Our students are not mind readers (shocking I know). They move from grade to grade each year and, as is the case for our middle and high school students, class to class each day. Each of these new spaces tends to have different unspoken norms. Students are usually left to their own devices in terms of discovering what the expectations are for a particular class. Even worse, they tend to discover them when they don’t act according to our unspoken norms (i.e., they tend to break a rule or upset us in some way). It doesn’t have to be like this! This year, I encourage you to develop class norms with your students so they don’t have to be mind readers.
I go through this process in every class I teach and even during workshops I give. My preferred approach is to start with the group/class to brainstorm norms together. You can ask them questions to get them started such as,
- What do your fellow classmates do in class that help support your learning? What do they do that distracts you from learning?
- What do your teachers do that is helpful in supporting your learning? What do they do that distract from your learning?
- What are some things that you want your group members to keep in mind as you work together?
These norms are mainly about behaviors, and that is okay. We need to talk about what helps create a supportive learning environment for our students. You can write down the students’ ideas and then have a discussion with the whole class about them to see if everyone thinks they are appropriate or if they should be modified in some way. This allows them to take some ownership over the classroom norms. As the teacher, you should also have some things that help you be the best teacher you can be on the back burner in case they don’t come up. Here are some of my favorites.
- Step in and step out: Talk and listen. Monitor how much you talk and try not to dominate conversations and encourage others to participate as well.
- Amplify one another: Quiet students and traditionally underserved students may not get heard as much in class, particularly during whole group students. Students who are not confident may speak up in small groups but not in whole group settings. Encourage students to amplify one another. Share others’ ideas and give them credit. This builds everyone up and helps give voice to those that aren’t always heard.
- Assume goodwill: Sometimes people say things that don’t sound great. I encourage you to always assume the best motives behind what was said and go from there. This doesn’t mean you don’t address problematic behavior, it just means you don’t leap to the worst possibility. For example, if a student is on his or her iPad, I tend to assume they are taking notes. I might say something like, “you actually don’t need to take notes right now because I am going to put all this online later.” I could just as easily have said stay on task and put away your iPad, however, what if they were taking notes? Even if they were messaging, it is still better to assume the best because assuming the worst and being wrong is far worse for your relationship with students than assuming the best and being wrong (generally speaking).
- Don’t freeze others in time: The whole point of school is to learn and grow. Therefore we need to allow others to grow. Allow people to move past ideas as they learn. It would be unbelievable unfair to freeze me in my beliefs and ideas from when I was 20. Allow people to create new beliefs and perspectives without always bringing up the past.
- Assume it’s possible and think big: Sometimes we might say our kids can’t do something. We say it for many reasons, but it is never an okay thing to say. I encourage you to hold others accountable (and yourself) by adding a yet after statements such as this. My kids can’t do that YET. It is our job to find new ways to help get them there. We also need to make sure our kids have positive self dialogues and say they can’t do that yet, but they are learning how. We need to take the perspective that we can all learn how to do something, sometimes we just need some more time or help.
- Remember why we are here: We as teachers are here to teach children. Our students (and us really) are here to learn and grow. Keep our learning and personal development and care at the forefront of what we do every day.
You should revisit these norms from time to time, particularly early in the school year. As you move to new groupings and settings, you may find you need to modify or adapt your norms. I imagine my norms as the contract our community has developed together to help care for one another and to foster meaningful learning.
In addition to these more behavior-specific norms, mathematics teachers should also talk about norms for mathematical work in their courses. For example, what does a good mathematical explanation look like in your class? Should it include complete sentences? Math drawings? Something else? It might be quite different in your classroom from another teacher’s classroom. We need to be explicit with students in discussing our expectations. This goes for how we share mathematical ideas, how we present work, etc. It also goes for other small things like how we sharpen pencils, get late work, use electronics, etc. Students aren’t mind readers; share your vision of what it means to be a good community member and develop an effective learning environment with your students early in the school year.
Feel free to share your ideas and practices regarding norms in the comments below!