A number of years ago I visited an SRE class in a very unhealthy place. On a recent return visit, I was stunned to see a turnaround, with students engaging in the lesson, asking great questions, and listening to each other respectfully! The SRE teacher had worked hard to create a healthy classroom culture, and as a result all students were keen to be there, get involved and learn together. I left the SRE lesson praising God.
What is classroom culture? It can be best explained by describing what it looks like:
- A class full of diverse students who look forward to being in SRE.
- A teacher who makes learning about Jesus and our world enjoyable; and has a positive relationship with all students.
- Students who feel completely safe to ask and answer challenging questions, knowing that no one will shame them or talk badly of them even if they get things wrong, disagree or want to argue with the Bible.
- A teacher who engages with the Bible in a faithful manner, so the students can see how relevant the gospel is for their lives today.
- Students who leave the SRE class knowing that Jesus loves them, their teacher is there to support them, and that they are learning something new every lesson no matter where they are on their faith journey.
This can sound too good to be true, particularly if your experience of teaching SRE has been difficult. You need patience to create a good classroom culture, it does not happen in one or two weeks, so don’t give up! Here are some key changes you can implement to help create a good classroom culture in SRE:
- Remember you are the leader of the classroom. The teacher is in control of establishing class culture. If you can think back to your own school days, you’ll probably recall some teachers who had no control of their class and others who were too strict and made learning boring. Other teachers somehow strike the perfect balance between being warm and caring, whilst also being strict and in charge. Students learn to adapt to each teacher accordingly. Educational specialist Doug Lemov believes those who are both warm and strict make the best teachers, so don’t think you need to be one or the other.
- Build trust. There is value in relationally warm ‘get to know you’ activities. Do not undervalue these things by dropping them from the lesson plan or cutting them short by thinking ‘I need to quickly get a Bible open’ in that first week. Getting to the Bible is important, but by establishing healthy class relationships - both peer to peer and teacher to student - will mean the rest of your lessons will enable good Bible discussions. Model being open and vulnerable yourself so students can reciprocate being real with you and each other.
- Set clear expectations. Explicitly share with students how you want the class to work together: ‘With a bit of practice our class will be able to wrestle with the big questions of life together. To do this we need to show respect for one another by being encouraging and not putting one another down if we disagree.’ This will help create a safe environment to explore the important questions of life.
- Reinforce good culture when you see it. Celebrate and praise students who practice this. For example; ‘Sarah, thank you for waiting patiently with your hand up and how respectfully you showed you disagreed with Michael. That’s what I mean by respectfully disagreeing with someone… keep it up!’
- Learn the art of continuous teaching. This keeps students engaged and minimises student distractions simultaneously. Deepen discussion by moving around the classroom and using open and attentive body language to send signals to students who may not be on task.
Sometimes our classes fall into unhealthy behaviour habits as the classroom culture deteriorates over time. It is well worth spending time on communicating expectations and building relationships and trust in the room before getting back onto curriculum work. A healthy classroom culture means everyone can get the most out of SRE. So ask yourself, what’s going well in your classroom, and how could you make it better?