Cornerstone 2: Create a Positive Learning Environment

Throughout the years, a vast body of research has helped to define what success in education should resemble. Based on decades of educational research performed by nationally-respected giants, there seems to be cornerstone concepts that most educational researchers and well respected music educators agree upon. In the first article of this five-part series, emphasis was placed on how to create a plan and prepare for effective teaching. The focus of this article is how to create a positive learning environment.

The first strategy is to create a culture of respect and rapport. Coach John Wooden and highly respected educator and psychologist Madeline Hunter collaborated for years at UCLA. While working together, they coined a phrase that has really impacted my perspective on what good teachers realize, which is that, “Kids don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” 

So here’s the deal, master teachers understand that it’s not good enough to simply have an exceptional command of musical pedagogy or incredible lesson plans, even though that was an important strategy in Cornerstone 1. You see, there’s more to it than that. Good teachers connect with students on a personal level and they discover value in each of their students. Think back to our own personal experiences. Who were our best teachers when we were in school and why did we respect and admire them so much?

I had, and still have, great respect for my high school Algebra teacher, Donna Maydew. She knew how to connect with me and realized that math was not my cup of tea, but music was. She was always willing to meet with me outside of class as many times as it took to reinforce algebraic concepts that were difficult for me to understand. I realized rather quickly that, while I was no fan of math, I was a big fan of Miss Maydew because she cared about me and my success.

Mark Munoz is another teacher who I have great respect for. He was my band teacher from 5th grade until I graduated from Ray High School. I grew up in the small mining community of Kearny, Arizona where the band program was, by no means, a music powerhouse. And yet, Mr. Munoz had both the presence of mind and goodness of heart to personally connect with all his students. Because of him and the interest and time that he invested in me, I became a music educator. Because of him, so many of his students also pursued music, or became educators, or successful in careers of their own choosing. Because of the respect and rapport that he had with over three decades of students, Mr. Munoz was able to have a profound impact far beyond the band room.

So, think back to our favorite teachers. Why did we respect them so much? How did we know they cared about us? Consider jotting down your responses on a piece of paper and find ways to embed those endearing qualities into your own style of teaching. Oh, and by the way, you might also want to go one step further and reconnect with them if possible to thank them for all they did to inspire you.

The second strategy is to establish a culture for learning by establishing appropriate expectations. We want to set expectations for learning and achievement as soon as possible. And, keep in mind how important it is to be intentional and consistent with our expectations. Now, if learning seems to be compromised at any point, and it will, go back and review with our students what the appropriate expectations are. You see, if we want to establish an appropriate culture for learning, we must be willing to teach and reinforce what appropriate behavior is. And while it may seem at first like we’re spending too much time on behavior rather than instruction, the research is clear. Our students will learn much more effectively and efficiently once the appropriate culture for learning has been established.

Let me share one simple, but effective, example of establishing a culture for learning. Be consistent with starting and ending rehearsals on time. In rehearsal, if the expectation is to start the warm-up process two minutes after the bell rings and end rehearsal two minutes prior to the bell ringing, make sure that our actions model consistency. Over time, students will respect the established expectations and appreciate the way it impacts the culture for learning.

The third strategy of creating a positive learning environment is to manage procedures effectively and efficiently. Just like starting and ending on time, consider how time is being used during rehearsals. Let’s record ourselves repeatedly to monitor how well we manage our class time. Take note of on-task activity compared to off-task activity and change our pacing accordingly. Ultimately, the goal is to make the best use of the time that we have by minimizing the down-time as much as possible.

The fourth strategy is to organize and structure our physical space. When doing this, there are many factors to consider. Think about our students’ safety, for example, and anticipate potentially harmful situations. Another suggestion is to consider a seating arrangement that maximizes the students’ focus, such as having seats facing away from windows or entrances into the classroom. This helps to maintain better focus on instruction. That may or may not be possible in our given situation based on the set up of your physical space.

Now, let’s consider the aesthetics of our environment. Do students walk in to our room and quickly get the impression that it’s a place where learning will occur, or do they get the feeling that the space seems disorganized or in disarray? Believe it or not, first impressions matter and set the tone for what to expect next.

Let’s switch gears and take a minute to talk about our seating arrangement. For those of us who have a traditional concert band or orchestra seating arrangement, consider creating enough space in between the rows. This will allow us to navigate throughout the room which makes students more accessible. Imagine the things that we can hear and fix by being in closer proximity to all the students regardless of what row they’re in.

Other ideas to think about… Have we considered having the percussionists, or students who don’t have much of a part, sit in the front of the class with scores in hand? Or, if possible, use a projection screen to show a score for all students to view during rehearsals, which allows for the opportunity to see how their parts fit into the bigger context of a composition? These are all examples of ways to better structure and organize the physical space of the classroom.

The fifth and final strategy of creating a positive learning environment is to manage behavior. As I’ve already suggested, setting proper expectations up front is key to managing behavior. That said, when students demonstrate questionable behavior, determine if the behavior is interrupting our instruction or the students’ learning. If not, then continue teaching and address the issue at a more appropriate time. If the instruction or learning is being affected, refocus the student’s behavior in a quick, respectful way and continue with the instruction. This can be achieved as easily as asking them to do something that requires engagement of some sort, or by us physically positioning ourselves closer to them. Also, keep in mind that it’s always a good idea to praise in public and reprimand in private. 

Obviously, it’s nearly impossible to cover everything about managing misbehavior in such a short period of time. Consider this, however. If we implement the collective body of strategies suggested within the five cornerstones, most misbehavior issues will be minimized because we’re approaching discipline in a proactive, rather than reactive way.

Okay, up to now, Cornerstones 1 and 2 have addressed planning for effective teaching and strategies for creating a positive learning environment. Please join me for the next article which focuses on engaging in effective instruction.

Until then, here’s to your success! 



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