A Roadblock to Learning: Code Switching in the Classroom


‘Code Switching’ refers to the act of changing the way you behave due to the rules, or code, of the current environment.

Being a student is hard. But, being a student learning from multiple teachers is even harder.  For every teacher’s classroom that a student enters, they must swap out their current code of operation before entering the new learning environment. This creates a roadblock to learning as students navigate multiple classrooms switching codes to meet the requirements, expectations, and tolerance levels of each teacher’s class.

For example, some teachers have procedures for using the bathroom and sharpening a pencil, routines for assigning homework or they even require using specific headings on papers. While other teachers expect students to shout out answers, allow assignments to be turned in past due dates, or implement open book test formats. Students have to remember which code belongs to which classroom teacher and adhere to it seamlessly. This is a huge feat.

It’s no wonder students struggle in certain classrooms. Half the battle is learning to overcome the ‘Code Switch.’

  • Is this the teacher that wants me to raise my hand before getting out of my seat or is this the teacher that doesn’t want to be bothered with student requests to move about the room?
  • Is this the teacher that gives demerits for tardiness or the teacher who just requires a hall pass?
  • Is this the teacher that doesn’t take you seriously unless you are yelling with passion or is this the teacher that doesn’t want your voice volume to be louder than a whisper?

As a teacher, it is quite the perk to be able to set up your classroom and operate how you wish (as long as it adheres to school and district requirements). Your personality drives the vibe of the environment. As such, the code you create for how you operate within your classroom is unique to your personality. Unfortunately, however, this freedom for teachers comes at a cost to students.

Imagine how much harder your job would be if you had to work for multiple bosses on an hourly basis and code switch without missing a beat? I would have to use an app on my phone just to keep up with who wants what and how it should be done! It’s no secret that students feel a huge sense of overwhelm trying to navigate the different learning environments.

So here’s what we can do as an educator community to help students be more successful in learning environments with multiple teachers:

  1. Create school wide behavior expectations– Creating a seamless system where classrooms operate in similar patterns 1) simplifies the process, 2) decreases the likelihood of students misbehaving and 3) decreases confusion from administration trying to work around multiple classroom codes. Examples for school wide policies are in the areas of cell phone use, attendance consequences, and whether or not to accept late work.
  2. Encourage teachers to post their classroom code– Students can remind themselves of the code upon entrance and exit of the classroom if it is posted – ideally, no more than 5 items listed in the code. This increases student accountability and ownership. In the example of the cellphone, although the school requires them to be collected (school wide code), each teacher can choose how to do so and where to store them, allowing their personality and free choice to remain. (One teacher might place cell phones in a shoe organizer where another teacher might place them in an empty locked file cabinet.)
  3. Communicate the classroom code to parents– Parents are a student’s support system. They need to be aware of more than just who is their child’s teacher. They need to know schedules, upcoming events and tests, behavior expectations, academic requirements, etc. Being transparent to both student and parent will ensure students can be successful in numerous classrooms.
  4. Give students a grace period to adjust– In the beginning of the year, students are getting used to a new schedule, sometimes a new school building, as well as new teachers. Build in time to your lesson to review expectations and requirements at the beginning of each day. It can be part of a classroom pledge or prior to reviewing the lesson objective for the day. When students miss the mark, simple reminders and patience will do the trick!
  5. Provide ‘code switch’ organizational systems and tips to students– Helping students adjust to scholarly life is another duty of the teacher. Sharing what works for you as a learner when meeting expectations from a variety of people at the same time can ease anxiety and equip students to thrive in this challenging environment.

The more that teachers within a school building can be on the same page with learning expectations and requirements, the easier it is on students to learn from a variety of instructional leaders at the same time without having to code switch, risking their academic progress in the process.


What suggestions do you have to help students code switch in an academic environment?

About the author, Gretchen

I am a teacher trainer and coach. Working elbow to elbow with teachers and teacher leaders to ensure instructional proficiency and student achievement soar lights me up. We have a real need in our nation for strong educators to remain in the field. My blog, book, podcast, courses and instructional materials are geared towards empowering teachers (and those that lead them) to receive the support needed to grow and thrive today, tomorrow and always.