Creating a Community of Learners that Reflects Mutual Respect

Students collaborate in class while laughing

Recently, a student came into my office to vent because she was frustrated and dismayed at the behavior of another student in one of her classes. She indicated that he repeatedly disrupts the class by arguing with fellow students, criticizing others’ approaches to content, disputes the merits of work that is assigned, interrupts when others are talking, complains to both the instructor and others about timelines put in place for projects, and is generally disgruntled. Her biggest objection, however, was not that the student was so disruptive, rather it was that the instructor seemed oblivious and unconcerned by one student’s monopolizing of the classroom.

I listened, first thinking that she may have been exaggerating. Then another student from the same class came to me later with much the same experience. I listened more intently this time and found myself wondering about my own behavior when teaching “that” student, the one who seemingly competes with me and others for airtime, the one who argues, complains, and generally finds fault. And then I asked myself a question:  How do I create a community of learners that reflects mutual respect among all participants in the classroom?

Constructing community principles gives students both voice and choice, two elements crucial for learning.

My own reflections helped me identify processes and ideas for addressing the potential impact of one student’s behavior on an entire classroom and my responsibility for creating a positive culture for learning. The more I thought, the more I realized that student behavior and my behavior both hinge on the concept of accountability. Perhaps my thoughts might be of benefit to others who have had similar experiences.

First, I had to revisit the notion of accountability. By definition, accountability means a willingness to accept responsibility for one’s actions. It includes a sense of ownership and a commitment to deliver as promised. In reflecting on my level of accountability in the classroom, I identified several components. When I teach, it is incumbent on me to assume responsibility for establishing and maintaining a safe and secure learning environment where all students are encouraged to ask questions, make observations, express themselves without fear of reprisal, and make sense of what they are learning.

In addition, I am responsible for prior preparation and organization. It is critical that I engage with the content and identify ways to deliver it so that students understand it. It is essential that I seek to know each student and have an understanding about how he or she learns.

Incorporating principles of Universal Design for Learning, multiple means of representation, engagement, and expression, must permeate my instruction. Accountability also means that I clearly state my expectations for the learners in the class. It is important that I identify for them the objectives of the lesson, the processes to be used for teaching to the objectives, and expectations for students as they embark on the lesson’s journey. In order to provide high quality instruction, I need to be prepared to deliver using strategies and activities designed to engage all learners.

Following my reflections on accountability, I realized it is essential that I work with the class to establish community principles at the beginning of the semester. Community principles are most effective when developed in partnership with students. Questions such as, “How do we want to function as a learning community?” and “What do we value when working in the context of this classroom?” and “How can we hold one another accountable for honoring these principles?” should be asked. In order to ensure common understanding, it is helpful to identify examples and non-examples of each principle. For instance, if the principle is mutual respect, then an example might be to “engage in active listening when another is sharing” or “seek to understand the viewpoint of those whose ideas are very different from yours.” Identifying examples might entail further discussion about what active listening is or what it is not. Co-constructing community principles gives students both voice and choice, two elements crucial for learning. Community principles also help increase the likelihood that we will all accept responsibility for upholding them.

In summary, as an instructor, I have responsibilities beyond delivering content. Reflecting on the accountability I have for providing high quality instruction and establishing and honoring community principles will help ensure that all students thrive in a positive learning environment.

Patty Kohler-Evans, EdD, is a professor and director of the Mashburn Center for Learning.