Cultivating a Group Identity: How do you do it & how does it pay off?

In addition to building strong relationships with your students, one way to build a strong culture where students work hard for and with each other, is by cultivating out a unique identity for your classroom.  If students feel connected not only to you, but to the whole class, it raises the ‘joy factor’ in your class, as our Teaching Excellence Program calls it, and makes students more invested in your class.  Having a strong group identity also raises the level of teamwork and cooperation that can happen as they all feel a connection with each other.  This can also apply to to the work place with teams and departments within your organization.  In many ways, creating a group identity is an organic process, but there are also specific ways you can intentionally cultivate it.

Create unique rituals.  A teacher I coached a couple of years ago gave me this idea.  When her students had a test, as they came through the door she had them jump up and slap the 100% sign hanging above the door.  It was fun and loosened the kids up for the test, but things like that were also a defining feature of her classroom that distinguished her class from the students’ other classes, in a good way.  Other ideas might be a special way you close out class each day, a secret class handshake, or a unique signal for showing appreciation of good ideas during class discussion.

Have a classroom mascot.  Many schools have a method for naming homerooms (often after colleges) that helps create identity.  Try taking that one step further.  If your class is the Eagles, for example, get a stuffed animal mascot to have in class that you can incorporate into the class culture.  A fellow teacher of mine was an LSU Tiger and she incorporated the mascot and that identity whenever possible.  When she needed the students to settle down, she didn’t ask for quiet, she asked them to ‘cage the tiger.’  It was fun and really made them all feel like they were Tigers instead of it just being their class name.

Encourage inside jokes.  This doesn’t seem like something you can do deliberately, but you’d be surprised how easily it can happen.  If you carve out time to occasionally share stories with your students and allow them to share, you’ll see that over time, certain classes will latch onto particular stories.  For example, if you tell an embarrassing story and can laugh at it with them, you’ll find that they bring it back up or tell others about it.  They turn into those ‘you had to be there’ moments that are unique to your class and help define your class identity.  

Create some healthy competition. The best kinds of competitions, I found, were not between my own classes, but between my classes and maybe the classes next door or in another grade level.  My first couple of years teaching, I was great friends with a teacher down the hall and so we had competitions whenever possible.  Sometimes they were academic and sometimes they were just silly.  And another year when our whole grade level had a specific way we greeted each other at the beginning of class, we would compete with our neighboring classes for who could shout it the loudest.  And one of my colleagues who taught 4th grade many years ago would always have his classes challenge the fifth graders to a big vocabulary challenge in the Spring.  It doesn’t really matter what it is, as long as it’s fun and as long as you find something each class can win at sometimes and rally around.

Point out each class’s unique qualities.  As you notice particular attributes or behaviors particular to certain classes, point those things out.  If one class always asks lots of questions, tell them that.  If one class always has jokes, let them know that’s something that sets them apart from other classes.  You can also celebrate the individual successes of each class during the year as a way to help define their identity.  The one trick to this is to make sure nothing is comparative in a way that makes anyone feel bad, since it is a form of labeling.  When done positively and in a genuine way, though, it is a positive way of building identity.

When your class feels bonded and has a unique identity, they are more invested in your class and each other.  While we’d love it to always happen naturally, deliberately cultivating an identity can encourage teamwork and a bond that pushes everyone forward together. 

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