This post originally appeared on the blog ELA Buffet by Darlene Anne.

My first year teaching middle school was challenging. In my infinite new teacher wisdom, I decided that the best way to prevent another difficult year would be to start off by being tough and putting on my “meaner than a junk-yard dog” face.

Thankfully, I came to my senses. Because I know better. We ALL know better. Kids are not going to learn if they don’t feel safe, if they don’t feel respected, and if they don’t like the teacher.
Fostering a favorable classroom environment and a positive relationship with my students is the most important task I assign myself every year. The recipe for a classroom culture that promotes learning requires only a dash of time and energy. It does require a hefty dose of mindfulness.

How to establish a classroom environment that promotes learning:

1) Show Genuine Interest

Greet students with a smile and enthusiasm every day. Make eye contact with them and ask them questions about their life.
Each student will come into the room hearing, “You are important, and I’m glad to see you.” 

This positive message will influence students’ behavior, their desire to learn, and the tone of the entire period. Sometimes we’re busy cleaning up from the previous period or setting up for the next one. When that happens, I have the kids wait outside until I’m ready for them to enter. It is much more important for me to make a connection with them than it is to start right on the dot.

2) Use Students’ Names — Often  

In How to Win Friends and Influence People, Dale Carnegie states that there is "magic contained in a name..." and "a request we are making takes on a special importance when we approach the situation with the name of the individual."

In How to Win Friends and Influence People, Dale Carnegie states that there is “magic contained in a name…” and “a request we are making takes on a special importance when we approach the situation with the name of the individual.”

Use students’ names throughout the period, at every opportunity. Subconsciously, they will be much more likely to listen and comply. Don’t abbreviate a name unless you know for sure that the student approves of the nickname.

3) Use Task-Oriented Language

The next time you speak with your students, count the number of times you use statements like “I think” or “you should.” If the count is high, it might be time to reconsider the language you use.

Which would you be more likely to agree with?

You have to do your reading homework.
In order to participate in tomorrow’s debate, it’s important to understand the issue by reading this article.

How about this?

I think you should all spend time studying for the test.
What would be an effective plan to prepare for the test?

Task-oriented language invites agreement and cooperation by focusing on the step-by-step tasks that lead to the goal and NOT the people involved. It’s not about you, and it’s not about your students. It’s about reaching the goal of learning.

4) Give Students Choices and Input

Studies show that when we give students choices, their motivation soars. This blog post will explain how to give choices that enhance achievement and progress.

Studies show that when we give students choices, their motivation soars.

We really don’t need a study to substantiate that, do we? All we have to do is ask our kids. Mine have told me that when they have some say in decorating the room or choosing books and projects, they feel more engaged and focused. They also feel validated.

However, there is a catch. We should only give kids a limited number of choices, especially when they’re in middle school. An experiment done by psychologists Sheena Iyengar and Mark Lepper confirmed that more isn’t always better. The researchers assigned college students various extra credit essay assignment choices. Surprisingly, students given fewer choices were more likely to complete the assignment. They even did a better job writing it.

I can’t say I’m really surprised about this. After all, who can go into a paint store and immediately choose a color from the thousands of shades offered? Most of us will take a few paint chips home and begin the daunting process of narrowing down the chips. Some of us even assign someone else the responsibility of choosing because there are just “too many choices.”

Give middle school students two or three choices. When taking notes on new content, I give my students the choice of using folding interactive notes or Cornell notes. They are both guided and include the same information, but the choice gives students the freedom to use what works best for them, creating immediate “buy-in.” (You can see what this looks like here.)

5) Use Humor

I have a teacher friend who always says we put on six “shows” a day. While it’s not our job to write jokes on cocktail napkins, a little laughter can go a long way toward improving the class. One of the best teachers I know is a master of self-deprecating humor. He can redirect his students’ attention with one dry statement like, “It’s a shame that I’m so boring because I was just about to bestow upon you the single-most important secret to… (says something unintelligible).”

Humor can be a powerful communication tool. Just be sure not to confuse it with teasing or sarcasm, which can be seen as patronizing.

6) Normalize Failure 

Taking the sting away from failure is essential to a student’s comfort and ability to learn. Our classroom is their safe place to fall. I feel strongly about creating this aspect of our classroom environment, and I wrote about how I do that here.

7) Ask Students for Assistance 

People inherently want to be helpful. We also have a need to feel close to others. When we ask someone to do us a favor, the person being asked feels trusted and useful. The favor draws the two people together. This technique is called the Ben Franklin effect, because in his autobiography Franklin wrote about using it to win over a rival.
Asking for a favor works especially well with difficult students, whether it be an entire class or an individual. Ask them to give you a hand with technology or to explain something. Use the word “help.” 
Every so often, I use this technique and I ask a class to help me by giving me a little advice. I might say, “Period 5 class, I knew you’d be the best group to give me advice about the due date for the essay assignment.” 
There’s not a doubt in my mind that asking an entire class for a little help works wonders to improve the environment of the class. How am I so sure? On the last day of school, when I tell the kids that I’m going to miss them, the kids from 1st period tell me that they’ve known all along that they were my favorite class. Then 2nd period comes in and tells me that I’m going to miss them the most because they are my favorite class.
You see where this is going, right?

And they are ALL absolutely correct.


Darlene AnneDarlene Anne is a middle school ELA teacher. She knows that teachers work hard to bring meaningful and engaging content to their students, and she is determined to help them do it. Now that her own children are in college, she can’t meddle as much, so she dedicates her time to creating teaching resources that teachers can be proud to use. You can find these resources in her TpT store, Darlene Anne.