Delaware Writing Project

Start with Creating a Positive Class Culture

By Robyn Howton

Start with a Smile! 

“You shouldn’t let them see you smile before Christmas,” is the worst advice I was given 26 years ago as a new teacher. Yet, I still hear people tell new teachers to be “extra tough on them at first,” or “don’t cut anyone a break,” and even, “don’t be too friendly.”.  When I was recently asked to think about how I start each year, I realized my best years are when I intentionally go against this advice. .

The single most important thing I do each year happens the first week of school.  The first day I won’t pass out rules or a syllabus.  I won’t talk about the course or assessments.  I will take time to get to know my students. I will share part of myself with them. I will tell them about what makes me laugh and what music makes me want to dance.  I will promise them a class party if the St. Louis Cardinals win the World Series.  And I will get to know them.

The relationships I build with my students dictate the success of not only my year, but more importantly, their learning. Every time I’ve had a year with problems, upon reflection, I realize I didn’t take enough time to establish relationships and class 

Week One – Establish a Foundation 

To create positive relationships on day one, I share with them my story. I have a short PowerPoint of my childhood home, my schools, my family, my love of sports, and my taste in music. I also hand them a letter with my degrees, certifications and educational philosophy.  I establish my credentials as the foundation of mutual respect and share my enthusiasm and belief in the power of education.

Day two is devoted to getting to know them.  Because I have already shared about myself, it is easier to get them to share their story.  Many of them start with a connection to something we have in common or they have in common with a classmate.  We are then building a community.  I use this day to jot down something specific about each of them next to their name.  It helps me learn their names as well as remember what they shared!

On day three, I finally give out a syllabus with nothing included under “class goals” and “class norms”.  Together we discuss what we will be studying, why becoming a good reader and writer is important, and create our class goals.  We then discuss what norms we need in order to have a positive, productive, class culture.  In each category, I share my non-negotiables and add their agreed upon ideas.


Building a positive class culture with collaborative activities

On day four, we begin our first unit.  However, throughout the first month, I look for opportunities to continue to build community and establish my high expectations for all of us.  I use the last few minutes of class to just talk about what is happening in the world and our community and to ask about their goals for the year and after high school. I tell them my goals for the school year and how I plan to achieve them so they know I have high expectations for myself as well as them.

Let them see you smile and laugh and love learning! 

The adage that teachers “shouldn’t let them see you smile until Christmas,” is left over from the days of teachers as authoritarian bestowers of knowledge upon their students. Building a foundation of mutual respect and high expectations creates a classroom community that is welcoming and supportive.  Together we laugh, learn, and take steps toward achieving individual educational goals.

I will be dusting off my PowerPoint to include a few new photos from this summer, updating my letter with the learning I’ve done this summer, and laying in my bed going over what I will say on day one, year twenty-six to set a positive tone for our  learning adventures.   How will you start this school year?

About the Author

Robyn Howton teaches at Mount Pleasant High School in the Brandywine School District where is is the Dept. Chair for English and the AVID Coordinator. Additionally, Robyn is a member of the Rodel Teacher Council, 2016 Hope Street Group National Teacher Fellow, and Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation Teacher Advisory Council. For fun, Robyn helps the Mount Pleasant football and track and field coaches by doing stats and monitoring the athletes academic progress.




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