Applying the Principles of a Positive Learning Environment
As someone who is just beginning my career as a teacher, I often wonder, “What is the most important thing that I can offer my students?” Can I provide them with an innovative educational experience that prepares them to become super geniuses? Can I ignite a sense of curiosity in my students that will later translate into the next best invention? Can I model for them what it means to be a responsible citizen that treats others with dignity and respect? Perhaps… But none of this is possible unless I first create a safe, supportive, and healthy learning environment for each and every one of my students.
I believe that creating a positive, safe and supportive classroom environment is one of the most important aspects of teaching. The one thing that I can guarantee for my students is an environment in which they feel safe, as we know not all students have a stable home life. Students want to feel comfortable to express themselves freely and not have the fear of rejection by their peers or their teacher. This not only benefits their self-image, but it allows them to take academic risks, which enhances their overall learning.
The way that I view a safe, supportive, and healthy learning environment is like a family. You may not have chose your siblings (your classmates) or your parents (your teacher), but you are all in this family together. As a family, you have each others backs in the hard times and always have each others best interests in mind. You support one another and want to see everyone succeed.
But how do we build the classroom community that houses our family? It is my belief that a safe learning environment must be based on mutual trust and respect and provide social and emotional support for students. This can be achieved by implementing practices that fosters support. Firstly, students strive on routine and stability. Most people are privy to the classic classroom guidelines, but it is important to take this one step further. As the facilitator of the classroom, teachers must take a step back and allow the students to create the classroom guidelines. Rather than telling the students what they ought to do and why, this approach allows students to collaborate in the process and feel a sense of responsibility and ownership. The teacher can prompt students throughout the process by asking questions like, “What helps to you learn while you are in class?”, “What stops you from learning?”, or “How should we respond if someone fails to keep these agreements?” but ultimately, the students should take ownership of their guidelines.
Another way to build classroom community is by developing personal relationships with each and every student so that they are understood as an individual and the teacher is aware of each student’s needs. I never liked it when my teachers or professors introduced themselves and shared all of their amazing life experiences and then never asked the students to share about ourselves. It sets the precedence that the teacher matters and the student doesn’t. It is important to provide students with the opportunity to discuss or share their backgrounds and cultures, expressing exactly what makes them the person they are.
I like to think of myself less as a ‘teacher’ and more as a ‘facilitator of education’. I do not transmit my knowledge to students; I learn far too much from my students to not have the learning be reciprocal. Rather, I provide students with learning environments in which they have responsibility for their own learning. Teacher facilitated, student-driven learning allows students to learn by doing, writing, designing, creating, making and solving, not just by listening.
Ultimately, when it comes to building a classroom community, believe in your students and they will begin to believe in themselves. It may take a while for you to instill this understanding in your students, but once students realize that we genuinely care for them, we know we are on the path to creating a positive and healthy learning environment.
Throughout my Bachelor of Education, I have come to learn that there are so many philosophies behind each teaching practice. Whether it’s about implementing the curriculum, student learning styles, classroom management, or student discipline, each teacher has the task of evaluating the many philosophies and adopting their own that guides their practice. When it comes to classroom environment and culture, I truly respect the idea of restorative practice. Although restorative practice gives the impression of being a reactive approach, when implemented properly and regularly, it has many proactive benefits.
As Bob Costello, Joshua Wachtel, and Ted Wachtel explain in The Restorative Practices Handbook for Teachers, Disciplinarians and Administrators, teachers must do things WITH students, rather than TO them or FOR them. By implementing a learning environment that uses both “high control” and “high support”, students will be both safe and supported in their learning.
There will be times in every classroom when conflict arises. However, the way we view and approach this conflict is very important. Conflict is simply a challenge that allows the opportunity to develop, learn, and grow through an exchange of different views and perspectives. As teachers, we have nothing to gain and everything to lose by arguing back and forth with a student, especially with other students as an audience. Even how we approach conflict between two students is important. The Restorative Continuum in The Restorative Practices Handbook provides insight for teachers about the various ways to respond to harmful behaviour.
|Affective statements||Affective questions||Small impromptu conference||Group or circle||Formal conference|
Rather than scolding the student for inappropriate behaviour, it is important to give the student control, allow them take responsibility for their actions, and rectify the situation. This is a different approach for many teachers, and I can tell you that it feels a little awkward at first, but prompting the students with questions like, “What happened?”, “Who has been affected by what you have done?”, and “What do you think you need to do to make things right?” will give students the opportunity to take ownership of their behaviour. It is important to remember that just like how students can make an error on a math test, students can also make errors in their behaviour. They are not “bad kids”, but they simply made a mistake.
I find that I remember to give the student ownership of their behaviour is by providing them with choice. I don’t believe that any student wants to misbehave; sometimes, students just don’t know how else to respond. By giving students choices, we allow them to take ownership of their response while also sending the message that we respect their decisions.
The main thing to remember when approaching harmful behaviour is to remain calm at all times. Students know when you are not happy, and they know when they can take advantage of your mood. When a teacher responds negatively to a student, it breaks down the trust that has taken so much time and work to build. It also disregards the concepts of a safe and supportive learning environment. Take a breath, smile, and set a positive mood for the learning environment.
There have been a number of practices that I have seen during my practicum experiences that help to contribute to positive learning environments. A restorative practice that I’ve seen is circle time at the beginning and end of each week. This time allows students to express their thoughts and ideas, share their feelings or apprehensions, build deeper relationships with their peers and teacher, and practicing collaboration. These circles, when implemented correctly, establish the classroom as a safe space and help to maintain emotional safety.
I am also a strong believer that collaborative learning is a practice that supports a safe and supportive learning environment. In my own teaching, I try to use pair work, as well as small-group and whole-class activities throughout the learning process. It is important to start this during the first week of school to help students get acquainted with one another and provide opportunities to from connections with students they don’t interact with as frequently inside or outside of the classroom. As I learned in the documentary #bullyPROOF, it is less likely that someone will bully a person that they know well. Therefore, group work supports both relationship building and academic achievement.
Within the walls of the classroom, we can engage in many actions that create supportive learning environments. Something as simple as displaying student work on the walls promotes student ownership of the room. When students look around and see their work and achievements, they feel comfortable and proud to be where they are. As I’ve said before, circle activities promote that everyone is equal and valued, and that we are all able to express feelings or solve problems. Circle guidelines such as a talking stick and the right to pass instill a greater sense of safety. When students need time to themselves to self-regulate, a predetermined safe space can provide that extra sense of safety.
The school itself can contribute to the overall essence of positivity. Initiatives such as “Caught You Caring” where school staff recognize students for their contribution to creating a safe and healthy school environment will encourage students to adopt their own positive actions. Assemblies that recognize student character and achievements sets the precedence that this is ultimately what the school values, not just marks or grades. Even something as simple as spirit points during intramurals or sports gives value to what is expected for everyone to win.
Safe and supportive learning environments can also be developed by extending the walls of the school to include the surrounding community. Engaging in community initiatives give students a chance to feel that they are doing something good, not for themselves but for others. This is especially important for students that feel they are being viewed as the “bad kid” at school.
Every teacher should create a safe, healthy, and supportive learning environment, but they cannot do it alone. Students must drive this movement and know that the classroom is their environment to create. I am just starting my teaching career, but if I continue to explore ways in which I can promote a positive learning environment for my students, then I know that I am doing what matters most for our next generation. I have a lot to learn and a lot to practice, but students are my focus and I will do what needs to be done for each of them to feel valued and successful.