How a Caring Classroom Community Led to Unmatched Engagement

By: | 07/15/2021
Categories: Instruction, Distance Learning, Leadership

Upward Elementary School, part of North Carolina’s Henderson County Public Schools, experienced a 2020–2021 school year that took a variety of forms with the learning environment shifting several times. Students began the year fully remote, transitioning to various hybrid models for several months. Finally, in late February, students returned to in-person schooling—except for a few learners who chose to remain remote.

Despite the apparent challenges of these shifts and fluctuations, educators at Upward Elementary School sustained student engagement and supported ongoing achievement. Marcie Burlett, a Grade 4 teacher at the school, is a shining example of the growth students can maintain when they’re enrolled in a caring classroom with a solid sense of community. Throughout the year, Burlett kept each of her students engaged in their learning. She fostered a classroom culture in which her learners supported one another and wanted to participate in their class assignments not only because they understood the importance of the skills they were learning, but also because they each saw themselves as contributors to the group’s success. By the end of the year, her students experienced standout academic and social-emotional successes.

Creating a Caring Community

Throughout the year, whether the class was fully remote or part of a hybrid setup, Burlett had students work on assignments while connected to an online video platform. She allowed them to turn off their cameras while they worked, but she required them to stay connected, which gave her the opportunity to support and encourage them in real time. Even better, students vocally supported one another. “They would all encourage each other,” says Burlett. “They’d say, ‘Come on, you can do it.’ One student’s mother told me this was the first year when he felt like every one of his classmates liked him, and that really encouraged me to keep building that positive classroom community.”

From the start, Burlett was proactive in her communication with families, ensuring they understood what was happening in class and could support their students in completing assignments. When a student was struggling to complete the work, she helped them understand the importance of sticking with it by explaining how the skills they learned would be beneficial in the future. Without exception, this paid off by getting students to re-engage with their work.

“What I’ve observed that’s so powerful is Ms. Burlett’s relationship with the kids,” adds Becky Wuerzer, an instructional coach in the district who works with Burlett’s class. “The freedom she gave me as another educator coming from outside the classroom to come in and celebrate with them and the respect she gave me as an instructional coach really helped the kids respond to me as well. And then, as a group, we could all celebrate their learning, be proud of what they accomplished, and motivate them to keep up the good work.”

When the class was scheduled for a pizza party celebration in February, Burlett really demonstrated her commitment to going above and beyond to build the classroom community. By this point, most students were back in person full time, but six students were still remote. Burlett took pizza to the houses of the students who were remote to make sure they were included in the celebration. She continued throughout the second half of the year, as the class worked on activities such as creating picture frames or other fun activities. She would meet the remote students outside their homes (practicing safe social distancing), or families would come to the school parking lot to pick up supplies. Whatever the case, Burlett ensured no student was left out.

Well-Rounded Results

Because of the community feeling in the classroom, students didn’t view their participation and achievement as strictly individual―each student wanted to fulfill their part of the overall classroom success. One of the results was a rare and impressive accomplishment: 100 percent of students in the class completed their i-Ready assignments every week of the school year. It’s not unheard of for an entire class to complete their 45 minutes of i-Ready instructional time in a given week, but for every student to complete their assignments every week of the year is truly noteworthy. Burlett attributes this to the support students provided one another as well as the excitement she exhibited for their progress. “I got excited with them, and when they were virtual, I really got the [families] involved,” she says. “And when they saw I was excited, their excitement increased as well. This was true for both students and [families].”

Burlett describes i-Ready’s personalized learning capabilities as a key factor in facilitating this success. “i-Ready was one thing we could all do, and it was on their level," she says. "I think that’s what helped the most. I had some students on a Grade 1 level and then others on a Grade 6 level. They didn’t know what level each of their classmates was on, but they were all feeling successful.”

The community feeling also helped students stick with their work despite the challenges so many faced during the pandemic. Some had to travel out of state to visit sick family members, for example, and they took their Chromebooks™ and continued to complete their assignments. They were motivated by knowing their work would contribute to the success of the class, and when they returned to school, they would see it represented as part of the overall classroom progress. Throughout this time, Burlett made herself available to meet with them virtually and help with their schoolwork.

“This was a special group,” says Burlett. “They were amazing, and their [families] were very supportive and always texting me about their progress. The students also text me, especially now with the school year over, to share how much they miss being in class. I’ve never had a problem sharing my personal cell phone number because I think it’s just so important to have that bond with your students and families.”

Some of the students even asked to be kept together so they’d all be classmates again in Grade 5. “One of them said, ‘Can you just be like the president, and we have you for four years?’,” says Burlett.

“I’m excited about next year to see what this momentum is going to do,” says Wuerzer. The students will have different teachers, she notes, but now they’ve learned how to be self-motivated to continue their learning progress. Perhaps they’ll even motivate their new classmates, expanding success across the school.

As students head into Grade 5, they’ll enter their final year at Upward Elementary School with a new perspective on school. With the classroom community they’ve built this year and the excitement generated around their learning, students are now able to express their appreciation of education.

“One little boy said, ‘I have always said I hated school, but I really didn’t. I’ll never say that again,’” adds Burlett.

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