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10 Tips for Creating a Student-Led Classroom

Alexis Simpson  |  August 06, 2021
A student-led classroom is exactly what it sounds like: student-led. It can change every year based on the students and their skills, personalities, and how they work together. The goal in a student-led classroom is self-advocacy where they motivate themselves to learn.

It may seem intimidating to start this type of classroom culture. It’s not a one-size-fits-all approach, but here are some tips to help you find what works with your students.
  1. Establish your classroom.
Each year start out by establishing yourself as a teacher and as a classroom. There has to be a sense of trust and communication between you and your students. Get to know your students and create an open dialogue about what they want their classroom to look and feel like. Let them have a say in the rules and the layout. Make sure students know your expectations and rules because there cannot be a student-led classroom where students are afraid talk for fear of being bullied.

As each year will look different, you can’t focus on perfection. Something that works one year might not work the next. Be open to flexibility. Get creative. Establish communication and what kids want.
  1. Figure out what they want.
You can ask them in a straightforward way. Ask what would help them learn or how they best learn. Do they need to be up and moving around? Are they fidgeters? Do they like to listen to music when they work? One year I had a space where students could work with music. There was also a spot to work in groups. It’s all about asking them as a collective unit, maybe through a survey or even just through open dialogue. Depending on how they work best, they might like a room that is set up in a way that encourages partner work or is more conducive to group discussions.
  1. Set boundaries.
This is huge. Be clear about what you expect from your students. Don’t leave expectations unsaid – how are they supposed to know what you want from them if you’re not up front about it?
  1. Make students feel heard.
Create an environment where your students feel comfortable and where their voices are heard. Be open and ready for dialogue when it starts. Listen when they open up. If they tell you honestly how they work best, try it out if it’s reasonable. Make sure they know you take their ideas seriously.
  1. Establish class leaders.
Student leaders are kids who model the culture you want in your classroom and have a good attitude. Other students will look to them to set the tone in the classroom. At the end of the day, you’re trying to build a student-led environment, not a straight A environment. Involving all levels of students is important so all students can relate.

As you create the road for your student-led classroom, you first have to pave it right. The fastest way to do this and find your leaders is to look for easy indicators, like someone who is willing to raise their hand. Start thanking and rewarding them for participation, even if they had the wrong answer. Tell them you appreciate them sharing their ideas. More students will start to be willing to get out a little bit more, and from there, you keep an eye on active participators.

What groups do they put themselves in for group work? Which students can corral the whole class? Which students might be quiet but are also role models? Who you choose will evolve over time. Look for students who can model what you want in their classroom.
  1. Be open to feedback.
Sometimes I get feedback and have group discussions that blow me away. Students have perspectives that we as teachers don’t always have. Even something as small as putting something up on the board after student feedback creates better classroom relationships where kids will be open with you.
  1. Hand over the reins.
It can sound scary to give up some of your control as a teacher and turn over some of the responsibility to your students for the first time. You might think that you gain more when you’re controlling, but you’re losing more. You’re working harder, not smarter. In a student-led classroom, students don’t make all the decisions, only some. Empower your students to make decisions.

I view myself as a supervisor. A supervisor should be able to trust that things will still run the right way in their absence, but they still need to be there for certain things. While my students don’t need me all the time, they do need me to facilitate that environment for them.
  1. Measure the impact.
You can measure the impact a student-led environment has on your classroom in ways that mean the most to you and your students, but I look at it through analyzing how their writing has improved, if they’re consistently participating and working in class, and how they perform on assessments. Are their interims going up? Are their quiz scores improving? Are they critically thinking?
  1. Hold student-led conferences.
I wish I would have started doing this sooner. You can do it every couple of weeks or when you have a new unit. Sit down with students and look at objectives that you have in a unit and share your biggest assignments that are included in the unit. Help your students create goals, keeping in mind their academic success in prior years. What do they want to get better at? Where do they want to be? How do they best learn? Maybe they can’t sit by a window because they’re easily distracted. Or they need to sit in the front row to see the board better. Once you understand that, ask questions to get to know them better. When you understand them as people, you can start facilitating a student-led classroom where they feel valued.

Purposely plan your conferences around the times when your students are doing independent or partner work. The meetings don’t have to be long, maybe 10 minutes. You can do it right outside the door in the hallway with the door cracked. If you’ve set up an environment where kids know they need to stay on task, they will. Give yourself grace if you’re a new teacher or doing this for the first time, because it’s not going to go the way you planned right away. They might get rowdy the first few times and you just have to remind them that you expect more of them by using empowering words.
  1. Implement findings.
If you hear a similar sentiment in your student-led conferences from more than one individual, bring it up in class. Don’t say names, just mention that this is what some kids want. Bring up different opinions of what other kids have said, too. You’ll see students start talking because they realize they’re not alone in how they feel. When you see common themes, try implementing the ideas.

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