Thinking on Education: Building a Safe Learning Environment in our Classroom
How can we build a safe community within the classroom so students will take academic risks?
Education in the 21st Century is becoming more about skills than content knowledge. Students are not empty buckets to fill with facts and figures, but real individuals who need to learn compassion, empathy, strength, a sense of self, collaboration, critical thinking skills and responsible decision making.
Almost all of us, and most of our young students, already carry a vast store of knowledge around in our pockets — only to occasionally use it as an actual telephoning device. We already have too much content than we’ll ever be able to comprehend, so our teaching needs to focus on helping students discern and analyze knowledge, while working with others.
To do this level of teaching, we need to create safe learning environments through modeling caring, kindness and respect.
“Caring as a classroom practice requires us to invite students to acquire, collaborate, and synthesize social knowledge from other people while valuing diversity. A focus on caring facilitates a learner-centered classroom sensitive to the cultural practices of our students,” Chrystal S. Johnson and Adrian T. Thomas said in their 2009 NCSS article, “Caring as Classroom Practice.”
They explained that by creating a caring classroom that values and encourages individuals, our students feel safe asking hard questions. Students also learn the power of discussing, working and problem solving with others.
“Students come to view thinking not as an isolated event, but as a process that often involves other people,” Johnson and Thomas added.
Creating a caring classroom is so much more than just setting up classroom rules and procedures, though. So, here are a few ideas to get you started:
1. Connect with your students.
“As a first step towards creating a safe learning environment, the connection you establish with your students plays a key role. Remind them that you are there to help and guide them, and listen to them when they share their stories. You are the string that will connect all of them together, hence knowing about your students, where they come from, what their fears are and what makes them happy is important,” suggests a May 2019 Medium post by Trainer Tribe.
We must see our students as people first and not students first. When we lump them only into the role of “student,” we diminish their uniquely individual strengths, challenges, differences and abilities. The same Medium post asks educators to establish classroom communities by getting to know students and engaging them with thought-provoking questions as simple as:
• Which movie taught you a lesson you can never forget?
• Which place would you like to visit and why?
• Have you ever helped a stranger? What did you do, and how did you feel about it?
2. Model patience, kindness and calm.
Rebecca Alber explained in an August 2015 Edutopia article, that educators must remain calm at all times.
“Once a teacher loses it with a class or student, it takes a long time to rebuild that feeling of safety and trust within those four walls. Step right outside the door and take a few breaths. It’s worth it,” she said.
As you show your students how to be calm even with frustrating circumstances, they see that it is possible. As you kindly greet them individually each day or respond to their frustrations or off-task behavior in a constructive manner, they slowly internalize that skill. As you model patience while they acquire a new skill, they learn to have patience with themselves.
“Put into practice, caring supports learner strengths and interests in activities and learning experiences. It is reflected in what we want our students to know, understand, and be able to do when the academic year is completed. A caring teacher provides purposeful feedback and gives students opportunities to revise their work,” Johnson and Thomas explained.
3. Create space for dialogue, while demanding respect for the speakers and listener.
“Dialogue involves active listening and responding to the needs of others. Angry responses can be replaced with listening, reflection, and more measured reactions. Dialogue, followed by a successful resolution to a conflict, can promote moral attentiveness and a new sense of confidence,” Johnson and Thomas said.
Grudges between students in your class threatens the safety of the learning environment. Great teachers don’t allow these to fester and grow, but facilitate time and space for students to work these out respectfully.
Alber explained that she has also “non-negotiables” — behaviors that are not tolerated at all because of how damaging they are to the classroom community. Her main one is name calling.
“Tackle name calling head on or else kids won’t feel safe to be themselves, let alone learn,” she said.
The Trainer Tribe also suggested creating Dialogue Circles. This learning strategy allow students the place to be seen, heard and supported.
To understand how to implement a Dialogue Circle, view this video from Glenview Elementary School in Oakland, California.
4. Encourage student choice.
To be effective workers, leaders and community members of tomorrow, students need to become self-learners today. Self-learners are adaptable, collaborative and thoughtful — all skills needed in our society.
To encourage self-motivated learning, we should offer our students options for their learning, where appropriate. We know the standards and content we need to teach for end-of-the-year assessments. If we present those, and then give students structured choices to make on how they learn those, they will feel more valued and empowered.
“By giving kids choices, we send a message that we respect their decisions,” Alber said.
5. Help them problem solve on their own.
This is a great strategy for social studies and science instruction. All of history can be summed up as people solving problems within their families, communities, societies and their world. The best science discoveries always start with a problem or phenomena that seems unsolvable until it isn’t.
As students gain confidence in their ability to solve academic problems, they learn to do that for themselves and their communities. They have a safe space to ask hard questions and to explore the answers.
This skill can also carry over to their interactions with others, and can help them resolve conflicts patiently and with kindness and empathy.
6. Smile and laugh with your students.
When faced with a classroom full of wiggly, distracted children who all come from different backgrounds, it is sometimes difficult to find the humor. But that is the very reason for finding the funny.
The world today is harsh, and children are bombarded with its painful realities through non-stop news and internet coverage. Too many of these same children in your classroom will go throughout their day without a single hug — not to mention a smile directed solely at them.
But smiles have power. Research shows smiles are contagious, and elevate your levels of dopamine, endorphins and serotonin — all of which lead to a better sense of wellbeing. You may not be able to hug every one of your students, but you can sincerely smile at them. This one small act that take only seconds to perform, will physically help them feel better about themselves.
The best teachers understand how important students’ social and emotional wellbeing is to their academic success, and these teachers understand their own role in creating a caring classroom to support this success.
As Johnson and Thomas concluded, “a caring, respectful classroom environment fortifies young learners’ psychological need to feel a sense of belonging and relatedness to people and institutions. When young learners’ needs for relatedness are fulfilled, they are more likely to redirect self-interest toward the common civic goals that are permeating the classroom setting.”
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