Social and Emotional Learning: Building a Sense of Community

It has been over a year since I had my own classroom. Now I am consulting educators in California regarding implementation and teaching strategies. As I explore and research topics of social and emotional learning for a professional development course I am writing, I am reminded of something I did with my students at the beginning of every year.

Rules are often dictated to us, laws are formed for us. In schools this is the same. There are rules to adhere to, and teachers and students are both accountable to this system. We do not necessarily get to share an active role in constructing the language of a rule. This is authoritative, and many may agree, the management of a school does require some authoritative voice in the general scheme of things.

But within my classroom, I emphasized the words “us” and “we” in being accountable to that system. With my students, every year, we created our very own social contract. They openly discussed their expectations of what they wanted in a teacher, and I openly discussed what my expectations for the students were. As one large group, with some partner interaction, we together created our classroom rules, the ramifications of a broken rule, and how to hold each other accountable. A sense of community was created.

I tried this approach after I inherited a class that had two teachers quit within the span of a month. I inherited a class that was explained to me as “out of control” and “rude.” When I entered that classroom, I truly saw high school students who knew they were viewed as such, and so they acted upon it.

But when they became included, they became accountable. When I became aware and keen of their emotions and energy, they were also completely aware of my emotion and energy. It took some time to establish, but I can definitely say that a week long activity of building a social contract by far saved everyone negativity for the rest of the year. That is because people respect that which they create and invest in. When students invest in creating the framework of their own experience, they will respect it. When it is relevant and put into language by which they can relate, they will respect it.

Expectations should never be alien to students. Otherwise, these expectations will be alien to your classroom.