Supercharge Learning with a Classroom Culture of Respect

by: Sevenzo Community Manger, Michael Hernandez

Can you remember the last time your boss entrusted you with an important project or task? Something that, by the mere fact they gave it to you, meant that she or he believed in your skill, knowledge or professionalism. If you’ve had this experience, it probably made you feel like part of the team, and that your chance of success in your job was much higher than before.

Now think about a time in school when your teacher trusted you with an important task. Maybe it was taking a note to the office or helping another student with their work. Maybe you got to help a teacher set up their classroom. In any of these situations, you probably felt important, smart, respected, and valued.

In other words, it made you feel like you belonged.

We try all manner of gimmicks to motivate our students to learn. We use point systems, candy, colored behavior cards, the threat of bad grades, etc. But hands down the most effective form of motivation is when we trust our students and treat them with respect. We forget that, even as elementary students, kids are individual human beings that have a sense of self-determination and want to be treated as such. When someone we respect, like a teacher, believes in and treats us like an equal, our confidence soars, and learning becomes supercharged.

Belonging is about trust, confidence, respect and equity. It’s about being partners in learning and acknowledging each stakeholder’s strengths and weaknesses and that we’re in it together.

Students are more engaged when we trust them to make decisions about their own learning

In my classroom, I try to establish a culture of trust and equity amongst students and between my students and myself. We’re at a point where I can trust them to use thousands of dollars worth of video equipment over the weekend without my supervision. I can trust them to produce news stories and air a live newscast when I’m absent from school.

I look to my students for ideas, information, knowledge and inspiration. I remind them that they’re smarter than me, and that I need their help to figure things out. I often rely on them to learn new apps, tech tricks, and suggestions for improving the class. We work together to develop grading policies and workflows that are fair, and I’m fine with that. Even though I’m the oldest one in the room, my students are often the smartest ones in the room.

Students as learning partners: My student presents at the National High School Journalism Conference

I didn’t always think this was a good idea. I feared the chaos I thought would ensue if I let kids determine grading policies and workflow, and didn’t want to waste valuable class time reinventing my instructional wheel that I knew to be perfectly round, if a bit worn. Besides, how can a 15 year old know more than me?

Turns out they know a lot more than me. Or at least they know more about what it’s like to be a 15 year old learning in my class, and that’s pretty important if I care about being an effective teacher.

As partners in learning, they rely on my expertise in content knowledge, experience and inspiration. I rely on their knowledge of software, apps, pop culture, music, and current events around our school and city. All of it is relevant to our subject area discussions and projects, and we’re all smarter when we aggregate our experiences.

We trust and rely on each other to move the conversation forward without limit or bias. My students’ learning accelerates when they know I trust them to make good choices and allow them to make mistakes and learn from their failures. More importantly, they see me make mistakes and acknowledge them — I’m just as fallible as they are.

Everyone can begin to establish a culture of trust and equity with language. How we lead discussions can encourage effort and risk over being right. How we elicit student opinions and how we simply acknowledge their perspective as valid can be all it takes to cultivate a culture of respect and trust.

If we are concerned with student buy-in, passion and hard work; if we care about absenteeism and students being distracted by technology or anything other than our lesson, then we need to begin by making students feel like they belong in your classroom. A little respect and humility on our part can go a long way.

Are you ready to create a culture of #edubelong?

In addition to being on Team Sevenzo as a Community Manager, Michael Hernandez is an award-winning cinema and journalism teacher, and educational consultant in Los Angeles. He speaks at national conferences on topics like social justice, digital storytelling and educational technology. He is an Apple Distinguished Educator, Google for Education Certified Innovator and PBS Digital Innovator. Follow him on Twitter @cinehead and at

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