“You always pushed me to my fullest and showed me how sweet the end result of hard work in class feels like. I got my first A of high school in your class and found my calling in life; coming from where I came from finding a calling in life isn’t easy. I appreciate every thing you’ve done for me…”
I want to address creating safe classrooms.
If we are to engage students, we must provide a classroom environment that is safe. Within that safe space, students find courage to take the steps (risks, for many students) needed to start experiencing academic success. Once students begin to achieve positive results we have the opportunity to prove to them that they can be scholars (i.e. graduate from high school, go to college, or find a professional goal or calling in life). This sequence of events is where I also believe we can develop in students a Growth Mindset (Dweck) and the grit (Duckworth) they need to achieve, but more on that in a forthcoming post.
If you agree with this line of thinking then you're already aware that one of the foundations of student success is a safe classroom. But what does a safe classroom actually look like?
The quote above is an excerpt from an email I a few years ago from a former student. When Estevan entered my classroom his sophomore year he had very few credits, was gang-involved, had just been released from juvenile hall, and was full of hostility. If I was to get through to Estevan, he desperately needed to experience success as soon as possible and he was not going to do so without being in a safe classroom.
As the result of a tough childhood Estevan often took issue with authority; he was one of those students that emotionally shut down (or blew up) when he found himself in a classroom that he felt was unfair or overly authoritarian. So I had to find a balance with him: a space that combined clear classroom routines with accountability for engaging in them. By doing so, I am convinced I subtly communicated to him that I believed in him and his ability; that I believed he could succeed. If I had allowed Estevan a modicum of slack because he was transitioning from jail I would have alienated him from the classroom community and, as a result, increased the likelihood of his failure.
So, what does an unsafe classroom look like? It’s an environment where students are not at ease, are unsure of how the class works, are worried for their personal safety, are worried about failing, do not understand the content, are worried about fitting in, or don’t speak the language well, to name a few.
Now envision a classroom with a clear starting routine that is challenging, yet something that students can accomplish (i.e.students are successful the moment the bell rings); that offers the teacher a moment to authentically re-teach and clear up student misconceptions; that all students participate in together,at the same moment; where what is projected on the board looks exactly like what students have in front of them; and that takes place in a quiet setting. With just this one routine we remediate many of the things that create an unsafe classroom for students.
A safe classroom is one in which the teacher has “painted the gray areas black and white”. All students can predict what is going to happen at just about every moment—in particular, at the beginning of class. In order for this to take place we have to establish routines, or rituals, that are clear, equitable, and tangible to students. If we utilize such routines then we create a class that students find dependable because they know what to expect. If our classroom environment embodies these characteristics, then we actually become a dependable adult in students’ lives because our classroom and the experience students have in that space is a projection of ourselves as teachers and humans.
Ultimately, a safe classroom environment is predicated on student predictability and teacher dependability and both of these require consistent classroom routines in order to be made possible.
Estevan finished his email with, “I did it Mr. Weathers! I Just got my acceptance letter for Notre Dame de Namur University!!! And I am getting a $36,000 academic scholarship! Finally my hard work is paying off just like you said it would 2 years ago. If it weren't for you pushing me that extra mile I would have never made it. Thank you for everything Mr. Weathers!”
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