Building a Positive Learning Environment for Students: Advice to Beginning Teachers

By Sutliff, Michael; Higginson, Janelle et al. | Strategies: A Journal for Physical and Sport Educators, September-October 2008 | Go to article overview
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Building a Positive Learning Environment for Students: Advice to Beginning Teachers


Sutliff, Michael, Higginson, Janelle, Allstot, Sean, Strategies: A Journal for Physical and Sport Educators


When examining what beginning teachers learn in teacher preparation programs, it can be beneficial to have conversations with successful veteran teachers. Beginning teachers face a myriad of challenges (Liston et al., 2006) that aren't always fully conceptualized while working through teacher education programs. Gaining the respect of colleagues, trying to connect with students, and establishing routines or protocols in a humane way isn't as easy as anticipated. Classroom management is more of a challenge than ever before (Gagen and Bowie, 2005), and understanding who K-12 students are has become a welcomed priority (California Standards for the Teaching Profession, 1997). It has been suggested that teacher preparation programs don't fully prepare new teachers for the demands of the classroom (Liston et al., 2006). Time and experience are essential, but can we do more to help beginning teachers become more successful?

A major challenge for all teachers, and particularly beginning teachers, is working with students who are unmotivated in class and try to dismantle the teaching and learning process. Students who project those dispositions can consume a teacher's time and energy. When beginning teachers invest a majority of their efforts working with those students, learning is diminished for on-task students. How can beginning teachers better manage classroom life? It shouldn't be a surprise that teachers who know their students and work to build a positive classroom environment understand that those are key ingredients toward student success (Esquith, 2003; Hichwa, 1998; Kane, 1991).

Therefore, the intent of this article is to offer advice to beginning teachers on strategies for building a positive learning environment for students, especially those students looking to create challenges for teachers. The advice included in this article was derived from interviews the authors administered with eight physical education teachers in California. In an effort to represent the geographical and cultural diversity of the state, teachers from southern and central regions were selected. Each teacher had at least 10 years of experience at the middle school level and had been recognized by peers as an exemplary teacher and won either a national, regional, or state teaching award.

Learning how these exemplary teachers worked with unmotivated students became the framework for question selection. The questions were organized into several categories that included: starting out the year, building rapport with students, motivating students, and managing off-task students. The hour-long interviews were audio taped and later transcribed for analysis. The responses from the exemplary teachers fell into two general categories: social and emotional needs of middle school students.

Questions about Starting Out the Year

Setting a foundation for learning is critical in any educational setting. Teaching and learning is an interactive process where all parties benefit when students feel safe, know what's expected, are challenged, and realize they are valued as human beings. It is important for inexperienced students to learn what it means to dress out for the first time, the importance of physical education, how things work in the locker room, and who the teacher is beyond their last name. Furthermore, learning increases when there is a positive rapport between the teacher and student as well as the student and student (Delpit, 1995; Esquith, 2007; Gruwell, 1999).

Question 1: How do you start your year?

The exemplary teachers spoke about specific strategies that helped create a positive classroom environment. Several spoke about working with Project Adventure activities to help students show respect for themselves and others, understand courtesy, and solve problems as a group. But they also talked about using Project Adventure to reinforce key aspects of management and develop routines.

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