In a world where the need for social and emotional learning is of utmost importance, it is imperative for college and university faculty to get to know, connect with, and understand their own students. Building “community” is a phrase that we may have heard in many educational and professional settings. Whether it is used to refer to building rapport with colleagues or just a classroom teacher building community within their own classroom of third graders, educators across all disciplines are called to build rapport and community with one another. This building of “community” provides the opportunity for faculty to get to know their students and for students to get to know one another. It also allows students to gain confidence in a risk-free learning environment eliminating the stereotypical barriers that make college students feel like their professors are unapproachable. When students feel comfortable approaching their professor, they also may be more likely to share their own learning experiences in class. As these barriers are broken down, students from diverse backgrounds may feel the confidence to share their own opinions and ideas and ask questions to further guide classroom conversations centered around weekly course topics. Through this “community building” students not only learn the material being presented, but also become immersed in various peer perspectives as they share in conversations that go far deeper than what a professor may achieve by simply lecturing on the content week after week.
Here are some ways to engage in this practice now:
Weekly chats or check-ins
Once a week take the first 15 minutes or so of class to check in with your students. If you are online, open a chat or discussion box with a unique question for them to answer or ask them to share one thing going on in their lives that week. If you are meeting face-to-face, you can spend this time as students enter the classroom walking around the room and engaging in small conversations with them. This small act of interest shows your students that their professor cares about their well-being. You can also engage in an open-ended question to begin a short discussion such as, “If you could write a book, what would it be about and why?” At first you may notice they may be reluctant to share, but after a few days or weeks of these types of check-ins you may notice more students beginning to take part in the conversation or discussion. These weekly chats or check-ins allow for the opportunity for students to chat with one another about their lives, ask questions, or provide feedback or advice on upcoming assignments.
Speaking in a positive, friendly tone
The tone in our voice and the words we use when speaking to our students can affect their feelings of belongingness. By using appropriate, professional, and respectful language at all times when working with students we can assure that we are modeling the way to engage in professional conversations. In The Power of Our Words, Denton describes three ways in which educators can speak positively to their students (2007). Denton suggests using reinforcing, reminding, and redirecting languages with students when they need a reminder of a procedure or expectation. The goal in using positive language is to maintain the respect and dignity of the student while refocusing them back to your course expectations. This way of speaking to our students models the social and emotional skills of self-management, self-control, and social awareness which are three of the five CASEL competencies of Social and Emotional learning (www.casel.org). Social and emotional learning is key in helping adults problem solve and communicate with others (www.casel.org).
Setting clear expectations early in the semester
Provide students with clear and concise expectations early on in the semester to relieve their worries of unexpected assignments in your course. By showing transparency at the beginning of the semester through stating clear objectives, providing specific guidelines and rubrics for scoring of assignments, and explaining fully all of your requirements and expectations, you are communicating to your students that you know they can be successful and you are willing to provide them with all of the tools to do so. Once your expectations have been stated, you will be able to use positive teacher language to reinforce those expectations, remind your students of them, and redirect students to these expectations as questions arise throughout the semester all while maintaining the students’ dignity and respect.
Through using these strategies in your classroom, you may see your students gaining more confidence in their own ability to seek out information and engage in deeper conversations with you and their peers on the topics you present. We know that all learning is a social and emotional experience, and by building a community of learners in our classrooms through these strategies, we are recognizing that it should remain that way.
Stefanie R. Sorbet, EdD is an assistant professor at the University of Central Arkansas in the Elementary, Literacy, and Special Education Department. She instructs teacher candidates in positive classroom environment and is the K-6 elementary program coordinator for UCA’s College of Education. Her research interests include social and emotional learning and the connection to a positive classroom environment in K-12 schools, and supporting novice teachers in positive classroom management.
Denton, P. (2007). The Power of Our Words: Teacher Language that Helps Children Learn. Turners Falls, MA: Northeast Foundation for Children. www.casel.org