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  • Writer's pictureKevin Butler

Making Memories & Building Bonds (Classroom Culture)

Updated: Feb 16, 2020

Hey there, WELCOME to the newest posting of Lights, Cameras, TEACH. I believe that just like an action-packed movie, a successful classroom needs a good director. Each blog post will share ideas about why I think it is essential to keep kids engaged in active learning and how to make the classroom a place where kids want to be.

So far, I have written about my first teaching of non-negotiable active learning. In this post, I am going to focus on my second non-negotiable, making memories and building bonds. I think teachers must take the time to get to know their students outside the content we teach. Not only does this help build relationships, but without a doubt, it allows students to grow academically.

I've been asked time and time again about how I get kids who were struggling either academically or behaviorally in previous grades excel in my class. While there is no one answer, I think one of the main ingredients is the strong bonds I try to build with my class. I believe that the majority of my students enjoy being in my class. When students like school, they begin to trust and respect you. That's the hard part. After you've earned their trust and respect the rest is easy.

I hate to surprise anyone, but kids are perceptive. While at the moment they may enjoy a teacher who shows movies, gives extra recess, or allows them to have free time, there's no relationship-building in those activities. Twenty years later, no one looks back and says the teacher who sat at their desk and showed a movie or allowed them to have recess all day made a difference in their lives. Kids are going to recall that the teachers who made a difference were the ones who pushed them outside of their comfort zone, who took the time to make memories and build bonds with them.

When I taught in New York, once the spring weather would arrive, I would take my students outside and play kickball games with them. Students knew that to earn that extra 15 or 20 minutes, they would need to work twice as hard. The kids loved that I played with them. We were all vested towards a common goal of having fun. Yes, it's okay to have fun with your students, but I believe there is a fine line between fun and too much fun.

Just a few years ago, I had a student tell me that I know the exact combination of making school fun, being strict, and teaching kids everything they need to know. I laughed and asked her to explain. She told me she once had a teacher who just wanted to joke all day and have fun. While this student admitted school was fun, she said she never learned anything. She continued to tell me she has had teachers that only wanted to teach all day and never have fun, which made school boring.

So how do I walk that fine line? I think it all goes back to the time I take to build bonds with students. Students know I am foremost their teacher, a figure of authority, but they also know that I care about them and consider myself their friend. In seventeen years in the classroom, I've never yelled a student. All I need to do is put a slight change in the tone of my voice or raise an eyebrow.

I'm tough on my students but understand that I can only be tough with them if we have that mutual level of trust and respect. They are aware of the high standards I hold them to and that I don't accept excuses. I spend a lot of time teaching them to be proactive and to self-advocate for themselves. They know I am there to help them and will do whatever it takes to get them to where they need to go. As tough as I am, I'm also fair. I believe that "one size fit's all" does not work in any area of education.

Lots of what I do to build bonds with my students is rather simple. For example, I stand outside my classroom door every morning and greet my students with a verbal good morning and a high-five or fist pump. I also eat lunch with my students two to three times a week. It's a great way to see them in social settings and to keep up with what interests them. Sometimes, I sit and observe the different social groups that form during lunch. It can be both fascinating and telling to watch them in their natural habitat.

Another thing I think my students appreciate is that I give them honest feedback. I have visited classrooms after a student gives a presentation or shares a project, and all the teacher does is give the student positive feedback and tell the student how wonderful he or she is. While we all may like compliments, it's so important (as teachers) for us not to give only positive comments, but we must give a balance of compliments and constructive feedback to students.

Overly praising students may be one of my biggest pet peeves and what I consider to be a poor management practice. Kids not only need to get constructive feedback, but they also deserve it. No matter what journey they take when they leave your classroom, communication skills will be essential to their success. I'm a firm believer that being (age-appropriate) honest with students helps build trust and respect.

The school that I work out has put a lot of time and intentional practice in teaching kids about constructive feedback. In just over a year we've seen such growth in kids presentation skills and overall confidence. Kindergartens greet visitors to their classroom without needing to be prompted. Our older students become campus ambassadors a title that comes with an array of responsibilities including making announcements at our all-school assemblies, speaking over the loudspeaker, giving campus tours, and are campus-wide greeters. It's truly impressive!

My students also know I love my job. I tell them all about how, when I was their age, all I wanted to do was to become a teacher. I joke with them that I've been in fifth grade for 17 years, and maybe one day, I will make it to sixth grade. They know that because of them, I have the best job in the world. America needs a better system to get (and keep) great teachers in the classroom and get the bad teachers out.

I have found that I (as a teacher) can do so much more with kids when they trust me. One of the things I have always kept sacred is my morning meetings. Morning meetings aren't just for primary students. Some of the best morning meetings (aka class meetings) took place in middle and high school classrooms. While the format of my morning meetings has changed, the concept has stayed the same. It's a sacred time to begin each day together as a classroom community.

Each of my students has a morning journal. Every morning, when students enter my classroom, the first thing they do is take out their journal and answer the two questions on the board. The first question is always the same: "How are you feeling today, and why?" The second question varies from "Would you rather eat pizza for a year or live without electricity for a month?" and "If you had 1,000 dollars to give away, who would you give it to, and why?"

After ten minutes into the day, students (at random) share their journal responses to the class. During our morning meeting, I also read to my class every day. On average, we read one picture book a day. Check out my book list on to see some of my favorites. Year after year, students will tell me how much they loved and miss that part of school.

If there is one thing I could get every teacher to do each day, it would be to read aloud to their class every day for pleasure. The amount of research that backs the importance of reading aloud to children is hard to argue. Now, I must stress, I do not mean that a teacher should replace intentional, skill-based reading instruction to students sitting at their desks "listening" to the teacher read away. I cringe when I enter a classroom and see 25 students sitting at their desks, pretending to follow along with the reading of what the teacher thinks is the world's best book. Reading to kids for pleasure is magical. My friend Courtney Henshaw's blog is a great resource to find books to read to your class.

Most recently, I've turned my morning meetings into what I call the Morning Cohost Show. Each day I pick a different student to be my cohost and help run our morning meeting. The cohost gets to practice their presentation and soft skills. As in the first 10 minutes of Live with Kelly and Ryan, we begin talking about what we did after school and the previous night. I may talk about where I dined for dinner, and my students may share about sports practice or dance lessons. We also share our responses to the question of the day.

The cohost will then choose students (at random) to share their journal responses. When seven or eight students share, the cohost and I will usually play a game or do a class giveaway. The game may be a round of Name that Tune, a Minute-To-Win-It match, or something you would see on the Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon or the Ellen DeGeneres Show. Kids love being the cohost. It is probably my favorite 12 minutes of the school day. We've gotten so good at them that I think we could sell tickets and have a live audience. See my Instagram page for photos and video clips of the Morning Show in action.

Reflection Questions:

1) In what ways do you make memories and build bonds with your students?

2) How would your students describe you? Too fun, too strict, or just right?

3) How do you keep a balance between praise and giving constructive feedback to your students?

4) Do you read to your class for pleasure? If not, is there a way to fit it into your routine?

5) What classroom rituals or routines do you have that help build community?

On episode five of my Lights, Cameras, TEACH podcast, I interview two of my former students who were in both my 4th and 5th-grade classes. I ask them about what they remember about our classroom community and the importance of making memories and building bonds. Listen to the episode anywhere you listen to your favorite podcasts.

Building relationships doesn't always happen within the school day. Next week, I will write about some of the activities I do outside of the classroom to create memories and build bonds.

Until next time, thanks for reading!

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