I believe the most important aspect in a safe and positive learning environment is the rapport between a teacher and his or her students. When the students understand that their teacher cares about them and wants them to do well, students feel comfortable asking questions, making mistakes and taking risks in order to learn something new. To build these kinds of relationships, the teacher should take interest in each student's strengths and interests, as well as their struggles and frustrations. He or she needs to act as a positive model for learning and celebrating achievements. When the students see that their teacher can learn from his or her mistakes, and laugh even in times when he or she feels frustrated, the students will feel much more comfortable to do the same.
Creating a classroom community and culture remain another necessary aspect when fostering a safe learning environment. Students need to understand what they have in common with their fellow learners in the classroom. It is the teacher's job to create this community so all students will get along and celebrate one another's differences. Strong classroom communities can form in a variety of ways. Throughout daily activities the students should be part of a collaborative learning effort, sharing their strengths and encouraging each other. The teacher also may introduce a number of jobs or responsibilities students need to complete in order to maintain the physical classroom. This shows students that they need to count on one another, and it keeps students accountable for their own learning environment as well. Classroom jokes, traditions and pets are other ways to build a strong community. When students enjoy each other's company, they are more likely to be accepting and feel safe in the environment.
Another important responsibility of the teacher is to develop a learning environment where students feel motivated to learn within the boundaries and expectations of a safe classroom. By modeling and encouraging a safe environment and purposeful rules, students feel motivated to do the right thing and help one another. It is important for teachers to put an emphasis on intrinsic motivation in the classroom to keep students interested and invested in their own learning goals. In addition, extrinsic motivators help students understand the expectations of the classroom and aid in their intrinsic motivation. These kinds of motivators include praise, positive reinforcement and rewards for exceptional behavior.
This being said, the teacher's management plan and expectations play a large role in the classroom community. Students cannot learn effectively in an environment where the facilitator has lost control. The teacher should make his or her expectations and consequences for classroom behavior very clear so students understand rules, boundaries and how to learn in a safe manner. When the teacher's management plan is fair, consistent and organized, the students understand what to expect and can make wise choices and take responsibility for their actions.
Each aspect of community and management play a central role in creating a positive and safe learning space. While it is the teacher's job to facilitate and model proactive and positive expectations, it remains the responsibility of every learner in the classroom to care for and encourage one another. Only with everyone's cooperation and collaboration can the learning environment flourish the way it should.
Working in groups chart: This chart shows an example of how students can take responsibility for their actions and expectations of one another in collaborative learning activities. I facilitated the discussion; however, students came up with all of the ideas for how to maintain what excellent groups should "look like" and "sound like". I used this chart later to intrinsically motivate students to work well together and feel comfortable sharing in their groups.
Photos of community comments: As the culminating activity for my original unit I decided to conduct a community building activity. The students set up their creative book reports and walked around to admire the other projects. Every student wrote on every other student's yellow piece of paper to give them specific feedback about what they did well on their project. Before we started this activity I lead them in a discussion about what would be kind and specific feedback. The students did an excellent job during this activity, and felt good after reading the kind words from their classmates.
Journal about mystery person: In order to motivate students intrinsically and extrinsically, I implemented a "mystery person" incentive. Every morning I picked a new person to be our "mystery person". At the end of the day if the student was behaving well and stayed focused throughout the day, I would announce the name of the "mystery person" and the whole class would earn 5 marbles in their marble incentive jar. If the "mystery person" did not do well, they would remain a mystery. This was a great incentive for my students. I really noticed a change in individual and community behavior. At the end of the semester one student even wrote me a note about how much she liked the "mystery person" idea.
Journal about Mr. Hopperson: Another extrinsic motivator, a stuffed animal frog, Mr. Hopperson, was a game I invented to keep the students quiet and respectful in the hallway. When I first started walking the students to their specials I had trouble motivating them with their marble jar incentive. I decided to create a game where students would set a goal (how many times Mr. Hopperson would go around the line and how they would pass him through the line). The students took to the game right away and were encouraged to stay quiet in the hallway. Eventually, I started to phase-out Mr. Hopperson because the students felt intrinsically to walk through the halls respectfully on their own. I still brought him out occasionally for fun though!
Cooperative learning lesson plan: This is an example of a lesson I used to encourage cooperative learning. The groups of students were responsible for creating a group farm and dividing the jobs between them. I always incorporate some kind of group or partner activity into my lesson plans to promote this kind of community and social learning.
Letter home: This is a letter I sent home to two sets of parents informing them of a consequence their students had to face due to a lost book. The books were a part of my original unit and came from the public library. While these notes were unfortunate, they display how I am consistent and fair in regards to consequences in my classroom.