Amanda Hill: One strategy that works well to build rapport and develop community is a morning meeting. This means that the first 10 minutes of advisory of the actual class period, you take time to talk about your weekends, what’s going on in your life, basic everyday things as a whole group. This helps students feel like there is more to their teacher than just a teacher, it makes them feel safe and familial. Another strategy I have seen a colleague use is a box that is decorated and is called “The Issue Bin.” This is a box that students can write down any problems that they are having or concerns in a secret manner. This is to accommodate those students who do not feel comfortable talking.
Caroline Hay: I’ve come to the conclusion that creating a safe space for discussion in the classroom is something that builds slowly, and is a combination of the way the teacher interacts with the students and the actual classroom routines and procedures. There are many teachers who state their rules for having a safe classroom, but the rest of what they do does not match that statement.
There is a teacher next door to me who I really admire — she is beloved by her students for her kindness and because all students feel accepted in her room. I’ve tried to really emulate her in the way that she speaks to students compassionately, is always welcoming, always patient, and talks about important issues. I’ve learned a lot from her.
One thing I’ve been doing this year that has been really successful is to have nonviolence be a unifying theme of the year. As part of this, at the beginning of the class students have time to share what’s going on with them, but aligned to values of nonviolence we have identified like compassion, courage, sacrifice, etc. Another thing that I really thing helps to create a safe space is for students to know that you are always willing to answer their questions or listen to what’s important to them. I remember one day a couple of months ago in which I scrapped the whole lesson plan for the day because students were upset about something that had happened and needed to talk through it and think about how to handle it.
Tracey Gordon: From day 1 in the school year, there is a routine to be followed. Students come in quietly, choose their own seats and read the board. Chairs are in a circle and tables are pushed against the walls. Teachers are seated in the circle as well. Hands go up almost immediately to respond to the message on the board. We address and revisit the importance of hearing from everyone. We provide opportunities for students to listen to each other, agree and add onto an idea or disagree and defend their own thinking. We don’t let any comment or gesture go by that takes a way from a safe and inviting atmosphere. We talk about the importance of everyone having a victory every single day. Slowly, over time using the same familiar formats, students have come to trust the process. They have begun to have real trust in the teachers who they see provide an accessible and real curriculum. One that builds from each student’s experiences and moves them into places they didn’t know existed. Once we had this kind of foundation in place, we were ready to begin a unit on bullying to our 7th and 8th graders.
Stephanie Persson: I agree that classroom structure and environment is really important. I start the school year in a similar manner — information on the board, double horseshoe seats to be more inclusive, etc. I also stress respect toward each other. I don’t know why, but rudeness seems to be more common every day. Students tell each other “shut up” for everything. They talk over each other and don’t hesitate to tell each other an idea is stupid or wrong. This is not tolerated from day one in my class. I have found that constant modeling of respect and demanding it of my students has created a safe environment in my class. Students apologize when they “slip up,” they help each other when things fall, and check up on each other when they’re absent. Some classes are more successful and trusting of each other than others, but it is something I continually reinforced. I also make a strong effort to talk with kids about life outside of the classroom, whether it be about a sporting event they had or attended, ask about a visit from family, or question about their weekend. Students open up a lot when teachers show they have a continued interest in who they are, not just their test score at the end of the year.