Classroom environment can either make or break a school year. With so much of the teacher’s responsibility out of their control, the environment is one of the things that the teacher CAN control. Building and maintaining a healthy learning space for students is a necessity in any grade level, in any subject. This space is the building blocks to educational success.
When I think of the learning environment, I think beyond the physical space and more of the atmosphere of the classroom. Two goals I have every year are that my class is safe and flexible so that learning can take place.
Creating a Safe Environment
This one is a no-brainer that we see throughout educational articles and literature. You want your classroom to be a “safe place” where students can take risks and be rewarded for individuality. However, often that is all that is stated. “Create a safe place for your students to learn and grow.”
Rarely do articles dig deeper and tell you how to achieve the coveted “safe space” of a classroom. To me, creating a safe space is a bit like exercising; you have to do it routinely for it to be effective. If you just dabble in it, you may see results, but likely it’s not the outcome you were hoping for. Furthermore, this goes beyond being consistent in your rules and expectations. This truly goes into the grit of who you are as a teacher.
Creating a safe environment starts at the beginning of the year but then continues throughout the school year. One of the most important ways to create this environment is by building and maintaining relationships between your students and yourself (as well as building relationships among the students).
Value your students
Students feel safe when they feel valued. I make it a point to value every student’s place in my classroom. I know what you are probably thinking “What about little Johnny who eats glue, has no parental support at home, and drives you insane 59 out of the 60 minutes in an hour?” I’m not going to be cliche and say, “He needs your love the most.” Even though we all know that is true, dang if it isn’t hard!
You have to make sure that you value every child in your class and they know that you value you them in some way. For example, this year my “little Johnny” is several years below grade level. He is quiet but tends to mess with all the other kids right when I turn my head. He also loves to write raps. Unfortunately, these raps are not elementary school appropriate.
However, the silver lining is: HE IS A WRITER! This child who would rather do nothing than school work, spends his free time writing. I am determined to get him to see the value in himself and his writing. Look for the silver lining in your most difficult students. Help them see the value they have in your classroom.
Be Real and Approachable
They also feel safe when the teacher is an approachable person. I remember my freshman year of college walking into my first auditorium-style class and my breath catching. I had never experienced such a disconnect from a teacher. My education in that class suffered because I didn’t feel like I could ask the teacher for anything from the back row of the auditorium!
I try to remember this moment when I am with my students. They see me make mistakes (more often than I would like!). They see me struggle, they see me apologize, they see me say “Oops, I am wrong!”. I feel like this is so important in building an environment where risk-taking is encouraged.
Students, especially elementary age, need to see how to be “wrong” in an appropriate way. Students need to see how to face challenges and overcome them in a healthy mature way. You are the model in the classroom. If you are real and approachable, students will be more likely to step outside their comfort zones.
As my classroom shifted into STEAM-focused curriculum, my physical environment had to also shift. This means that your classroom needs to move with what you are doing in class. A stagnant classroom is just that… stagnant.
My classroom changes as we need it to change. We need the floor space one day… all of the desks go against the wall. We need to have a discussion, our desks go in a circle. Allowing your classroom to be fluid and meet the needs that arise during the school year ensures that learning goals are being met.
December is the perfect time for a tune-up in your learning environment. Bring out the “Back to School” icebreakers and take a day or two to get reacquainted with each other. Look at the atmosphere of your class and see what areas you can make better.