Create a Culture of Caring

A yardstick to measure the impact of interdependence

By Amber Chandler

Over coffee recently, Dr. Kelly Ahuna, the program director for MSED Elementary at Canisius College in Buffalo, New York, relayed a conversation she had with her teenage daughter. On a whim, she had asked her daughter a question that opened a Pandora’s box of other questions. As a parent and a professor to pre-service teachers, Dr. Ahuna thought this question just might hold the key to success in school.

What did she ask? Dr. Ahuna had wondered aloud to her daughter, “If you weren’t in class, would anyone notice?”

While this might seem like a simple question on the surface, the answer reveals both the level of student engagement and the student’s perception of his or her role in the classroom. As soon as Dr. Ahuna relayed her conversation, I immediately thought of my own eighth-grade students and the many explicit and intentional educational decisions I’d made this year as a part of my deep dive into Social Emotional Learning. In the last several years, I’ve made an effort to honor the whole child in ways I had never considered before, knowing that research and common sense tells us that student learning can’t happen if social and emotional needs aren’t met. However, after writing The Flexible SEL Classroom: Practical Ways to Build Social and Emotional Learning, I’ve heard from interested teachers who are willing to give new strategies a try. I’ve realized, though, that there is a need for a comprehensive approach to SEL, not only the activities I’d provided.

Dr. Ahuna’s question is the perfect yardstick to measure the success in the creation of a caring classroom. If we are to create an intentional learning environment that nurtures a child’s mind and soul, the answer to her question, “If you weren’t in class, would anyone notice?” is one that we must approach systematically and comprehensively. I’m not talking about a whole-school effort, though that might be the end goal. I’m suggesting that this question is so important to the success of students that it is the one around which we frame our classroom. With that in mind, teachers can begin to devise a structure and protocols that develop interdependence.
Interdependence isn’t a new concept, and the idea has been around as long as collaborative learning. Nearly a decade ago, Productive Group Work: How to Engage Students, Build Teamwork, and Promote Understanding by Nancy Frey, Douglas Fisher, and Sandi Everlove, recognized that “we all want to contribute something unique, to have an important role, to be valued by others, and students are no exception. If group work is designed to be interdependent, these needs are met, and the resulting positive atmosphere allows learning to take place.”

I have a Project Based Learning classroom, one that moves from one big collective goal to the next. Each quarter we tackle what I call a “Life Question,” using literature, nonfiction, film, and discussion. For example, our upcoming unit asks, “Can’t we just all get along?” and uses S.E. Hinton’s novel The Outsiders, the often-anthologized short story “The Jacket” by Gary Soto, several nonfiction pieces on how and why gangs form, and the movie “Zootopia.” As engaging as I set out to make it, if students don’t believe that they play an integral role in our classroom and believe that they will be missed if they aren’t there, nothing else matters. Here are three steps I’ve taken in creating interdependence to nurture a caring classroom, one where we not only get along, but need each other to do so.

Classroom management

I’m a veteran teacher, going into my twentieth year in the fall. Classroom management shouldn’t really still be a big priority, should it? Shouldn’t I have figured this out long ago? Well, I did figure it out decades ago, but I’ve shifted my thinking, and a Project-Based Learning atmosphere creates new management issues.

When I just couldn’t keep the volume of my students where I needed it for a productive work environment, I went straight to the source: I asked my eighth-graders, “What can you do together so that I don’t really have anything to do with controlling your behavior?” After some typical answers, students hit upon an idea that has changed the demeanor of our work environment. “Why don’t we just be in charge of our own groups, and then it will always be quiet enough?” I had grown tired of flicking the lights long ago, and I was continually spending too much time shushing people and not enough engaging with them.

We put it into place immediately. First, every day someone in the group (I have six squads of students) would be in charge of volume control. Instead of talking to everyone, or flicking the lights, I would give my “teacher look” to the lead student of the day in each group as needed. The lead student would be identified by where she or he was sitting. Pretty soon, though, we found that the groups would often need to tell another group to lower their voices. Conversations asking other groups to be quiet seemed bossy or just turned into socializing. Finally, the students hit on an easy tweak to an already existing protocol. When I need students’ attention, I clap and they clap back. Now, when the class was too loud, any student can clap, and everyone will clap back. At that moment, students can regroup and lower their voices without a reference to an individual or group. This new method of managing classroom volume has led to a better self-awareness and a sense of connectedness.

Questions and more questions

Every teacher experiences question fatigue. “May I go to the bathroom?” “Can I hand my essay in after third period?” “Should I indent?” “Would it make more sense if I highlight this?” “Is it okay if we work together?” “Can I sharpen my pencil?” “Do you have a pen I can borrow?” “Did you mark me late?” As you read through this litany, you’ll probably realize that you answered all those questions, or ones very similar, by the middle of first period. One of the ways I foster interdependence, while also giving my brain a break to work on more important questions, is to refer students back to each other unless the question is permission-related.

I’m not being lazy or evasive, but instead I’m creating a caring environment where students recognize their own value and the resources they have in each other. Every spring you can hear me remind students, “I’m not going to high school with you, but your friends are. Ask them.” One of the cool things that has evolved is that students now use the clapping protocol I mentioned earlier and “group source” the answer. Now, if you walk past my classroom, every few minutes you’ll hear clapping and clapping back, a student asking a question, and students answering each other. We’ve learned who knows the answers to grammar questions, who is good with computer questions, and who knows how to draw. By learning about each other’s talents, we create another layer of interdependence, and individuals begin to see their value to the whole.

Strategic grouping

None of this could happen in my classroom without strategic grouping. I have flexible seating, which means that I have bean bags, gaming chairs, a standing table, cushions everywhere, and a few traditional options. The room is divided into six squads, each with four students. Many days students are allowed to choose their own seats and enjoy the flexibility of options. However, at other times I strategically group students. The amazing thing about allowing students more active roles in class is that I’ve found out important information and can group in ways that utilize their skills. If I know that I have artists, for instance, I’ll disperse their talent to different groups. I try to have a “grammar guru” in each group, as well as a “tech wizard.” As students come to know each other better through their active management of both behavior and answering questions, they develop a new respect for each other.

Can I say for sure that every student, every day, would be missed if they weren’t there? I’d love to say that, but I know that I still have a way to go to make that happen. However, I’ve learned that my students feel a newfound responsibility to their groups when they know their role is important. A few weeks ago one of my students asked if he could text his friend. I gave him a quizzical look, but he said, “He’s sick, but he has the graph we made, and he told me he’d share it with us.” Wait. What? A middle school student who isn’t there is going to help students in my room because they need him? A little later in the day my stomach dropped. I had an email from the sick student’s mom. Was she irritated that my students were texting her sick child? Nope. Instead she wrote, “I don’t know what you are doing, but my son was mad that I made him stay home, because he was needed in class. Whatever it is, that’s good!”

It wasn’t something I did, but a place I’ve created and nurtured. Students are never going to insist on coming to school because their teacher needs them. They will, however, work to help their friends when they are an integral part of the class. As my thoughts have evolved about meeting the social and emotional needs of students, the biggest revelation has been that if students are seen, noticed, and valued, the learning will become secondary, and that’s okay. However, when interdependence works, a caring classroom is created, and students know they would be missed. Their learning becomes about everyone else’s learning, too, and students will rise to the occasion to help each other.

Image credit: Shutterstock

Amber Chandler is a National Board-Certified ELA teacher and the author of The Flexible ELA Classroom: Practical Tools for Differentiated Instruction in Grades 4–8.

All content copyright © Today’s Catholic Teacher/ All rights reserved. May be reproduced for classroom/parish use with full attribution as long as the content is unaltered from its original form. To request permission to reprint online, email