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Professional Learning

Belonging, Safety, and Trust: A Recipe for Better Professional Learning

Professional learning that attends to teachers’ social and emotional needs helps to create a healthier school culture.

July 26, 2021
HRAUN / iStock

What’s the recipe for creating a strong learning culture and community? What ingredients are needed as some teachers and students set foot on school campuses for the first time in over a year? A dash of joy? A cup of collaboration? What will our educators need to feel supported this fall? At Lead by Learning, a nonprofit with the Mills College School of Education that partners with schools and districts to create strong learning cultures for educators, we believe the foundation of learning and growth is belonging, safety, and trust not just for our students, but for adults too.

Attending to the social and emotional needs of educators supports them to best attend to the needs of their students.

  • How can we expect the adults in the building to care for the whole child if we don’t care for them?
  • How do we take a “both/and” approach to meeting both student and adult social and emotional needs?
  • How do we tend to the belonging, safety, and trust needed for learning in a routine and sustainable way?

3 Ways to Build Belonging, Safety, and Trust Among Educators

1. Building belonging with a warm welcome. A warm welcome, one of the social and emotional learning (SEL) signature practices of the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning, or CASEL, immediately invites your colleagues into the room just as it does students. These activities, which usually take 10 to 15 minutes, should be intentionally connected to one of the goals of the meeting. Their purpose is to bring colleagues together and allow them to draw connections between one another and the learning outcomes. This is also an opportunity to create equity of voice. When everyone is invited to share either to the whole group or with a partner or small group, each voice is invited into the space. The most important question when planning your warm welcome is to ask: How do we want people to feel?

Some warm welcome ideas are:

  • Share a rose (something that is going well), a thorn (something that is a current challenge), and a bud (something you hope will blossom soon).
  • Share the story of your name and your preferred pronouns.
  • Share a haiku to encapsulate how you are feeling right now.
  • Share a moment or person that has inspired you this week.
  • Draw an emoji that represents how you are feeling.

2. Building safety through setting collaborative community norms. Norms matter even for adults. When people are coming together, they’re coming together with the diversity of their identities, experiences, and opinions. We all need different things to learn best, and the only way we can learn that about one another is by shining light on our needs. Even if colleagues have worked together for years, taking time in August to share collaborative community norms is essential to create and build on the safety needed to learn.

At the start of the year, we like to ask the educators we work with to ask themselves three questions:

  • What conditions do you need in order to be able to do your best learning?
  • What conditions do you need in order to feel brave in this group as a learner?
  • What do you need from others to feel safe learning?

We like to invite our educators to first think alone for three to five minutes and then share collaboratively using chart paper or a Jamboard. After sharing, if there’s time, you can invite team members to elaborate on any of the norms they wrote or provide space for a gallery walk for others to place checks or stars next to norms that resonate with them.

Depending on the size of the group, it may take time to narrow these down to a core four to six norms, so we suggest that someone volunteer to synthesize the collaborative community norms and bring them back to the team at the next meeting.

And of course, norms are just words, unless they are acted upon to support the creation of a safe space. We invite the educators we work with to reflect on the collaborative community norms both throughout the meeting and at the end.

3. Building trust with public learning. Teaching and leading is complex and uncertain work. If we aren’t given opportunities to wrestle with this complexity aloud and in community, we tend to feel like everyone else is perfect and consequently suffer in silence. This myth of perfectionism puts pressure on us to share only our successes and not our challenges, making it hard for communities to build professional trust. Public learning is a collaborative routine that invites educators to share uncertainties and dilemmas aloud, instead of focusing only on best practices. Following this vulnerable sharing, colleagues do not respond with solutions or what worked for them in their classrooms, but instead support their colleagues with deep listening and courageous questions so the public learner can name their next steps on their own.

To get started with public learning, create space for colleagues to reflect on their practice and ask themselves three questions before sharing:

  • What is a goal you have for your learners?
  • When you look at student data in connection to this goal, what strengths do you see?
  • What are you not seeing yet in the data you are hoping to see?

By building this routine of reflection, learning communities can begin to build a culture of public learning and ultimately trust.

As we welcome both students and educators back on campus this August and we are writing lesson plans and building agendas, let’s remember three things: belonging, safety, and trust. No recipe for learning is complete without these three foundational ingredients, for both our adult and student learners to thrive. 

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