I used to play a computer game called Sim City. The goal of the game was to put in place all of the infrastructure needed erect a city and then monitor the growth of the city and the happiness of the citizens. The goal of the game was to create a culture where there was not one previously. The challenge of the game was that every decision had both positive and negative repercussions. There were times when I could manage my city to grow and flourish, sometimes as the city got larger the citizens became more unhappy, sometimes I just couldn’t get the city to grow. I remember the game being challenging, frustrating and enjoyable all at the same time.
When I work with student teachers, young teachers or any teachers for that matter I am frequently asked what I believe to be the most important factor in the success of a school or a classroom to be. My answer is always that the culture of the school or classroom is the biggest factor that leads to success. The next question is inevitably, “how does a school or a teacher go about creating a positive, productive and challenging culture?” I certainly don’t have all of the answers about creating and maintaining a great classroom culture, but I do have some things that have worked for me.
My first strong belief in creating culture is that the teacher must have a strong vision of what they want their classroom to be about. There isn’t one vision that is any better than another, but the teacher must know what they want their students to get out of their classroom. There was a day when the primary focus of my classroom was to produce musical experiences for my students. That was a perfectly good focus and it served my students well I believe for a number of years. As I have gotten older, as my program has changed, as my students have changed and as I have changed the focus of my classroom has changed. I now believe that it is most important that my classroom is a place that creates independent learners through the collaborative experience of making music. I also have become more focused on creating an environment that asks students to demand more than just proficiency from them. I hope to create an environment where they not just experience high expectations, but they set them for themselves and those around them.
Much like the game Sim City though, it isn’t as simple as just saying you want your city to grow and that you want the citizens to be happy. The job at hand is to create an environment that supports the type of growth and satisfaction that I envision without messing it up by growing too fast, expecting too much from the infrastructure or by assuming that my vision is the same as that of the people I serve. I have come to understand that most cultural change is not revolutionary, but it is evolutionary. I believe that while it is important to have a vision and to share that vision, it is equally important to make that vision a reality by gradually and thoughtfully creating an infrastructure that encourages the type of environment that you hope to create.
In order to create a successful culture in your classroom it is important to listen to those who have a stake in your environment. This includes listening to others in your building and our district, listening to others in your department, listening to administrators, listening to parents and maybe most importantly listening to your students. These people won’t all share the same vision. Some will say that the vision is to have a safe and orderly classroom, some will say that you should be winning trophies, others will say that your classroom should be more fun, others will say that you should be providing more assessment opportunities, others will say that you should be focused on meeting standards and benchmarks and others might tell you that you just need to provide a place for your students to be creative. That is potentially a lot of input to process. This is why it’s important to have your own vision and to articulate and advocate for that vision. Some people’s vision for your classroom will be wrong. I have observed music classrooms where the parent’s vision of what is important (frequently the whole idea of “winning”) has overtaken the classroom. While there is nothing wrong with success coming in the form of “winning” in a music classroom, if that becomes the primary focus of the students and teacher it frequently leads to a less than healthy classroom. It is the role of the teacher to make sure that the culture of the classroom focuses on what is really important to that teacher. It is our job to convince our students, their parents and our communities what is really important about what is going on in our classrooms.
This year I am hoping that my students will recognize two important things about the culture of my classroom. The first will be the idea of sequential development. I want them to believe in the idea that we must master the fundamental skills required to reach our goals before we seek to present a final product. I want them to recognize that there are basic fundamental skills that go into creating a successful outcome. It might be possible to skip some of the steps in order to put out a product, but that product will be fundamentally unsound. In order to be truly successful we have to do the fundamentals well in order to achieve maximum success. This will allow us to set important achievable goals throughout our learning process and I hope it will encourage them to see the importance of thinking sequentially in and out of my classroom. My other major goal that I hope to make obvious in my classroom is the idea that we need to be passionate and compassionate. I usually don’t have much trouble getting my students to be passionate about making music, but I believe it is important that they understand that our classroom needs to be a compassionate place as well. We need to recognize that everyone comes into our classroom with different skills and different expectations. By being passionate about what we are doing and being compassionate as we do it, we will create an environment that we can be very proud of.
I am actually very proud of the environment that exists in my classroom most days, but I continually try to improve it. I used to believe that I could create a culture that every student and parent would immediately embrace. I have discovered that it doesn’t really work that way. It is my job to provide an environment that provides the platform and scaffolds necessary for every student to succeed. It is also my job to convince everyone that my vision for great learning experiences is the right vision. I’m successful at this most of the time, but not always. That’s OK. What I really want is for my students to grow, to demand more from themselves than they believe they are capable of, to feel supported and maybe most importantly I want them to see our classroom as a place they have ownership in. As hard as I try to influence the culture, it is only as successful as the students buy in. When my students come to our room and take on the challenge of developing skills passionately in a compassionate environment then I know I have done something right.
One of the interesting things about a game like Sim City was that there was no real ending to the game. You could keep building and changing your city as long as you wanted and the city never stayed the same. That is certainly true in my classroom as well. My rehearsal tomorrow will be just one more opportunity to sell my students on the importance of what we are doing and the way that we do it. If I do it right then my next rehearsal will be that much better. The culture of my classroom evolves slowly and as long as me and my students keep pointing it in the right direction than we are going to be successful by any criteria.