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The Role of Routines in Establishing Classroom Culture: A Deeper Look

Establishing clear and solid routines is essential for a well-functioning classroom. However, routines often end up controlling behavior as opposed to building culture, and managing conduct rather than forming character.

However, when routines have precision, purpose, and Godly intention, they become the foundation for deeper learning. They go beyond control and management and help build Christian community in the classroom and form the character of Christ in our students.

Values Are Embedded in Routines

What you value, you create structures to support. You create routines to bring comfort, security, and joy. Your values are transmitted to your students via routines. For example, let’s look at two different routines for tardy students. When someone is tardy in class A, the teacher has a routine that the student place a late pass on the teacher’s desk and quietly goes to her seat, gets out the necessary texts and materials. In classroom B, the tardy student brings the late pass to the teacher, regardless of what the teacher is doing, the student is asked where he was and why he is late. After the student responds, he is sent to his seat. It’s not that one routine is better than the other. Each illustrates what the teacher values most. Teacher A believes that if kids are late, they need to get directly into the lesson without interrupting others. Teacher B believes that if kids are late, they are showing disrespect for the other students and the lesson. They need to understand that tardiness has bigger implications than simply being late. Again, both routines have merit. The teacher communicates what she values through the routines she establishes. The behaviors and ideas that are deemed important by the teacher, such as prayer, kind words, memorizing Scripture, and using the Bible to test assumptions, are impressed on the kids through routines.

Nine Routines to Shape Culture in Your Classroom

There are nine dimensions of a typical classroom day that offer the opportunity to establish routines that embody Christian values in a way deeper than cognition in the actual experience of living together in school.


How it represents the Christian community?

What it might look like

Entering the classroom

Just as God our Father invites us into His Kingdom, you are inviting students into your classroom. This is your opportunity to shape their view of the class, the classroom, you the teacher, and themselves in relation to the class. Students feel welcomed, wanted. They are important to you; they belong.

Greet students at the door or as they walk in.

There is work on the board for them to do such as fixing grammar mistakes in a sentence or figuring out math problems or answering a history question. It could also be a reflection prompt, such as, "What is the most important thing you remember from yesterday’s lesson?". This work, called bellwork, is intended primarily to activate thinking as they transition from the hallway into the classroom. Students finish their conversations from the hallway or previous class while they begin the bellwork. After a time (e.g., 2 minutes after the bell has rung), the class may discuss the bellwork briefly, and then begin the day’s lesson, often with prayer.

Exiting the classroom

You are sending them back out into the world (or the next class). They are sent, not simply allowed to leave. It's like the old adage of teachers everywhere: I release you, not the bell. As God releases us and sends us into the world, we, too, as teachers, send our students into the world or, at least, into the school. They must feel that the class was worthy of their time and energy. They must be prepared and ready to independently represent the school’s values as they leave the room.

Conclude the lesson with a formative assessment such as an exit slip in which you ask a few simple questions related to the lesson.

You could summarize the lesson either with a 30-second review or engage students to provide summaries of the lesson.

The sending out (i.e., exiting the classroom) can be a social reconnection with you, the teacher. As they leave they give a high five, handshake, nod, or farewell salutation.

Asking for help

The culture in the classroom must encourage independence simultaneously with humility. Asking for help, receiving instruction, and knowing when to seek assistance are key to life-long learning. There are time to learn independently (see below) and times to seek support. The culture must support seeking and searching much like we do as Christ followers: we seek that which is lost, we search for answers to things we don’t know. It is an act of humility to ask for help.

The classic form of asking for help is raising one’s hand.

One teacher had a flag on the students’ desks. When the student needed help, he would raise the flag.

Similarly, a teacher had a small 2-inch square card on each student’s desk. One side was red, the other green. When the student needed help, she turned the card to red.

Working independently (seat work)

There is a time to independently learn. Personal growth does not come without struggle. This is a hugely important characteristic for students to learn. It is critical that kids learn to work a problem, wrestle with concepts, and grapple with the material.

Working alone is akin to prayer time or devotional time. The Holy Spirit is not far away but close and working in us even though we might not feel His presence. Independent work provides the teacher with an opportunity simply to be present and available (rather than grading papers or checking emails).

There are two types of independent work: quiet and not quiet.

In either type, the teacher circulates around the room, engaging with students, helping them stay on task, and more importantly to see if they need help or prompting.

Working in small groups

Christian community requires collaboration. For many students, when they hear “collaboration” it means working near each other, like kindergartners in the sandbox “sharing” toys. Collaboration means to co-labor together with a single goal in mind. The students in small groups have a mission to accomplish. If the work has been designed well, the collaboration is necessary to complete the goal. God asks His children to co-labor with Himself and with each other to accomplish His work on earth.

To collaborate is more than having a defined role or position. It is knowing the overall goal, knowing one’s function in the group, and knowing how best to assist others. If there is confusion about one of these three, then it is incumbent upon the small group member to seek clarification. Far too many Christians work in isolation even within a group, like members of a church who attend on Sundays and think that’s it. Young Christ followers need to know what the overall goal of our faith is, what their function is (i.e., calling), and how to work with others to accomplish what God has called them to.

There are certain phrases and words that accompany collaboration such as “I like your idea” or “yeah, let’s try Jim’s way” or “what do you guys think?”. These are called frames. Supply students with the frames of collaboration. Literally, post the frames on the wall and teach students what it means - looks like, sounds like - to collaborate.

The best small group sizes are pairs, triads, or quads. The task must be clear with a defined completion artifact.

The teacher circulates, offering assistance, prompting, guidance, etc. At times, it may be important to adjust behaviors in a group.

Questions the teacher needs to answer:

1. What is the end goal (i.e., artifact) for the period of time (e.g., 40 minutes)?

2. Is the group work to be done over multiple classes?

3. Are there defined roles for each member of the group?

4. Where do the groups meet (at tables in the room, in the library, in the class at their desks moved together, etc.)?

5. If there is movement (of desks or to the library) when does clean-up need to begin so there is enough time to close the class and allow students time to gather their things for the next class?

Working in large groups (e.g., whole class)

Corporate learning, or whole group instruction, is a normal aspect of life and church. How does one act when in a large group setting? These behaviors must be taught.

Responding to questions in a group setting is humbling because there is the chance of being incorrect in front of peers. Responding to the teacher, and to God, takes risk and without risk-taking there tends to be stagnation instead of growth. Thus, teaching students to take risks in responding in class imitates their response to God in life.

Using a randomizer to randomly select students to respond to questions or prompts creates an environment of learning where everyone is expected to respond and take risks. The randomizer becomes the bad guy, not the teacher (kids can’t complain of a teacher picking on him/her). The randomizer also keeps kids alert and focused.

Popcorn answers in which kids blurt out responses works well when you want a quick discussion or rapid-fire answers, but the disadvantage is that the quiet kids or ones who need to process before speaking or the students who want to hide, tend to become passive observers (some happily so).

Leaving the room (e.g., bathroom, office, nurse)

Even the routine for leaving the room has spiritual implications. How do I take care of my own needs without disturbing others? How do I “break” the established routines on class when I need to leave the room?

When students need to use the bathroom, a simple pass, one for boys and one for girls, is effective. He or she gets up, grabs the pass, and leaves the room. Keeping the passes where the teacher can see them helps the teacher know when someone is out or not. There could be other passes, too, such as “office” which would encompass going to the nurse.

Another routine is a notebook on a table by the door. The notebook is for kids signing in and out. The key is to teach the routine (e.g., write your name, the date, reason for leaving, time leaving, time returning).

The teacher then can track who has left the room, how many times, where each student went, etc. If there is a trend (e.g., student leaves same time frequently), the teacher can talk with the student.

Arriving tardy

Punctuality is important in any setting. It is valued in some countries more than others, but being on time is valued nonetheless. Punctuality is a sign of respect. It shows that you care about other people and that recognize their value as equal to or more than your own. It says, “Your time is valuable to me.” It displays a sense of importance. However, there are times when a person is late for a variety of reasons.

Tardiness requires a sense of humility, stating to oneself that “I was late when I was expected to be on time.” Regardless of the reason for the tardiness, the student who is late must recognize that an expectation has been broken and needs to be repaired. Humility and honor are the tools to repair. Teaching humility and honor when a student is late imitates repentance and, thus, should not be taken lightly.

When students enter the room late, they can place the pass (if they have one) on the teacher’s desk or other location and get to their seat. After class or during an appropriate time during the class, the teacher can speak directly to the student to know the reason for the tardiness and if any consequences need to be meted out.

One routine I found to be effective was to have a notebook on a desk near the door. The notebook was opened to a page that had the day and date written. When a student arrived late, he/she placed the pass in the basket near the notebook and entered his/her name, time arrived, and brief reason. Then, the student went to his/her seat while I greeted him/her. Depending on the countenance of the student when he/she entered, I will either make a general greeting with humor (e.g., student is just late, no good reason) or give a hearty greeting and talk to him/her later privately (e.g., student was late due to a near car accident, so student is shaken).

Handing in work

The routine for handing in work is more practical than spiritual, although it does reflect Christian community in that it has to do with respect and order. A routine for handing in work saves time for important learning and work together.

A typical routine for handing in work is to have labeled baskets or containers for different classes or subjects. [Disposable aluminum lasagna pans are perfect size and shape for papers.]

When students finish the work, they place homework, classwork, etc. in the container for their class or for the subject. Or, students wait until the teacher says to hand it in.

Some teachers have Paper Collector as a classroom job that a student does.


Routines are powerful ways to shape a classroom’s learning environment. Having routines is like having multiple aides in the room gently guiding students to act in particular Christ-like ways. Routines empower teachers and students to practice observing the fruits of the spirit – patience, faithfulness, self-control, peace, etc. They help form the habits of learning and living together in Christian community.

Join me at CDL 6 and come to my workshop session, esp ecially if you are a new teacher, to further explore how the establishment of strong routines will equip you for deeper learning in your classroom.


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