When I was a first-year teacher, I struggled with classroom management. Going into the school year, I spent a lot of time envisioning what my class would feel like. I even created a set of class values, or guiding principles, and posted them all over my classroom wall. However, as the months went by, I found that I couldn’t make reality measure up to my expectations, no matter how hard I tried. The laminated sheets displaying the class values began to feel ironic and frustrating.
How could I say my class value was “joy” when both my students and I dreaded being there? I quickly learned from the bored looks on my high school students’ faces that I could not make my class joyful simply through my own powers of classroom management. It took a few years, but I finally figured out what I was doing wrong. I was dictating what the class should be and totally failing at getting students to buy in.
I decided to do something different. Instead of creating my own class values and hoping my students would embrace them, I joined my students so that we could do the vision-casting work together. Now, my class uses collaborative class values, and they’ve totally transformed my classroom management, fostered social and emotional growth, and led to a more inclusive class culture. By collaborative class values, I mean the process of creating structures for students to work together alongside the teacher to envision how the class should look, feel, and sound by picking key attributes that they all can work toward each day.
Beginning the Collaborative Process
At the start of the school term, we spend time as a class intentionally working to get to know each other and discussing what we want our class to feel like. I have students write and discuss their responses to the following three questions:
1. How do you know that a class is successful?
2. How do you want to feel when you walk into a class?
3. How should people be treated in a class?
After this discussion, I define the word values for students and give them some examples that I would like to guide our class, such as grit, growth mindset, and respect (I do mini-lessons on these values at the start of the year). Then, students work together to write values that they want on the board. It’s good to have several so that all students can find at least a couple of values that they can get excited about. However, having too many can make the exercise pointless because the vision for the class isn’t clear.
I think eight is the perfect number. If you have more than eight and need to narrow them down, students can vote on the values they find the most important. After collaborating to make the list, I create a prominent display of our class values where every student can see them.
It’s all About Growing Together
In order for this protocol to work, it’s crucial to work on our class values daily. At the start of each class, students select a value to “own” for the day and work toward during the class time. Sometimes, it can even be a value that students struggle with. For instance, if a student is tired, I might encourage them to select the value of energy and challenge them to bring what energy they can muster to the class space.
At the end of class, I have students reflect on how they lived up to their class value during our time together. These daily intentions empower students to make self-improvements and make our class a better place.
We also use this practice in our daily shout-out routine—students receive praise from the teacher and the class for exemplifying class values. Each day, I select a class value and write down the names of students who demonstrate that value during the class period. The next day, I present the list of names on a slide to celebrate the students. Celebration can occur in many ways, but I find that a simple round of applause is effective.
However you choose, it’s important to recognize students for actively demonstrating class values. Simple celebrations help to place our values at the center of our work, create buy-in for students who aren’t intrinsically motivated, and remind students of progress that they’re making. You can even go a step further and have students select how they want to be recognized for working toward the values.
Using Collaborative Class Values for Restorative Corrections
In my high school English class, we use collaborative class values to learn from mistakes. A simple reminder of our class values can often deter problematic behaviors in the moment. However, sometimes behaviors require a corrective conversation. For instance, if one of our class values is focus and a student is consistently off task, I can discreetly invite them into a private conversation about how the behavior does not align with the class value.
I might also ask students to do reflective work such as writing a paragraph on the importance of focus or creating a strategy to work toward that value. In these cases, the teacher must remember that these tasks are meant to help the student grow and allow the class to function as envisioned, rather than just be punitive busywork.
Working Toward a More Democratic Learning Environment
Collaborative class values have been transformative for my teaching practice and for the lives of my students. I see the impact every day. For example, students often choose the values that might be the hardest for them, and it pays off. Many times, they choose positivity as their value when they are having a tough day. When they lean into positivity, their day starts off just a little better. Other students might choose the value of inclusivity on days when they are doing group work with someone outside of their friend group, and it makes the interaction go much more smoothly.
I’ve also seen students commit to the value of respect after their words have harmed another student. They show real reflection and a desire to treat others with kindness, not because they were punished but because they had a moment to consider how their actions aligned with their values.
Ultimately, this practice is so successful because it allows students to determine what they want their learning community to look like.