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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Twenty Tips for Creating a Safe Learning Environment

Rebecca Alber

Edutopia Consulting Online Editor

In honor of Edutopia's 20th anniversary, we're producing a series of Top 20 lists, from the practical to the sublime.

Twenty 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" on a daily basis. 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 Year Long. 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 help grow and maintain a feeling 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 own 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. Have Non-Negotiables. Along with classroom rules and procedures, students must know non-negotiables right out of the gate. My biggest non-negotiable? Name-calling. This resulted in an immediate consequence (a call to the Dean and removal from the classroom that day). We have to tackle such things as name-calling head on or else kids won't feel safe to be themselves, let alone learn.

4. Admit When You Don't Know. Students appreciate when we show our humanity. Saying "I'm not really sure. Does anyone else know or might they like to look that up for us?" is powerful stuff.

5. Read with Your Students. The message this sends: I like to read. I don't just tell you this and grade you on how much you read, I read side by side with you. You see my facial expressions as I struggle to understand something difficult and you see when I feel emotion at a sad or funny part. I am a reader, too.

6. Remain Calm at All Times. Once a teacher loses it with a class or student, it takes a long time to rebuild that feeling of safety and trust within those four walls. Step right outside the door and take a few breaths. It's worth it.

7. Take Every Opportunity to Model Kindness. They will follow.

8. Circulate. Mingling lets you monitor their work, yes, but it also gives you a close view of any tensions or negative energy brewing with groups or between students. Also, circulating gives you great opportunities to overhear a student sharing an idea or question that you can use with the whole class.

9. Address Grudges Early On. If tension is building between a couple of students, create time and space for them to talk it out while you mediate.

10. Write with Your Students. The message this sends: I like to write. I don't just tell you this and grade you on your writing, I write side by side with you. You see me struggle as I am drafting a poem or letter, and you see me contemplate new words, cross-out old ones and take chances as I revise. I am a writer, too.

11. Model Vulnerability. They will appreciate this. 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. Students need to know there's a consequence for those serious infractions. They need evidence to believe they are safe in each classroom.

13. Smile Often. The antiquated saying in the teaching profession is wait until Christmas to smile. This is just plain silly. Let the children see those pearly whites often and genuinely. The more smiles we offer to students, the more we will receive.

14. Use Every Opportunity to Model Patience. They will notice.

15. Give Kids a Chance to Problem Solve on Their Own. It's so much better when ideas and solutions come from the student. This is a chance for us to ask rather than tell: "What might be some things you can start doing so you complete your homework on time? How about I write them down as you tell them to me?"

16. Laugh with your Students. The message this sends: Learning doesn't have to always be so serious, nor do we. Sometimes, when tensions are high, like during testing or when crazy things are happening out in the world, we need to laugh together. It's okay.

17. Offer Options. If we start an assignment with, "You will have three choices," kids may even get excited and are often much more willing than when we say, "The assignment is...." By giving kids choices, we send a message that we respect their decisions.

18. Keep the Vibes Good. Students, no matter how young, know when a teacher is not happy. Joy can be contagious, but so too can misery. Maybe a vacation, a massage, watching a TED Talk, or even changing the grade level you teach will help re-kindle the flame between you and teaching when you are in a slump.

19. Sit with Your Students. Sitting in a chair made for a child is not the most comfortable thing for an adult. But joining a group of children at their table takes us off stage and let's us, even just for a few moments, become a member of the group. We might ask a strategic question, inquire about the group's project, or simply listen.

20. Art and Music Feed the Soul. (And they starve the beast.) Incorporate both of these routinely in your lessons.

Do any of these especially resonate with you? How do you create a safe learning environment for your students? Please share your thoughts and ideas with us.

Rebecca Alber

Edutopia Consulting Online Editor
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Laura Thomas's picture
Laura Thomas
Director, Antioch University New England Center for School Renewal

I often find that educators think that building a safe community is a one-and-done proposition. They spend a few days on getting to know the kids (and maybe letting the kids get to know them) and then they move on to curriculum. Now, nothing builds community quite like meaningful work so it's easier if your students are engaged in inquiry driven learning (problem/project/place/service, etc) but a community doesn't just maintain itself. The wise educator is attentive to the ways his/her students are evolving and adjusts accordingly. (S)he is mindful of the larger world outside the classroom and takes a few moments to check in about more than the content. We always say, "Within a community, anything is possible. Without one, nothing is." It's well worth the time it takes.

Margaret Berry Wilson's picture
Margaret Berry Wilson
Responsive Classroom Consulting Teacher

Thanks for these helpful tips and the reminder about the importance of community-building all year long. I especially appreciated your advice to teachers to smile and laugh often. Not only does it help with community-building, but it also helps us as teachers to relax and follow your other tip, remain calm!

Dr. Painter's picture

Art students need to see us art teachers as artists, too. They need to see how we bump up against the same challenges and how we approach them. That's why I always have a project in progress in my high school art studio. In the studio there are fewer barriers; we're all artists here!

Mark's picture
Mark
Co-founder and Director of The STAR School

This is a very helpful list. I would like to add that for many minority communities, like the Navajo community our school serves, the concept of creating a safe environment is not only relevant to a supportive learning place in school, but also to the historic sustainability of the community. When Navajo students see that their ancestors had developed ways of creating peaceful and respectful communities and ways of peacefully resolving conflicts, and the school works to integrate these approaches into the schools expectations of behavior, a miraculous transformation can occur. When adults at the school "walk the talk" and teach and practice these values and techniques, students take on the responsibility of maintaining a safe and peaceful school environment themselves.

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