Building Classroom Culture, Part 2: Lifelines

by | 09.16.19

This is part two of a three-part series on community-building from teacher Monte Syrie. Click here to check out part one!

As the first days and weeks of school unfold, I’m making sure my students know how much honesty matters in my classroom. I am flexible on homework deadlines, and last year, I started to feel like it was too easy for students to value my class less than others. When they knew they could get their homework for me in at anytime – but they couldn’t get, say, their math homework in anytime – sometimes, they’d try to use my class to get their math work done. 

That bothered me for a while. When kids did that, I could see they were stressing out, and I don’t want kids stressing out in my class. And I want to avoid the weird dynamic it creates when they’re trying to sneak and I’m trying not to be overbearing. So I shifted my approach: I decided to offer two “lifelines” per semester. 

I sat down with my students and said, “Let’s be honest with each other. I recognize there are going to be days when you’re going to feel like you need to study for a test or when you didn’t get something done. I would rather you just own it and use a lifeline.” My kids can use their lifelines in whatever way they want – it doesn’t excuse them from the work we’re doing that day, but they can trade time for time. 

The next time a student stressed out, I suggested she come up with a way to use one of her lifelines. She asked if she could take the half-hour she needed to do her assignment, come back at lunch and do the work for my class. I said yes, and she felt calmer. And that’s something I love about my lifelines policy: It creates an opportunity to take an emotional or mental break as well. That kid couldn’t focus in my classroom right then, because she was worried. But she was more than willing to come back in and focus a little later. And I was more than willing to accept that compromise. If we can be honest and recognize that we all need a little break in our days from time to time, we can move forward without any pretense in our classrooms.

For any of you who might wonder whether this would really work in your classroom, I get it – I wasn’t sure it would work in mine, either. But I think it’s important for us to give kids the freedom and the responsibility to make their own choices. I’ve been surprised by how many kids have chosen not to use their lifelines. I’ve used lifelines myself, and in doing so, I model taking responsibility for where I am and what I need to do. 

Life catches up with all of us sometimes. What matters is how we respond to it, and that’s what I want my students to learn. Each step I take in my practice – including the “smiles and frowns” that renew trust and these lifelines that convey respect – I take because I believe that learning requires an honest commitment. Just like life.

About the Author

Monte Syrie
Monte Syrie

Monte Syrie is a teacher in Washington. Follow him on Twitter @MonteSyrie.

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