Invest in Classroom Community

To build authentic classroom community, you have to be authentic.

By Rachel Wilser

You know you need classroom community — or at least you think you do — but how do you get it? A quick search of “classroom community” on Pinterest gives hundreds of results of varying quality. Before we talk about how to build classroom community, we need to establish two important things.

You know you need classroom community — or at least you think you do — but how do you get it? A quick search of “classroom community” on Pinterest gives hundreds of results of varying quality. Before we talk about how to build classroom community, we need to establish two important things.

To build authentic classroom community, you have to be authentic. Here’s what I mean: just because it works for another teacher doesn’t mean it will work for you. My first teaching job was in a private K–8 school; I was part of the middle-school team. The language arts teacher called all students “friends,” as in “Friends, turn in your homework here,” or “Friends, it’s getting loud,” and so on. It worked really well for her, so I gave it a spin. But here’s the problem: I was 23. These kids were 13. When I said “friends,” it had a really different connotation than when their language arts teacher (who was their parents’ age) said it. It didn’t work, because it wasn’t authentic to me. I didn’t need or want 13-year-old students to be my friends; I needed them to respect me as their teacher.

You need to start building classroom community from day one. If you look around in February and realize your class environment isn’t what you want, you’re going to have a difficult time building classroom community. Will it be impossible? No, but it will be much harder than if you had invested the time from day one. We reap what we sow, and if you put the time into building a classroom community, you will get benefits all year long.

Maybe you’re wondering, Why bother? Why would I take the time at the beginning of the year to build classroom community? The ultimate goal is to celebrate your individual students while creating a larger sense of community.

Here are a few reasons (but certainly not the only ones) this is a worthwhile goal.

  • When students feel comfortable, they engage more in learning.
  • Students who feel comfortable and safe in their classrooms are willing to take more risks. This creates a richer learning experience for everyone involved.
  • When you hit bumps in the road, a strong community gives you the leverage to address and solve problems.

It’s inevitable that during a school year something untoward will happen. It could be an injury to a student, a crisis in a student’s life, a larger issue within the school overall, or even something in your personal life that affects your professional life (a wedding, birth of a child, an illness). When it’s time to have difficult conversations, it’s much easier if you’ve spent the time building a classroom community. Your students will understand the severity and the tone; they’ll know how to ask questions; they’ll know how to participate in a difficult conversation.

Kids need a trusted adult in their corner. Children need an adult outside their family that they can trust, someone they know is on their side and there to support them. All kids deserve to have an adult in their corner who will go to bat for them.

Hopefully we’re on the same page now: Classroom community is great! It sounds amazing! But maybe you’re wondering, How do I get it? I’m going to share my favorite methods to build classroom community, noting what grade levels they fit best.

First six weeks (K–6)

Responsive Classroom’s book The First Six Weeks of School offers a strategy that can be helpful even if your school isn’t all in on the Responsive Classroom program. Your most important function during the first six weeks of school is to build classroom community and teach procedures or routines; everything else is secondary. It can be anxiety-inducing if you’re a little type A like me, but having used this method over several years, I can you that it makes total sense. Instead of trying to squeeze routines and procedures into the first six weeks and launch academics right away, the Center for Responsive Schools advises teachers to roll out routines and procedures slowly over the first six weeks of school. Essentially, the first two weeks of school are community-heavy, and the third and fourth weeks involve introducing some academics. By the fifth and sixth weeks, more academics transition in.

Morning Meeting (K–6)

Morning Meeting is my favorite tenet of Responsive Classroom, and it’s an amazing tool to build classroom community. In the interest of full disclosure, it will take a while to get through the meeting until you and your students get into the routine. There are four parts of a Morning Meeting: greeting, activity or game, morning message, and share.

Greeting: This involves the children greeting each other, usually while seated on the carpet. There are really basic greetings, such as a simple handshake, and elaborate greetings, such as Skip Greeting, which is where you pick a number and students skip that many students and greet the next (so if the number is three, you would greet the third student, not your neighbor). During the greeting, every student has someone say “Good morning” to them and make eye contact with them. Every day, you do a greeting, so each day children are being welcomed into the classroom.

Activity or game: It’s tempting to skip this — but don’t! When you play a game or do an activity, kids get to see a more lighthearted side of you. They also practice taking turns and (potentially) experience disappointment when the stakes are low. Some of my first-grade students’ favorite games were Skip and Coseeki (Follow the Leader).

Morning Message: This is a message (which can be interactive) that you write to your students. This is a great tool to practice shared reading; the gist should be a preview of the day. It doesn’t need to be long. Often when I was teaching, my morning message would read something like this: “Good morning, first-grade friends! Today is (date). _________ is the line leader, and _________ is the caboose. Today we will _________. (Following this, I would either share the weather, or something exciting we were doing that day.) Love, Mrs. Wilser.” In lower grades, you’re likely reading the message at the start of the year and transitioning responsibility as the year continues, whereas in upper grades students can probably read the morning message much earlier in the year.

Share: This is a little bit like show-and-tell, but without all the annoying parts. Students get one share day each week (I always made a schedule), and on their day they can share anything they want. They can take two questions from classmates about their share.

Bell Ringers and Morning Work (third grade plus)

There are a few ways you can use this to build classroom community. Some teachers use this more as a journal prompt, whereas others will pose a question to the class. For example, I’ve seen the prompt “choose a student’s name and write them a positive message” tied to a specific day, such as Motivation Monday or Thoughtful Thursday. This builds community because everyone receives a personal note from another student in the class. You can also pose questions for each student to answer, such as “What makes you feel loved?” (This obviously works best in upper-elementary and older classes where students can write clearly and independently.)

Compliment Circle (K–8)

A Compliment Circle sounds like what it is: a circle where everyone gets a compliment. Younger students initially would need sentence stems to be successful, and you’ll have to do some teaching around the question, “What is a compliment?” but everyone leaves the experience with a compliment.

Charts (K–8)

Charts are an effective way to ensure that everyone is on the same page and students know what the expectations are. For example, if you have a chart in your classroom with a picture of a student asking, “What is a friend?” you could point out ways to describe attributes of a friend, such as “ears that listen” and “mouths that use kind words.” For upper grades, you can use text-based charts so students always know the answer to “What does respect look like?” and so on.

Student Shout-Out Box (third grade plus)

This works best with students who are able to write clearly and independently. Keep scrap paper near the Shout-Out Box so students can write down positive praise for other students. Unlike the other ideas here, this is ongoing, not a one-time activity that everyone completes at the same time.

Classroom community isn’t built overnight. You have to nurture the community for the entire year, but the payoffs for establishing a classroom community far outweigh the time it takes to create.

Rachel Wilser has spent the better part of a decade in classrooms around the country — in private, public, charter, elementary, and middle schools. Now she chases twins and drinks coffee while planning her return to the classroom.

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