20 Tips for Creating a Safe Learning Environment
I visit a lot of classrooms. And I’m always fascinated by the variety of ways teachers launch the new school year and also with how they “run their rooms” daily. From these visits and my own experiences as an instructor, I’d like to offer my top 20 suggestions for keeping your classroom a safe, open, and inviting place to learn.
1. Community Build All Throughout the Year. Routinely include strategies and activities in your lessons, such as Save the Last Word for Me, that allow students to express their thoughts and ideas, build relationships, and practice collaboration. This will aid in the development and maintenance of a sense of emotional safety in your classroom.
2. Post-Student Work. When displays of essays, poems, projects, and exams dominate the walls, there is student ownership of the room. When they look around and see their writing and thinking, they certainly experience a higher level of comfort than if they see store-bought posters. That said, if informational posters are needed, ask your students to create them.
3. Establish a list of non-negotiables. Students must be aware of non-negotiables from the beginning of the school year, in addition to classroom rules and procedures. My biggest non-negotiable? Name-calling. As a result, there was an immediate repercussion (a call to the dean and removal from the classroom that day). Take on the issue of name-calling head-on, or else children will not feel safe enough to be themselves, let alone learn.
4. Admit When You Don’t Know. When we demonstrate our humanity, students respond positively. Saying “I’m not sure. Does anyone else know or might they like to look that up for us?” is powerful stuff.
5. Read aloud to and with your students. The message this sends: I like to read. I don’t just tell you this and give you a grade based on how much you read; I read alongside you. You can see my facial expressions as I struggle to comprehend something difficult, as well as when I am moved by a sad or humorous scene. I, too, am a voracious reader.
6. Maintain your composure at all times. The feeling of safety and trust within those four walls can be difficult to reestablish after a teacher loses his or her cool with a class or a student for an extended period. Take a few deep breaths and step right outside the front door. It’s well worth the effort.
7. Be a role model for kindness at every opportunity. They’ll be right behind you.
8. Make a circling motion. Mingling allows you to keep track of their progress on their assignments, but it also allows you to get a close look at any tensions or negative energy that may be brewing within groups or between students. Additionally, circulating provides excellent opportunities to overhear a student discussing an idea or question that you can use with the entire class.
9. Deal with old grudges as soon as possible. If there is growing tension between a couple of students, give them the time and space to talk it out while you meditate.
10. Collaborate with your students when writing. The message conveyed by this is: I enjoy writing. It’s not enough for me to tell you this and grade your writing; I also collaborate with you on your writing. You can see me struggle as I am drafting a poem or letter, and you can see me consider new words, cross-out old ones, and take risks as I revise. I hope you enjoy my work. I’m also a writer in my own right.
11. Model Vulnerability is number eleven. This will be greatly appreciated by them. If we are asking kids to write and talk about times they have felt scared, alone, confused, etc., we need to be willing to do the same.
12. Follow Through with Consequences. A consequence must proceed a non-negotiable. When students commit serious infractions, they must be aware that there will be repercussions. They require proof that they are safe in each classroom before they can believe it.
13. Make a point of smiling frequently. In the teaching profession, there is an adage that you should wait until Christmas to smile. This is a complete and utter joke. Allow the children to see your pearly whites regularly and with sincerity. It is proven that the more smiles we give to students, the more we will receive in return.
14. Demonstrate patience at every opportunity you get. They’ll take notice.
15. Allow children to practice problem-solving skills on their own. It is significantly more beneficial when ideas and solutions are generated by students. This is an opportunity for us to inquire rather than simply state: “What are some things you can start doing right away to ensure that you finish your homework on time? What if I jot them down as you’re telling them to me?”
16. Share a good laugh with your students. The message this sends is that learning does not always have to be taken seriously, and neither do we. Sometimes, when tensions are high, such as during testing or when crazy things happen in the world or on campus, we need to laugh together to de-stress. It’s all right.
17. Provide a variety of options. When we begin an assignment with the phrase “You will have three choices,” students may even become excited and are often much more willing to cooperate than when we begin with the phrase “The assignment is… ” By providing children with options, we are sending a message that we value their opinions.
18. Maintain a positive attitude. Students, no matter how young, are acutely aware of when a teacher is dissatisfied. Joy can be contagious, but so can misery, and vice versa. When you are in a rut, taking a vacation, getting a massage, watching a TED Talk, or even changing the level of the grade you teach can all help to re-ignite the passion you have for your job and teaching.
19. Take a seat next to your students. The act of sitting in a chair that was designed for a child is not the most comfortable thing an adult can do. However, sitting down with a group of children at their table takes us off the stage and allows us to become a member of the group, if only for a brief moment. We could ask a strategic question, inquire about the group’s project, or simply listen to what they have to say.
20 . Art and music provide nourishment for the soul. (Also, they starve the creature.) Incorporate both of these into your lessons regularly.