A big part of working with students is creating an environment that makes them feel safe to stretch and make some mistakes along the way.
Recently my Edutopia article “Highlighting ‘Good’ Mistakes in Student Work” was shared on Twitter. One comment suggested that a teacher should be careful about publicly sharing mistakes to avoid embarrassing students. Absolutely, a mistake-friendly classroom environment should be well established before publicly discussing errors. A student must feel psychologically safe before opening up to the vulnerability of sharing mistakes.
In a TED interview, Harvard University professor Amy Edmonson defined psychological safety as “a climate in which one feels one can be candid. It’s a place where interpersonal risks feel doable, interpersonal risks like speaking up with questions and concerns and half-baked ideas and even mistakes.”
How can a teacher establish such an environment where students feel free to be themselves?
2 Shifts to Foster Psychological Safety
1. Give trust to get trust. As a formative assessment, I wrote an exponent expression on the board and asked students to show me with their fingers either a 0, 1, or 2, with 0 meaning “I have never seen this in my life”; 1, “I have seen it, but I am unsure how to proceed”; and 2, “I know this so well I could practically teach it.” After going through a few expressions that modeled various exponent rules, I had a good sense of which students needed extension and which needed foundational support.
In this particular lesson, I did not give a written pretest; instead, I trusted their self-assessment. If a student was dishonest or confused about their own assessment, the student and I would find that out very quickly as the group work was assigned. This is also a lesson in the students trusting themselves.
Trust can be given outside of academic contexts. If a student is having a rough day or another particular need, tell them privately that they can step out of class at their own discretion to visit the restroom or take a short walk. If a student’s phone makes a noise in class and they promise that they truly intended to turn it off, trust them (this first time).
Extending trust does not mean letting students take advantage of the rules. Instead, it solidifies the respectful relationship between teacher and students. If a student’s behavior is developing into a negative pattern (forgetting supplies, asking to be excused frequently, incomplete or low-quality work), talk with the student privately. Genuinely ask if there is an issue that you can help them with or if they need help from someone else, such as a parent, counselor, or administrator.
Let them know firmly what is expected of them in your class and that you are happy to help them get the assistance they need. In most cases, the student can correct their behavior on their own. They also know that you will escalate the issue if the behavior doesn’t improve.
When I can give trust to students, they learn to trust my guidance. They trust that I will plan quality lessons for them each day, and I will try my best to help meet their learning needs. When my student and I fall short or make mistakes, there is a culture of trust that helps everyone move on and keep trying.
2. Be flexible within your routine. Students thrive in predictable environments because of a sense of stability. A predictable classroom environment doesn’t have to mean rigid. Educators can provide a stable routine while also staying present and attentive to necessary adjustments.
Educator Jill Donovan reflects on what it means to “be present” in Independent School Magazine: “While teachers rarely underestimate the importance of predictable routines, I want to keep reminding myself and others that it really matters that we stay fully present with kids and each other.”
Over the years, I have learned to lighten up when it comes to sticking rigidly to a curriculum or schedule. I am much better now at reading the vibe from my class.
In the beginning years, I would march right on with my lesson plans with little regard for student understanding or interest. Now, if a student happens to ask about a rich topic such as the Fibonacci sequence in class, then I just have to accept that my planned lesson is going out of the window that day (within reason). Whatever lesson gets delayed because we discussed a topic of interest can be made up another time. It’s important to strike while the curiosity iron is hot.
Being flexible also means admitting when your plan is not working. Educator Anne Gillyard says that when a lesson is not clicking with the students, “sometimes you have to shrug and stop the lesson.” Education consultant Batsheva Frankel reflects on a failed lesson on her podcast Overthrowing Education: “Once I stopped a lesson in the middle of it, and I said, ‘This is really boring. Are you all as bored as I am? Let’s figure out a better way to learn this.’” There is no doubt that Batsheva was promoting psychological safety in her class by being open to student feedback and admitting that the lesson was a flop.
The teacher has a huge impact on the culture of the classroom. What is the teacher’s reaction to their own mistakes? Student mistakes? Is there a vibe of fun, lightheartedness, and acceptance?
Education consultant and author Steve Barkley writes in his blog, “When planning instruction to meet student learning outcomes, it’s important to consider the learning environment that will engage your student.” It is not easy when we are overworked, underappreciated, and often stressed to cultivate such an environment, but by making a few shifts, everyone will benefit from a culture where you can be yourself.”