameters) themselves.


6. Look at them when they speak. Nod and smile when they contribute positively. Ask them to elaborate upon their answers because it shows you were listening.


7. Help them get to know one another. Create opportunities for them to work in small groups. Encourage them to ask questions of one another and help one another.  


8. If you use groups, mix them up so everyone in the class gets to know everyone else. Talk about what it means to be a good group member. (This rubric might be helpful.)


9. When they ask a question or ask for help, check back with them to make sure you have answered their question or that your help has been helpful.


10. Allow students input into what the class studies or how they study it.


11. Read (and reread often) Parker Palmer's brilliant piece from The Courage to Teach. It is often the most challenging students who need us the most - and on whom we often have the greatest impact when we take the time to reach out.

Some Thoughts:

Managing a classroom is about more than setting expectations and rules.  It is about how we organize our lessons, about what we do, what we hope students will do, and what we believe they can do. Even though many of us learned from teachers who lectured for 45 - 60 minutes, today's learners (all learners actually) need more than to receive information passively. Research tells us that we learn best when we are actively engaged in the process of learning.



1. Follow the Golden Rule and treat students (and expect them to treat one another) as you would want to be treated - or as you would want your child treated.


2. Prepare carefully. Know where you want the lesson to go - what you want them to take from the lesson and DO during the lesson.


3. Make your copies ahead of time, and place your materials for each class where you can access them quickly when you need them. This will make transitions between activites happen more smoothly and reduce the time available for distracting behavior to get started or to gain momentum.


4. If you are teaching with new technology, rehearse with it the night or the period before.


5. In your planning, don't just focus on what you will do; plan what you want your students to do. The brain learns best when it is engaged, when it has something productive to do. (Check out engagement strategies on the next page.)


6. If something goes wrong, own up to it. ALL of us have days that are disasters - and we will all have more in the days and years ahead.


7. Know where disruptions are likely to occur and move around the room so you can redirect students before they get off task.


8. When something goes awry, try to speak with students privately, in the hall or after class. 


9. Think carefully about rules.  I think Dr. Curwin's article is really helpful on this topic.


10. Celebrate when students do well, meet your expectations, etc.


11. Try new things.  Don't be afraid to experiment with how you present material, how you engage students, etc.  This post on engaging students by the Global Digital Citizen Foundation was a good read on engaging students


11. Be aware of the signals you send with your facial expressions and body language.  this blog post by Jennifer Gonzalez was helpful.

Some Thoughts:

Today, most of us teach in classrooms with a wide range of diversity.  We teach diverse learners, and we teach students who are racially, ethnically, socio-economically, religiously, and sexually different from us AND from one another.  It is not possible to ignore this reality. Our students are best served when we create a classroom climate that celebrates who they are (where they come from, what they know and have experienced, etc.) and encourages each of them to learn from one another and about one another - and when we model that behavior ourselves.



1. Consider your own cultural heritage.  What is it?  What traditions have been important to you and your family?  What foods?  What holidays?


2. Consider your own background in light of Peggy McIntosh's White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Backpack.  Ask yourself which privileges have benefitted you in your life.


3. Consider the students in your classes.  There is very little you can tell by just looking at them.  How many identify as female?  How many identify as male? How many have a gender identity that they choose not to share with others? If age-appropriate, what pronouns do they use?  You could model this by stating your pronouns when introducing yourself.


4. For those whose backgrounds and uniqueness seem obvious, remember every student's background is unique. Even if they were born in the same country doesn't mean they have had similar childhood/educational experiences or cultural experiences.


5. Consider what assumptions you make about the different types of students in your class - girls, boys, non-gender conforming; Asian students, African American students, or Latinx students; heterosexual, bisexual or homosexual students; non-disabled students, learning disabled students (or students with other disabilities); privileged students and financially disadvantaged students -- this list could go on and on. We all make assumptions, but as teachers, we need to commit to learning more about the students' differences. Resources can be found below.


6. Check out this article from the NEA website.  It offers some concrete suggestions about working with diverse students.


7. Additional resources on the topic of Diversity and Inclusion can be found by clicking on the button below.

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