Students don’t generally learn well, if at all, in stressful situations. Neuroscience tells us that the cortisol released during stress makes learning extremely difficult. Setting up a safe and positive learning environment is therefore essential if we are to create classrooms where all students feel like they belong and can take the risks inherent in learning. In this article I share three strategies that have served me well as a public school educator and teacher educator
Connecting with the class
A wise colleague taught me that we cannot create a safe learning space until we address students’ fears. During the first class, I ask students to anonymously write on Post-it notes their fears or concerns about the course. One idea per Post-it note. Students then stick their notes on chart paper set up around the room. I quickly sort the notes, clumping the expressed fears and worries into themes. We go over these themes together. Some students have been out of school for several years and are worried about not knowing how to navigate new technologies. Others are working part-time jobs and tell me they would really appreciate clear course expectations and deadlines. Some ELLs say they worry about writing papers in English. Some commute from a distance or are parents who wonder about juggling parental responsibilities with school work.
I share the themes publicly with the class, which helps students see they are not alone in their fears. Work/life/school balance emerges as a resounding theme. Once it’s identified, we can talk about it openly. This activity lowers students’ anxiety levels and makes me more aware as an instructor who is in my class. We talk together about strategies for living well with these multiple responsibilities. It reassures them to see that others share their fears. They begin to feel that they could belong to this class, for Jensen (2009) reminds us, every learner needs to feel that s/he belongs and is significant.
Connecting with the individuals
The Post-it note activity described above allows me to begin to see the whole class. However, I also need to see who the individuals are in my class; Tomlinson (1999), a scholar in the area of differentiated instruction, says our job as teachers is to become “students of our students” (p. 4). I need to try to know who the individuals are so that I can find ways to make connections between them and the content I am teaching. To do this, I build learner profiles on my students (see below). I invite the students to fill out these cards with as much information as they are willing to share with me. I have found this to be a simple yet highly efficient teaching strategy.
Learner profile cards
Using learner profile cards is another way I get to know my students. These are simply index cards that I create and distribute to students at the start of the term. On the front and back of the cards are such questions as:
- How do you learn best?
- Your goal for taking this course?
- What are your responsibilities outside of class?
- What are you interests outside of class?
- What prevents you from learning?
The information shared on these cards can be used in many ways to better reach and teach my students. Perhaps the most helpful piece of information I learn comes from how students respond to the question, “Something important you should know about me this term …” This is where I hear the really important information about their lives. I learn that some students are battling illness, working three jobs, have just endured deep loss, have a sick family member, have just come out as LGBTQ+, or are commuting to university. I begin to see the diversity that is beneath the surface. I can make adjustments or reach out to students with whom I need to connect.
Rules of engagement
Issues of power difference abound in our classrooms (Battiste, 2014; Freire, 1970; Lee, Menkart, & Okazawa Rey, 2007). Ground rules are a way of explicitly talking about those power differences and setting the guidelines that will create a democratic classroom. Often students are not skilled at having respectful conversations about race, class, gender, sexual orientation, or ability, topics that are typically part of my curriculum. Creating a list of ground rules is one way of trying to level the playing field in the classroom and supporting them in these conversations.
Together we cogenerate guidelines about how we will talk and be with each other. One common guideline is to remind students that when we speak, we do so from our own experiences. Our own experiences are valid, but remind students that we need to be careful not to universalize our experiences and assume that everyone has experienced what we have. This avoids the problem of statements like “Everyone feels safe on campus.” Another ground rule is that we really try to listen attentively in our conversations with each other. Dan Gilfoy, a former graduate student, summed this up well when he asked, “Are you really listening, or are you just waiting to talk?” In each class, we review the ground rules and add our own rules to the chart if we need to. This simple strategy reminds us that when we are mindful of our behavior, we can be more inclusive.
Palmer (2007) reminds us that we need to make our classrooms comfortable places to do the sometimes “uncomfortable work” of learning. I have found these three strategies to be highly effective in creating safe and positive communities where all students can engage in learning.
Joanne Tompkins is a teacher educator at St. Francis Xavier University. She teaches in the areas of equity, diversity, inclusion, and leadership.
Battiste, M. (2014). Decolonizing education. Nourishing the learning spirit. Saskatoon, SK: Purich Publishing.
Freire, P. (1970). The pedagogy of the oppressed. New York, NY: Basic Books.
Jensen, E. (2009). Teaching poverty mind brains school. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.
Lee, E., Menkart, D., & Okazawa-Rey, M. (2007). Beyond Heroes and Holidays: A Practical Guide to K 12 Anti Racist, Multicultural Education and Staff Development. Washington, DC: Teaching for a Change.
Palmer, P. (2007). The courage to teach: Exploring the inner landscape of a teacher’s life. San Francisco, CA: Jossey–Bass.