A student once paid me the ultimate compliment when she provided an unsolicited description of my classroom environment. She explained that while the work was rigorous, she appreciated the peace, love, and acceptance that I cultivated. This, she explained, set my class apart from others, and made her look forward to coming to school every day. I was in awe as she articulated this, accompanied by agreement from her classmates.
After that encounter, I took time to self-reflect. What actionable advice could I give to other teachers to help them cultivate such an environment? Through my reflection, it occurred to me that this student expressed a feeling of safety. Not necessarily the physical safety that our minds typically default to, but a safety that allows students to be their authentic selves without fear. Cultivating a safe learning environment is a skill that I developed over time by implementing the ideas presented below.
Transparency Starts With You
Transparency in the classroom can be difficult for teachers to embrace. As classroom leaders, we are expected to be knowledgeable and consistently model effective decision making and communication. The fact is, though, that teachers are human – and humanity yields mistakes, even in the classroom. When you don’t know something, be honest with your students and invite them to use appropriate resources to help you find an answer. If you realize that you could have used more effective methods to teach a skill, be honest with your students about it and take the time to re-teach the material. Last, and arguably most important apologize to your students when it’s warranted. Students respect a teacher who can admit being wrong while maintaining student accountability.
Converse with Students Individually
I can hear your thoughts: “There are just too many students and too little time” to converse with each student individually. As someone who once taught a class of 43 students, I concur wholeheartedly. However, no matter the class size, you can keep one-on-one communication going with each student throughout the year if you are intentional. For example: Take a moment to talk to students while on hall duty, at recess, or during morning and afternoon downtime. Your conversation shouldn’t be limited to classwork – include student interests as well.
Don’t Extinguish Student Voice
Students all share a common desire to be heard. Giving students a safe place for self-expression in your classroom is invaluable. School is a place where students should be learning to use their voices to advocate for themselves, for others, and affect change on large and small scales. When students express a desire to change the classroom or school, listen. While it won’t always be wise to oblige, listening demonstrates that you value their voice. When students show passion and concern about societal issues, find productive, appropriate ways for them to express that in the classroom. Remember that we are training up impactful, responsible citizens.
A safe learning environment that encourages students to be authentic, with the ability to present their ideas without fear, is something that all educators should aspire to create.