Building Community in the Classroom with Adela Chumillas


Building community in the classroom is rewarding for both you and your students. It is, however, difficult to do. Every class, no matter the subject, is different because it’s made up of different young individuals interacting together at different times of the day, week, and year. Your classes as a native teacher go beyond the usual “different” because you will prepare different activities in a different language. Here are five challenges you will face specifically as a native teacher, alongside some simple solutions for each:

  1. Only seeing a class a once or twice a week: they will be excited to see you, will not be used to your rules, and you will not get to know them quickly. In order to counteract these difficulties, memorize names (take home the roster with names and photos), interact with students outside of class, plan classes in advance, and link classes together (Remember what we did last week, guys?” “Next week bring materials for…”).
  2. Language barrier: they don’t understand a lot of what you say. Be expressive with your face and body, write EVERYTHING on the board, and adapt your language (use simple syntax, avoid using too many phrasal verbs and expressions, unless they are learning them). These take practice, but you will learn.
  3. School culture: you will probably see behavior that would mean suspension in your home country. Foul language is one example, constant talking is another. Students are not necessarily accustomed to alternative activities (e.g. not grammar and not sitting in their seats the entire class), and this is one of the reasons your classes are extra fun (and difficult for you and the teacher). You and your class are an anomaly. Additionally, students are at school longer than they are in the US. Keep this in mind for your afternoon classes. They will probably be tired and loud. For any of these issues, talk to the supervising teacher and coordinator if you have any doubts.
  4. Not knowing school rules yourself: unless you ask, nobody’s going to explain the rules in detail. This is easy to fix. Ask and learn the school-wide rules for behavior. Students will try to take advantage of you if they see you are unsure about them.
  5. That supervising teacher who doesn’t follow school rules or discipline the class: talk to him or her and communicate the difficulties you are having. If that doesn’t work, talk to your coordinator. This can be a difficult situation to navigate. Be diplomatic, professional, and resilient.

Due to these challenges, building community is even more difficult than it might be in other classes. In order to create community, you will first want to build a foundation, and that foundation is usually made up of rules that everyone follows. They are kids, after all, and everyone will try to test the limits in his or her own special —albeit at times charming or cute— way. It’s normal. To that end, before discussing community and proceeding to the interview with Adela, I’ll give you a few pointers about “laying down the ground rules.” These so-called ground rules need not be detailed or numerous (3 rules is enough), but they should be clear, they should coincide with school rules, and they should be communicated to students as early as possible.

  1. Make special rules for your native teacher class. Talk with your supervising teacher beforehand so that he or she can support you and give you feedback. If you can involve the students in making the rules, even better! You can have each class come up with rules (you may need to lend some guidance) and have students make a poster with rules on the first or second day. Try to write the rules in positive terms, e.g. “Speak in English,” “Respect classmates when they are speaking,” “Use inside voice while doing group work,” “Have fun.”
  2. Agree on short- and long-term goals and consequences, keep track of them, and stick to them. Goals can be simply following the rules or even giving extra “points” for participation, accent, or whatever. Maybe you show a video or play a song at the end of every class when students do well. After a month of doing well, maybe they get a certificate or learn a song. At the end of the year, maybe they get a prize or get to have a party. Ask the students and involve the supervising teacher. To keep track, you can use an online tool like ClassDojo*, stickers for teams or the entire class, marbles in jars, or a board game where teams advance.

These rules and agreements will come in handy in every class throughout the year, and they will be the foundation for your special community. It may seem like a lot of extra work at first, but it will save you time and frustration down the road when classes are going through a rough time, it’s hot, it’s Friday, and they’ve just finished exams.

This week I spoke with Adela Chumillas about creating community in the classroom. In particular, Adela told me about why she became a teacher and how she’s used community building activities and techniques in the classroom. Adela and I have been working together for almost two years and I’ve had the privilege of seeing her work her magic with teenagers at least twice a week during that time. Every teacher you will work with has a different style and expertise. Adela’s classes are no exception. Adela has a special knack for encouraging community and for fostering compassion and self-reflection.

During the week, I asked her first of ESO class (12/13 year olds, seventh grade in the US system) about which tendencies they thought are important for building community. The responses were varied and thoughtful: listen to others, respect different opinions, share work, ask question to get to know people, be patient, be supportive, and be empathetic. These are great actions, but not ones that are innate. Indeed, even when have internalized them, we can be quick to throw them out the window when we are tired, stressed, frustrated, bored, or unhappy —in other words, if we feel like many teenagers feel most of the time when they are at school. Thankfully, there are activities and teaching techniques that help students become more aware of their peers and respectful to others in general.

MMW: Adela, where are you from?

AC: I’m from Madrid, Spain

MMW: How long and where have you been teaching?

AC: I’ve been teaching since I finished my degree in 2003, though I had already been teaching Business English at some engineering companies.

MMW: Why did you choose to become a teacher?

AC: I didn’t know what to study, but I knew I wanted to teach. Both my parents are teachers, and they have enjoyed teaching, I guess I’ve seen it since I was a little kid. Moreover, I wanted to fight to improve society, but I realized that there was little I could do in the streets, whereas there was a lot I could do inside a classroom.

MMW: Why did you choose to be an English teacher?

AC: I was thinking of studying biology or English, in fact I studied science at high school. In the end, I thought that English, as the most international language, would be a better tool in order to teach outside the book and help improve society, as I said before.

MMW: At GSD Las Suertes, you are a universally respected teacher, both for your creativity and the relationship you have with your students. I’ve heard you be called the child-whisperer more than once, and that’s not only a reference to classroom management: it also refers to your high behavioral expectations, your call for students to reflect on everything they do and, above all, that they respect each other. Your classes have a special feel. They feel like a community, students are comfortable and relaxed, everyone (students and teacher) is responsible for the well-being of others. From your perspective, what type of classroom do you try to create?

AC: A classroom is more that kids in a room, it’s a whole engine, a whole community inside a bigger community. It works by itself, but it also forms part of something else.

First of all, I would say I don’t have a fixed idea about a class to create. I try to adapt to each of them and their necessities. I watch them, listen to them, “feel” the stream of the group and then start creating that sense of community out of what they “told” me by their feelings, their thoughts, their life experiences, and their expectations.

MMW: How do you define community? In school? Outside of school?

AC: From the inside to the outside. A kid and a teacher, a class, a school, a neighborhood, a city, a country… A community starts whenever two individuals interact and build a relationship between them, and then it expands.

MMW: What types of activities do you do that foster community building?

AC: I try to focus a lot on emotional intelligence and emotional education because I think we have a great lack of it at schools and at home. I try to boost empathy, resilience, respect, and other values. I use cooperative learning, project-based learning, and all techniques that imply working with others. Educations is centered in the student, as a person, and not as a “walking brain” —intellect is important, but life in itself is much more important.

MMW: You teach outside of the book, meaning you follow the content of the book for planning and curriculum, but you don’t necessarily use it for examples or activities. How does this play a role in your specific way of community building?

AC: They love to consider the book as just one more tool, and not as “The Holy Bible”. Books are not evil, but I don’t think a text book should drive the class, and neither should the teacher. The class flows, the teacher guides it, as rowing in troubled/still waters. The book might only be a help for doing so.

As we don’t feel so much pressure about which page to work with, we feel we can explore the language our way, and that’s magical!!!! The teacher is still the guide, he/she knows what’s next —and students also appreciate this fact, they don’t like feeling lost— and the “what is clear”; we just make our own “how”.

MMW: You’ve told me a little about times when you’ve taken bad behavior more seriously than others would take it order to set a precedent (that is, you’ve externally shown more anger than perhaps you felt). I’ll give an example: once a boy snacked another boy’s forearm with a flexible ruler. The boy who get smacked was joking about how red his arm was getting, and it was a situation where some would simply tell them to stop. Instead, you were very stern with the student using the ruler, saying it was a form of acoso escolar (school bullying) and that consequences could be severe, that even legal action could be taken. What role does this (taking some behaviors very seriously so they don’t escalate) in community creation and, in particular, your role as the ultimate authority and guide?

AC: As I said before, every class is different. In that class, some students have accused one another of damaging their school materials, and there might be a possible case of bullying, so in that class, I will be very tough when there’s something related to these two issues, as part of their education. Sometimes kids —these ones are only 12— don’t understand how important things are for you if you don’t give a little bit of acting to the fact. In the end, they are still kids. Its just an “emphasizer.”

In this class, we did something that is working really well: we left a pair of magnets —the word “love” and the symbol of peace— on the whiteboard, saying that it was very important for the American teacher and for me that they looked after them. They shouldn’t lose them, damage them and they should “look after” them. And the magnets are still there!

MMW: What is the importance or concept of a carrot/stick (rewards/punishment) system in your community? How do you present this concept to students?

AC: I’d rather give carrots than the stick, but not materialistic carrots, emotional ones. That’s the key. A hug, a high five, a smile, a rewarding and comforting sentence, or a “certificate”! They also love using their ClassDojo* avatars.

MMW: What are some of the obstacles you face given that you are teaching in a foreign language but talking about very important things? How do you overcome them?

AC: I try to use full immersion, but I don’t hesitate to speak Spanish if I see a student needs it to overcome fears, express his/her feelings, or release an emotion. Flexibility is crucial in that sense. And if you use it wisely, they will understand the situation perfectly.

*ClassDojo is an online program that allows you to create avatars for each student and use the avatars to track points, play games, etc. It’s a great resource.


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