Brave, Safe Spaces

Teachers are the guardians of spaces that allow students to breathe and be curious and explore the world and be who they are without suffocation. Students deserve one place where they can rumble with vulnerability and their hearts can exhale.

– Brene Brown

Yesterday, I watched one of my amazing coach colleagues deliver a demo lesson in a 6th grade classroom that I did a demo in earlier this year. I promised her: you will love teaching in this classroom. In watching the demo of this ELA strategy (more on that on a different day), I once again noticed everything I loved about this group.

  • Everyone participates.
  • They cheer each other on.
  • They laugh with and enjoy each other.

So, how do you get to this place? Where 6th grade is not a chaotic madhouse at the end of the school year, but a calm, safe spot where students know exactly what is expected of them as a member of the community?

Of course I asked the teacher! She told me she did her entire Master’s thesis on building classroom community. In her student teaching experience, she was surprised in a second grade classroom where blending started immediately day 1. Shouldn’t a community be built first? So that’s what she does.

She explicitly tells them, “I won’t let you fail.”

During the demo, the coach communicated the same safe space to the students. She built rapport with the students through a calm, casual voice. She appreciated them out loud, telling them “I am so impressed by how you walked into the room.” She connected with them where they were at, introducing the lesson (about analyzing text evidence for meaning – no easy feat) with Tupac, Taylor Swift, and Kevin Hart. She taught by walking around the room, getting close to each of the groups and making eye contact. In group discussions, she circled around the room, listening in to the students, asking questions, pushing on thinking.

Two students yesterday especially caught my eye. I know they’ve struggled in the past. They were especially vulnerable, both standing up to analyze a quote on the board. One started to sit back down, but with the class cheering him on, he pulled out an answer that was a diamond in the rough. Where it could have slid into a shaming event – the teacher might have corrected the grammar, the stuttering, the “close but no cigar” – instead the teacher praised the diamond inside, which was the insight into the quote that was personal and insightful. The class “clam clapped” (tapping fingers together like a clam but without the crazy noise to annoy the class next door). The second student started to share his response and then said, “No, I just can’t say it right.” The coach said, “I totally get it. Tell me some of the words in your head right now.” The student started and stopped. The coach smiled and waited as he regathered his thoughts. Soon, he brought out another wonderful insight into the quote they were studying. Clam clapping ensued.

There is a common thread among all the teachers I work with who have classrooms similar to these. It is an empathetic, relaxed demeanor that communicates, “I’ve got you. I’ve got this.” These teachers know what they want the students to accomplish, and are convinced every student can accomplish it. They are well aware that their students are bringing in lots of baggage in many different forms. They know this because they have taken the time to get to know every student in their classroom. They are also well aware that not every student will perform in the same way. When they talk about their students, they don’t focus on the baggage. They focus on the growth. They don’t categorize the students as “low” or “high”, they categorize them all as learners. These teachers talk about successes on the part of the students, and when their students fall short of success, these teachers look for ways to grow their own practice instead of blaming the student. Their quest for knowledge is ongoing – students are always bringing to us new challenges to overcome and the world of education is ever evolving.

Teaching is a difficult job, and none of what I’ve described above is easy. It is tempting to slip into the blame and shame routine as the pressures of administration, testing, and parents mount. In this week of Teacher Appreciation, I am grateful to all who work tirelessly to prioritize and create these brave, safe spaces for our students to grow not only as learners, but as courageous and vulnerable human beings.