Every year I’ve looked forward to sitting down and writing a “back-to-school blog.” This time of year is so exciting, from new backpacks, sharpened pencils and crayons, and clean classrooms, to energetic teachers and enthusiastic students. In the past, I’ve written on a variety of topics, including engagement, management, and new pedagogy. This year, though, I find myself sitting down without the same enthusiasm and energy, and with a need—rather than a desire—to write about tolerance.
The recent events in our country will possibly surface in our classrooms this year—in students’ behavior, comments, or class discussions—and it is important to establish our classrooms as safe spaces and to prepare ourselves as educators to meet the emotional needs of our students. One of my most memorable classroom experiences was when I heard one student use a term that I find offensive and overheard the student next to him say, “You are in Bickley’s room, you can’t say that here.” These were 18-year-old boys in a last-period class in the spring of their senior year. The fact that they clearly knew my expectations enough to correct each other’s behavior is something that has stuck with me for my entire career. I’ve worked hard in each classroom that I’ve had the opportunity to teach in to emulate that type of safe classroom environment: one that is safe for students to be themselves, that allows them to take risks in their learning, to learn free from fear and intimidation, and one that is an environment where the expectations are so clear that the students manage themselves and each other’s behavior with kindness and respect.
How does one create a classroom environment that is seen as a safe space for students? The first task in creating a classroom environment where all students feel welcome and safe is to, as teachers, exemplify the behaviors we expect of our students. We show up every day enthusiastic and thrilled to be in that classroom, we correct offensive language immediately with respect to both parties, we make mistakes, we take risks in our teaching, we demonstrate respect and kindness, and we set very clear and direct expectations. Without a feeling of security, it is difficult for learning to take place.
In Five Ways to Create a Safe Classroom, Stephanie Carrillo suggests that teachers:
- Allow students to discuss what an ideal learning environment means to them and have the rules set accordingly.
- Give students an opportunity to be themselves and learn about each other.
- Provide students opportunities for self-reflection.
- Have activities that appeal to all student learning styles, such as class discussions for the talkers and gallery walks for those who are more introspective.
- Provide equal opportunities for ALL students to speak in class
One of my favorite strategies for this final suggestion is the old popsicle stick strategy but with a twist. Instead of randomly calling on students by pulling popsicle sticks at random, pass them out to the students and collect them as they participate. Create an expectation where each student participates at least once each day.
Here are some articles and resources in creating a “safe learning environment”:
- Creating a Safe Space for Students to Take Risks from Learn NC
- An Unusual Way Schools Can Create “Safe Spaces” for Learning
- 20 Tips for Creating a Safe Learning Environment
- Creating a Safe Classroom Environment
This year more than ever, a safe learning environment must include creating an anti-bias environment. Students will be coming to our classrooms with varying impressions about the news, different ethnic, racial, and religious backgrounds, and range of voices and opinions shared at their family dinner tables. As educators, it is our responsibility to ensure that each one of our students feels safe and comfortable in our classroom. I am not an expert in social justice or teaching tolerance, but lucky for me and you, there are multiple organizations that offer suggestions and support. The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) offers a multitude of resources but two good places to start are Creating an Anti-Bias Learning Environment and Establishing a Safe Learning Environment. I encourage you to spend some time exploring the ADL website as well as the websites for the following organizations and articles:
- Teaching Tolerance is a project of the Southern Poverty Law Center aimed at reducing prejudice, improving intergroup relations, and supporting equitable school experiences for the children of our nation. “Teaching Tolerance provides free resources to educators—teachers, administrators, counselors and other practitioners—who work with children from kindergarten through high school. Educators use our materials to supplement the curriculum, to inform their practices, and to create civil and inclusive school communities where children are respected, valued and welcome participants. The site has many articles to support the creation of a safe learning environment; however, Open the Door to a Safe Learning Environment is a great place to start.
- Edutopia offers Creating Classrooms for Social Justice and Creating an Emotionally Healthy Classroom Environment.
- Commonsense.org suggests safe Social Networks for Students and Teachers.
- Scholastic offers Creating an Emotionally Safe Classroom.
As we start our school years across the country this fall, I look forward to hearing from you about what you have done to create a safe learning environment for you and your students.