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Why I Create a Class Motto

Why do I spend several lessons during my first weeks of school creating a class motto? There’s so much to do. Students need to learn rules, routines, and procedures. There’s the beginning of the year assessments. And the curriculum isn’t waiting. Still, despite these many pressures, I find it worthwhile to take two or three lessons to create a class motto.
After my fourth year of teaching, I was privileged to attend the Harvard Graduate School of Education. One of the classes that had the most lasting impact on me was called Leadership, Entrepreneurship, and Learning (This isn’t the first time I’ve mentioned the course). Perhaps the biggest takeaway from that class was the importance of organizational culture. High-performing organizations and teams require a positive culture that blends a commitment to excellence with trust and psychological safety.
The following year, I struggled in a role as a manager for an extended learning time program at a middle school. While managing adults is a challenge all by itself, what made it even harder was the toxic culture that manifested in our team. When I left the job and returned to teaching, the importance of organizational culture was more clear than ever. Over the past four years back in the classroom, I have made creating a positive classroom culture by number one priority.
One way I create a class culture is by viewing my classroom as my own organization. This means crafting a vision for my classroom and the school year ahead. Secondly, I work to center my classroom around community building versus classroom management. We discuss and explain practically every protocol and procedure we use in the classroom. So, the end result may look just as disciplined as some traditional classrooms, but my students know the rationale behind everything we do. This respects their intelligence and increases their investment. Similarly, instead of dictating a pre-written set of rules, I spend time with students crafting the classroom rules based on their hopes and dreams, a strategy I use from Responsive Classroom’s First Six Weeks of School.
Creating a class motto is another small, but vital piece of puzzle. When we create our rules, routines, and procedures we are creating our way of doing things for the year. But creating a class motto is a different way of saying we are a distinct, special community.
First, I teach my students what a motto is. To help them, I used slogans as an analogy so we talked about McDonald’s “I’m lovin’ it” and Nike’s “Just do it.” Then I ask them to brainstorm their own ideas for mottos. Many of them share common phrases such as, “There’s no I in team.” One student proffered on of John Cena’s catchphrases, “Hustle, loyalty, respect.” I don’t bug them about being original, so long as they are passionate about the words they choose.
Once we have a solid list of ideas, I ask them to make an argument for their favorite motto. Taking the time to reflect on their chosen motto, and make a case for it, is a valuable academic and social-emotional exercise. Then every student is invited to state their case to the class. Once all students have made their argument, we hold a vote.
In this way, we are selecting a motto that will bond us together. Click To Tweet
In this way, we are selecting a motto that will bond us together. But we are also using a democratic process which serves the same process. When we are done we have a motto that we will use to end each day. I also refer to the motto, again and again, to reinforce positive norms or address inappropriate behavior.
Two years ago my third graders selected the motto, “Practice makes perfect.” I used this motto to encourage a growth mindset. Whether we were working on multiplication fluency or revising reading projects, “Practice makes perfect” framed our work.
Last year, our motto was, “Teamwork makes the dream work.” It was an invaluable motto as we dealt with conflict between classmates or discussed how to work in math groups.
This year we’re still in the process of choosing our class motto. But I can’t wait to find out what the kids decide. I know no matter what motto we choose, a class motto will bring our community closer together, and provide a foundation for the work we do throughout this year.

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