Building a safe space for students—and you, as teacher—to grow and learn
It has been such a pleasure getting to know you over the years. Having you in my life has been such a joy. Specifically, English 4 was, by far, the best thing to happen to me at Peak to Peak. You created such a safe space for everyone to be themselves. A place of wisdom and heart. A place of acceptance. To this day, those kids and you, are the best support system I have at this school.
Thank you for always supporting me in my struggles and believing in me. Thank you for giving me the space to come as I am and showing me love. Thank you for supporting my passions and starting a fire in me that won’t die.
I wouldn’t be anywhere without you.
As a teacher of middle school English for more than 16 years, I understand the changing landscape of the educational world. There is an understandable push toward innovation and technology, and as the years go by, the pressure mounts to add more into our strategies and practices.
At times, the frenetic pace of my life as a classroom teacher takes precedence over everything, and I need to find the passion and grounding to bring me back to the why. Why do I teach? I teach because of letters like the one above.
At the core of who I am as a teacher is love and creating a safe space where the affirmation of self and others can flourish and grow. I believe with the foundation of this safe space, students can be challenged to learn with a deeper sense of who they are. Yet this transformation must come first from the teacher, and this means entering the classroom with an open and accepting heart.
But how does one learn to become vulnerable with others, including our students? This authenticity is a lifelong practice and does not come easily. As a teacher surrounded by myriad personalities, I notice when I am triggered. Rather than responding to a trigger in an unhealthy way, I take three conscious breaths and check in with my emotions. How can I respond to this student with respect, care, and concern? Or do I need to? How can I repair the harm if I have responded in a disrespectful way? The success of my work as a teacher and the success of my students is tied to relationships, and I am, most often, the navigator of these relationships.
I recently attended a seminar on mindfulness practice in classrooms, and I was surprised to see how many attendees use mindfulness techniques with their students, but didn’t have a mindfulness practice of their own. How can teachers help students navigate their own complex emotions and learn how to self-regulate if we are not modeling these techniques in our everyday lives?
A colleague at the same conference shared his definition of mindfulness as creating quiet space to breathe, with a sound cue at each end. He didn’t understand until this conference that the practice of mindfulness is complex and includes a number of strategies to build trust and maintain that trust throughout the year. For example, if a student has experienced a significant amount of trauma, long periods of unguided open silence can be a painful experience, bringing up memories from the past with no container to hold them.
I begin each school year building trust in a safe way before I ask students to go deeper. For example, on the first day of class, I play the “pop up” game. I ask a question, and if this question is affirmed by the students, they stand up. I ask questions like, “how many of you play a sport?” These types of questions are low-risk, and therefore encourage full participation, allowing you to get to know your students.
Other activities I use to build trust at the beginning of the year include signed classroom agreements for each period I teach, and sharing personal stories to reveal my personal investment in the creation of our safe and inviting classroom culture.
As we dive into the curriculum and I have gained the trust of my students, I encourage personal connections to the material, including a deep look into themes and symbolic connections. One of my favorite projects, the “Inside/Outside” project, is based on our study of the novel Ender’s Game, by Orson Scott Card. The essential question for the unit is, “how can perceptions of personal power transform your life?” In the novel, protagonist Andrew “Ender” Wiggin is a confident, team-oriented leader who strives to create a sense of community within battle school. However, on the inside, Ender struggles with issues of self-confidence, guilt, and how to find his voice.
For the project, students create a visual representation of the Inside/Outside aspects of who they are, using only object and color symbolism. An artist statement complements their visual projects during our classroom gallery walk, an opportunity for peers and other staff to come and comment on each project.
I am always touched by the depth of self-reflection in many of my seventh graders during the entirety of this project. I find using symbolism allows them to communicate safely as they are the only ones who understand what each symbol means. In the modeling and crafting of their statements, to be shared publicly, I encourage them to take risks outside their comfort zone, but understand if they are not comfortable doing so. To foster even more trust, each year I make an “Inside / Outside” project of my own and share it with my students.
Last year, I had a student who struggled to stay on top of school work. He had significant focus issues and therefore had a hard time completing work. I spent some one-on-one time with him, helping to craft plans for his visual project and artist statement. After we were finished, I was deeply touched by what he shared with me and his classmates. This information also proved valuable to our entire staff who worked with this student, including support staff and members of the administration. We had a deeper understanding of his personal struggles and how to help him. Below is an excerpt from his artist statement and a photo of his visual project.
“On the inside, I am passionate about art, Halloween, and humor. I love Halloween because of the art behind it and creating events for the kids in my neighborhood. I love to make people feel surprised and excited within a safe space. Another color I used on the inside is purple. This is an important color to me because it symbolizes ceremony. Because I have OCD (obsessive compulsive disorder), my mind creates ceremonies so I can calm myself down. These ceremonies protect me and allow me to talk to myself and calm myself down. The symbols I used communicate challenges, mental issues I struggle with, and how much I love to laugh. The dragon represents my protectors: my mom and sister. With them, I am able to to talk about my challenges and tame my dragons. My sister allows me to share my feelings and take risks, allowing me to express my anger and anxiety.”
As the end of each school year, I create intentional closure activities, including reflection circles and opportunities for review. As a teacher who strives to keep an open heart in anything I do, I feel blessed and successful when I receive feedback in the form of an unsolicited letter. I treasure these letters and notes and keep them on the wall behind my desk as a source of inspiration. Thank you, Taylor, for your inspiration and love and for allowing me, as your teacher, to be myself!