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The Importance of Positive Classroom Culture in High School Math Classrooms

Getting to know you. Some us might starting singing that famous song from The King and I. Some of us might roll our eyes. Some of us might think of awkward ice breaker games we’ve inevitably played over the years. But what does getting to know you have to do with our title, The Importance of Positive Classroom Culture in High School Math Classrooms?

The answer: everything! As a new school year dawns, teachers are busy prepping, planning, and goal setting for the year ahead. We all want our students to reach new heights in their mathematical content knowledge and to love being in our classrooms. Blogger Steve Schertzer defines classroom culture as, "instilling certain universal values and behavioral expectations in your students to promote their well-being, facilitate learning, and to ensure any future success they may have.” So what is positive classroom culture? It’s when all of those aspects of classroom culture are moving in a positive direction for students.

So how do we get it, how do we build a positive classroom culture? Let’s look at what research says about three characteristics of a positive classroom culture which are imperative for a high school math class: student engagement, cooperative learning, and asking for help.

Student Engagement

Does anyone else have students in their classroom who seem disengaged? Does anyone else have students who struggle to learn mathematics? I’m going to go out on a limb and say I’m not the only one. In his Perspective Brief for American Institutes for Research, part of the Promoting Student Success in Algebra I (PSSA) project, Nicholas Sorensen, Ph.D writes, “Both district math leaders and algebra teachers emphasized that teachers need to build relationships with struggling students to be able to motivate and engage them in course content.” Education World blogger, Emma McDonald, adds, “Building positive relationships with your students is the number one way to forestall any behavior problems that can arise in the classroom. The more students know and respect you, the more they will behave for you in the classroom.” Is engaging the struggling math learner a goal for you this year? Building relationships might be that missing key.

Cooperative Learning

Many of our administrators want it, many teachers want it too, but how do we encourage our students to truly learn and work cooperatively in class? In her journal article titled, How Do I Get My Students To Work Together? Getting Cooperative Learning Started in Chemistry, Marcy Hamby Towns found, “students who build supportive committed relationships with each other become more committed to the course, more committed to each other, and more willing to take on tough tasks because they expect to succeed.” Is cooperative learning a goal of yours? Encouraging your students to build supportive committed relationships is an important first step.

Asking for Help

As math teachers, we are constantly being bombarded with “Miss!” or “Mister! Come help!” Sometimes it’s, “am I right?” or “check my work.” How do we get students to ask each other for help instead of rushing to us? Ryan, Gheen, & Midgley found that, “when [students were] presented with vignettes of both academic and nonacademic problems, [they] reported familiarity and friendship were important factors in whom they would ask for help.” Additionally, it’s not just about peer to peer relationships, the teacher-student relationship is an important dynamic too. Another finding from the same study reveals, “when students perceived mutual affection with the teacher, they were more likely to report that they asked for help in the classroom.” If we want students to feel comfortable asking each other for help, they need to get to know each other and get to know us.

Moving Forward

The research is clear, in order to create a positive classroom culture, one that fosters engagement, cooperative learning, and feeling comfortable asking for help, we must build relationships with our students and amongst our students. We must get to know them and they must get to know each other. But how, how do we build those relationships? As high school teachers maybe we’ve thought: Aren’t most “culture building activities” a bit elementary? Or, how will my high school students react to “getting to know you” games? I can tell you from experience, high schoolers love it! One of my go-to first week activities - for high schoolers - is called The Great Wall Of Inspiration. Continue reading, or download it from our free resources section.

Of course we’ve only just scratched the surface for defining positive classroom culture and achieving it in our classrooms in this post. There are countless other resources and ways to define your own positive classroom culture. We hope you feel inspired to create your own vision of what positive classroom culture means to you and your students this year.

Want more resources? We’d love to work with you. Contact us today!


Great Wall of Inspiration | Classroom Culture Building Activity

Purpose: Teacher gets to know students and understand what motivates them. Students get to know each other.

Materials: Index cards or index card sized pieces of scratch paper (even better if it’s colored)


1. Display the following prompt as a ‘Do Now’ as your students enter: What inspires you to come to school each day? Is it a person? Your parents or a brother/sister? Is it a potential job? (40 words minimum)

2. After the ‘Do Now’ is complete, display the following for students: Using your Do Now as a rough draft, choose one: one person or one reason that MOST inspires you to come to school and write a final draft (25 word minimum) on the paper I hand to you. Then sign and date your paper. Display the following sentence stems for students if needed:

3. Pass out the index card sized papers to students

4. Allow time to finish

5. If your classroom is set up in partners, have them pair-share. If your classroom is set up groups, have each group member share one at a time

6. Bring the class back together and ask for a few (3-8) students to share with the whole class

7.After class, put them up on the classroom wall to form your class ‘Wall of Inspiration’

8. Keep up your ‘wall’ all year and revisit it when students are losing motivation!

Time Estimate

  • Do Now: 5 min

  • Final draft: 3 min

  • Pair-share or group-share: 2-4 min

  • Class share: 3 min

  • Total time: 10 - 15 min


McDonald, Emma. (2012). The Secret Weapon: Getting to Know Your Students. Retrieved from:

Ryan, Gheen, & Midgley. (1998) Why Do Some Students Avoid Asking for Help? An Examination of the Interplay among Students' Academic Efficacy, Teachers' Social-Emotional Role, and the Classroom Goal Structure. Journal of Educational Psychology, 90(3). 528-535.

Schertzer, S. (August 31, 2007). Creating classroom culture. Retrieved from:

Sorensen, N. (2016, September). Supplementary Supports for Struggling Algebra I Students (American Institutes for Research, Perspective Brief). Retrieved from:

Towns, M H. (1998). How Do I Get My Students To Work Together? Getting Cooperative Learning Started in Chemistry. Journal of Chemical Education, 75(1).

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