Students have to feel emotionally and physically safe in order to learn to their maximum ability.
For a classroom to achieve a superlative level of success, the safety of the students is crucial. The classroom environment has to provide physical and emotional safety for the students so that they will feel comfortable to participate, share ideas and enjoy their learning. Students need the predictability of a safe classroom so that they can come to school every day ready to engage in learning and not worry about what another student might say or do that would be destructive to the classroom setting. They need to know that their teacher will watch out for them and provide a healthy learning environment, and they need to be able to count on that every day. If students do not feel safe, then they will not take the risks needed to be a participant in their own learning, and instead, they will resort to behaviors designed to ensure their own personal safety. Those behaviors would be a detriment, and they wouldn’t be able to maximize their learning.
My classrooms were Constructivist in nature which utilized enormous amounts of collaboration and required discussions, both whole and small group. Teamwork and being able to work with everyone was a staple in the classroom. On any given day, a student could easily work with well over half the class in different small groups that were used to activate the day’s learning. If the environment was not a safe one for the students, then the learning process would grind to a halt. Usually, physical safety was not an issue in the schools where I worked, but in my final year, that element reared its ugly head. If there were safety issues, they tended to be emotional safety concerns more times than not. An alarming trend was that in my final years, emotional safety issues were rising. Frankly, kids were not being kind to one another and did not respect each other the way they should. It is heartbreaking to watch children be mean to one another, and, at times, it severely impacted student learning. Yet, I would not just watch; I took action. One of my die hard ideas when I taught was that everyone would feel safe in the classroom; that would be a given. Changing the culture of a classroom is by no means an easy task. It takes a huge time investment and a sizable amount of energy. However, if that work wasn’t done, and students felt that they were in an unsafe environment, it didn’t matter what I taught or how well I taught it; learning wouldn’t occur as it should.
The reasons as to why kids were not kind to one another was something I tried to figure out, but I just couldn’t get a clear read as to the causes. My students came from good families who, for the most part, had strong values and supported the teacher. That in and of itself doesn’t guarantee a child will behave, but it does help. I have had hours of conversations with students as each class that had these issues spilled their concerns, their apprehensions, and what had happened to them over the years both privately and publicly. It seemed to be different each year. Many times, they were the victims of negative social interactions in their earlier years, and by the time they got to my class in fourth grade, there were impacts they hadn’t fully processed yet. Those impacts were created by events that ranged from kids calling them names, kids socially ganging up on them, kids throwing objects at them, kids physically handling them, excluding them . . . the list goes on. The one thing all the causes had in common was a complete lack of respect and empathy for one another. Given that, at least I could create a plan to teach respectful, empathetic behaviors so that we could, as a class, move forward in order to learn the best we could, and the students would learn how to treat other people. That type of work requires constant monitoring and a willingness to drop everything and have conversations when the need arose. The “drop everything” conversations and subsequent lessons could last a lifetime whereas the math we studied, while important, would not have such a longstanding impact. Thus, we dropped everything multiple times.
My classrooms were going to be happy places where children wanted to go so I worked extremely hard to get kids to respect one another, to have empathy for one another, and to build a team that could endure any hardship that came its way. Usually, by the time that I had to deal with the social issues that prevented the classroom environment from being fully safe, enough of the year had gone by that I had a good rapport with the students and the class as a whole. Thus, the students knew that I cared for them, each and every one of them, and the feeling of caring was where all the messages originated. If they knew their teacher cared about them and that the hard conversations we were having were to improve our classroom, they were much more apt to take part in those talks, believe in them, and strive to change.
Whenever possible, the curriculum was used to teach points about citizenship and how people should treat one another. When the focus is on building a strong team that cares for and respects its members, all the information encountered in literature or social studies can easily be pointed toward that emphasis. Examining the motives of characters in our novels or dissecting the decisions made in early California history easily allowed students to see the wrong way to behave. The mystery was, if they can see the disrespect in others’ actions, then why don’t they recognize that they do the same things? It was always an interesting conversation when they would pick apart the people we studied, and then when I asked, “If that is wrong, and you have strongly said that it is, how come some of you do that to one another?” The bewildered looks on their faces were always priceless. It was as if a new dawning had occurred. Ideas generally flooded the classroom, and it gave students the opportunity to express some of their feelings. Yes, the literature discussion was important, but the best part of it was relating the fiction to their lives so they can see that they need to develop caring attitudes toward one another. We were not only able to analyze the literature and recommend how the characters could change for the better, but we could also see what could be implemented in ourselves and our classroom to make it a stronger, safer environment. Those were the best discussions as book learning and character analysis lead to real learning and behavior analysis.
Once the ideas were brought forth from our studies, it was easy to find a theme and speak to it daily or when the need arose. One of the best examples was from Lois Lowry’s book Number the Stars. As we completed the book, there was a story about Kim Malthe-Bruun, a young man who was to be executed for his role in the Danish Resistance during World War II. There was a character in the book who was modeled after Kim Malthe-Bruun, and he was a very likable character. Malthe-Bruun’s photo had hung in the classroom during the reading of the book, and no one had asked about it. After reading his story, that photo became real and took on a whole new life. Lowry had found a letter from the young man to his mother the night before his execution. In that letter, he called for a world of human decency and invoked that everyone could contribute to such a world. I was determined not let Malthe-Bruun’s plea go for naught, and so, after a great deal of work, the concept of human decency became instrumental in our school year. Students used the phrase as they worked with one another, and they reminded each other of the need for human decency. We tied that into almost everything we did, and at the end of the year, the students created a website emphasizing human decency. It was powerful. Finding that piece in the curriculum is crucial. We took a challenging social situation, the class was falling apart and hanging by a thread in February, and flipped it around. We had something concrete to use in guiding our social interactions, and the kids bought into it completely from the character in the story who stood for human decency and the real man who asked for human decency. The curriculum is full of those types of examples, and it is incumbent on teachers to find them, use them and guide the students to the safe, caring classroom that is required for optimal learning to occur.
The exercises we did to bring the theme of human decency to life took time, without question, but the learning that was done in that time as opposed to what we would have done will last those students a lifetime. The phrase “human decency” continued to be used in their next school year with another teacher. Teachers have to give themselves permission to put the academics aside in order to strengthen the interactions of the group so that the students feel safe in their environment. Once that is accomplished, the time spent on academics yields far greater results as the students can focus on their studies without worries brought on by poor social interactions. Putting time into student connections is well worth it; that is the true teaching we can do in a classroom.
Some classes require much more than what the curriculum can offer. When those students enter my classroom, the realization that we will lose a great amount of instructional time as we work out social problems is somewhat depressing; I have so many cool things to teach! But, instruction cannot be interrupted daily due to poor behavior and social relationships that interfere with the safety of the classroom. The learning that is done in those situations would be far less if the problems are ignored; students would constantly be dreading that they may need to work with someone with whom they can’t work or that someone will interrupt the class due to a lack of respect for his or her classmates or even if there is physical danger posed by students in the room. That was what I faced in my final year of teaching. Students did not have a sense of security in that classroom.
Building a strong team in the classroom will give students the opportunity to feel safe as their peers will support them throughout the school day.
Each year, in the first week of school, I show a video that I use to set the culture of the classroom. It is a great video that shows the idea of paying it forward and how that idea will bring a payoff to the person who takes the time to help others. I love the video and look forward to it each year. Afterwards, I ask the students what the ideas are in the video, what does it show with respect to our classroom culture, and what they can do to make that happen? Never before had there been a problem answering that series of prompts. My final class either couldn’t see the ideas, felt unsafe to express their thoughts, or just didn’t care. In any case, I knew we had trouble. It was day two of the school year.
Suffice it to say that I had to immediately begin working on bringing the group together. As the days unfolded, it was clear that there was stress in the classroom, and I saw too many times where students were not treating each other in ways that illustrated kindness, respect and empathy; there were some mean things happening. The group had had an instigator of trouble in their class in second grade. It had been suggested that maybe there were some residual effects from that. Step one was to circle up and let the kids say what they wanted to say about the past. Listening very closely, I picked up some information that would help shift the feel in the classroom. We needed to develop teamwork, the joy of being in each other’s company, and learning to respect one another. I relied on videos as my gateway along with the curricular aspects of character education. “This classroom would be safe, and this group of students would make it happen,” I declared.
It was a long process to make positive strides, and we were making them when the pandemic hit and shut everything down. If there were any opportunities in our studies to develop character education, I took them. If there were collaborative projects to do in the classroom, I used them to promote respect and good will toward one another. In the beginning of the year, a simple 40 minute science activity took three different days and almost two hours to complete due to the fact that we had to start and stop so many times and address social issues. Kids were not getting it, and there were too many interruptions to learn the material well, but also to allow others to feel that they can come to school and learn without interruption. The environment was not safe enough to allow for maximum learning. It was time to get more proactive.
I had selected a number of videos to show to the students. Those videos became part of our week. I would play a video, we’d discuss it, and I would lift quotes from the videos. Those quotes were assembled in mini posters, and I found graphics to accompany each quote. The posters were hung from the ceiling and as each one went up, we discussed the idea behind the quote. The students had heard them in the videos so there was familiarity, but now they were in black and white hanging in front of them to see and reflect upon every day. Not only did we talk about the meaning of the quote, but we also discussed why that quote was chosen from the video. The number of quotes was growing in our classroom, and if someone did something that needed correcting or the group needed some reminders, it was great to point to a poster and ask, “Are you following the guidelines of the poster? What can we do differently to follow the idea of the poster?” Little by little things were moving forward, and if the students were with me, they knew my expectations and followed them fairly well. The problem was when another teacher instructed them. Safety and security were not always in the forefront.
The apex of wrongdoing was when four students decided the right thing to do was to throw rocks at their classmates during a PE session with the PE teacher. Talk about not feeling safe. One of the worst things was that it had happened twice, and I wasn’t told about it the first time. When I found out, it took all I had to stay calm. I could not believe that MY students were throwing rocks at their classmates. This was not in the beginning of the school year; this was several months into the year. U N B E L I E V A B L E. The four were quickly identified and taken to the office; I took them personally. When I returned, I asked the rest of the class why they hadn’t told me about it before. One student said, “When we’ve told adults in the past about things, nothing was done.” That was gut wrenching. My response was, “Am I like the other adults? Are those four boys still in here?” Of course, they responded, “No,” and I asked how long it took for me to get them to the office after I had heard. It was a matter of minutes. That other adults, not necessarily their teachers, wouldn’t respond and help them was completely unacceptable and out of the realm of my thinking. We tell kids to let an adult know when they have trouble, and then the adults do nothing? Why would kids trust adults? This entire episode had so much wrong with it.
If students learn that the trusted adults will do nothing when they are endangered, it’s no wonder they take matters into their own hands. It is a sad commentary when adults in a school don’t tend to the safety needs of its students. That was not going to be me, ever. The safety and security of my students was always in the forefront when I taught. I wasn’t always able to deliver that, but it was something that I worked hard on with my students. The goal was to build camaraderie such that the kids would look our for each other, not do things to each other. That students would throw rocks at their classmates was against everything I had been trying to instill; it disgusted me, honestly. But, it’s where we were, so we had to work to repair that damage. Trying to get the rest of the class to feel safe with those students in their classroom would be tough, and those students had work to do to regain trust. Lucky for them, it was fourth grade, and fourth graders have a way of forgiving and forgetting; that’s one of the great parts of teaching fourth graders. Each of the students had to take responsibility in some way, and they did so. There were public speeches and hand-written notes. Their peers were ready to give them another chance to earn their friendship.
There are so many ways to achieve safety in the classroom. I have outlined a few of my strategies here. I also like shared experiences as those have a way to draw classes together. It builds a familial feel, and it’s something we can reflect upon and talk of our fond memories. Field trips are great conduits for that. Field trips are events that only the members of the class experience together; no one else is a part of it. That makes it exclusive and a shared experience. We often eat together, play together and learn together and it all happens in another place. That recipe helps immensely to build the friendships needed for the camaraderie of a classroom. Besides that, the field trip itself is fun, and the stresses of a classroom are gone for the students. All of those components help to build the social bonds that can be building blocks for respect, kindness and empathy in the classroom.
We ask our students to accomplish a lot in school these days. If teachers want them to expand their learning and achieve success beyond expectations, classrooms have to give students feelings of safety and predictability of procedures. Teachers can deliver amazing, engaging lessons, but if kids’ minds are focused on other students who could ruin the school day, it doesn’t matter how great any lesson is; kids won’t learn as they should. There are kids who pose physical dangers to their classmates these days. In my elementary school time, the 1960s, that was a rarity. Now, there are kindergarteners who throw tables over, and students who flee from their classrooms. In my final year, I had students who pushed others, hit their peers, and banged kids’ heads together for no apparent reason. How can the others trust their peers when they see that happening and form a desire to work alongside them? It makes the environment prohibitive to optimal learning. Emotional damage from statements that kids make to each other is extremely hurtful and just as scaring. If teachers do not get to the root of the problem, we are not actually teachers. I’ve had classes that had to learn how to be people first and academicians second, and as hard as that is, it is the first and foremost need of the classroom.
Learning will occur when kids feel secure in their setting. It is up to the schools to create that environment across the campus. When it isn’t in place in a classroom, it is up to the teacher to create that. Ignoring a class’s social ills not only diminishes student learning, but it shirks the responsibility of building a citizenry that will be prepared to run society some day. That is the true peril of not teaching students how to collaborate with respect, kindness and empathy. What do we want society to be in the future? Educators have an enormous say in that future. Let’s do our jobs and contribute to a society of which we can be proud.
For further reading:
Thinking on Education: Building a Safe Learning Environment in our Classroom from Studies Weekly
Trust, Support and Respect: Creating a Safe Classroom Environment, from n2y Blog
How to Create a safe Classroom, Classcraft Blog
20 Tips for Creating a Safe Learning Environment, from Edutopia
Happy students who want to come to school will produce work that is often beyond not only the teacher's expectations, but theirs as well.
A safe environment facilitates that.