A Reflection on Creating a Safe and Inclusive Environment in the Classroom
Today, I will be reflecting on:
How can I creative a positive, safe, and inclusive atmosphere for students from all cultural, racial, and ethnic backgrounds? And why should we care about creating this climate in our classroom?
First, why should I care about creating a positive, safe, and inclusive environment for my students?
Well when students feel personally connected and safe with their teachers and school officials, they’re more likely to view school as a positive thing. As in all things that people feel positively about, the students are more likely to work harder and ask more questions in an environment where they feel motivated and safe( Borngesser, 2014).
In fact, schools implementing special SEL programs often experience a bump in standardized test scores of 10% simply because the students feel all their social and emotional needs are being met (Borngesser, 2014) (Edutopia, 2018). Part of meeting a student’s social and emotional needs is both establishing a positive relationship with the student and creating a class atmosphere that feels safe and open to the students (Barr, 2016).
My background and the Effect It Has on the Bias Domains
First, I should disclose to you that I’m white. I’m a white, American of German descent with very lukewarm feelings about religion in general. By lukewarm I mean that I believe in something but not strongly in anything specific. And obviously, this is going to affect my biases in the classroom because I’m a human being. But as a responsible human being and global citizen, it is my job to make sure these biases affect my teaching as little as possible. In other words, I don’t want my own personal biases to get in the way of creating a safe and open classroom environment or to affect my personal relationship with my students. But, how can I correct for these biases?
Now, what should I focus on for fighting my internal biases? Well, there are four primary anti-bias objectives that the curriculum focuses on: identity, diversity, action, and justice (McGarry, et. al., 2012) (Teaching Tolerance, 2016).
Identity involves evolving an identity not just based on your culture but actually becoming a member who identifies with multiple cultures. This identity is one the students feel that they can express freely, and they are able to keep its core values and esteem intact even when taken out of their native culture. They also can recognize traits of their dominant culture as well as others cultures.
Diversity involves being able to interact with others of the same or different culture respectfully. These students strive to be curious about other people’s cultures by asking questions and observing things in a respectful way. They also will strive to build empathy and compassion with others from different cultures.
Action involves knowing how to take a stand. Students focus on making groups to fight for smaller groups’ rights. They stand up and know how to diffuse situations where others are being attacked. They function both as peacemakers and their own and other’s advocates.
Justice involves having an internal system of values about what’s right or wrong. These students can recognize when something inappropriate is going on both on an individual level all the way up to the corporate level. They also have at least a basic idea of the way that power and privilege create, influence, and destroy viewpoints, possibilities, and relationships.
But what do these things looks like in the classroom?
Personally, I feel that all of the objectives can be achieved by focusing on developing positive student-teacher relationships, creating a feeling of safety and inclusiveness in the classroom, and mobilizing other teachers and people in the community.
Developing a Positive Student-Teacher Relationship with My Students
How can I develop a positive student-teacher relationship with my students?
One way is to honor the student experience. But, what does that mean exactly?
Well, my students are learning to explore personal and social identity issues. One way to address the fact that my experiences are radically different from my students is to have a sense of openness and cultural humility as well as activity committing to challenging stereotypes. For instance as someone who is not strongly religious, I might have to consciously work at being open-minded about people who are strongly religious.
Openness and cultural humility are particularly important in Japan which is homogenous and rather conforming in nature. The dominance of conforming to social norms is of course advantageous in certain circumstances. Wallets that are lost are almost always returned. And crimes like murder are relatively rare even in big cities like Tokyo. In some ways, the devotion to social norms leads to a much safer society.
But this conforming tendency has a dark side. Many of my students are taught subconsciously that going against the social norms is bad, and this naturally leads to students extending this idea to how one looks. People that dress differently for ethnic reasons or look different from the average Japanese person are often treated as being “not Japanese”; and therefore, they are excluded from many social opportunities.
My students are very young. Right now, I work with 3 year olds, and I will soon work with 2nd graders at an elementary school. They are young, and so these biases are not fixed. In addition, they are going to an international school which means their parents are usually more open to the idea of other cultures than that of the average Japanese child. So, this is our chance, as teachers, to open a dialogue with the students to address inequities while assisting them in developing their own intrinsic identities.
The ways I am trying to promote openness and cultural humility to my 3 year olds and my 2nd grade students are pretty similar:
1. I can expose both groups to different cultures, ethnicities, and racial groups through activities and books.
- Simply reading stories that show a variety of cultures, ethnicities, or races and/or creating crafts based on another culture’s techniques passively promotes the idea that other cultures exist and should be respected (Teaching Tolerance, 2016).
2. I can work on developing their emotional empathy skills through roleplaying situations.
- Examples would include:“What would you do if someone takes your toy?” or “If your friend is sad, how can we cheer them up?”. We actually have a “We are all friends” unit to spread this feeling of interconnectedness.
3. I can also try to get them to identify why they’re upset by something and work on acknowledging the view point is valid but also helping find a solution to ease the pain.
- Being open and empathetic to others viewpoints naturally allows them to connect with others, and it gives them an important skill for at least being sensitive to another person’s culture or identity (Teaching Tolerance, 2016) (Edutopia, 2010).
- Also by helping our students work through tough topics or challenges, we as teachers can build trust and rapport with our students (Edutopia, 2010).
4. I can try to acknowledge my students anytime they speak; and if they catch a mistake, I thank them.
- This falls in line with the idea that we need to open a dialogue with our students to get to know them by using: listening, humility, respect, trust, and voice.
- I’m building all the critical skills to dialogue by doing this. I’m modeling how to actively listen to what some else says, and I do ask follow up question usually. I’m modeling humility by acknowledging and appreciating others’ view points particularly when they’re correct. I’m establishing respect and trust by giving them my attention and time while also giving them the chance to utilize their voice by allowing them to talk and respecting them enough to consider their opinion (McGarry, et. al., 2012) (Teaching Tolerance, 2016).
- I think saying, “You’re wrong,” is very dismissive, and I try never to use such negative words bluntly. Instead, I might say, “Well, that’s close, but not quite correct. I’m really happy to hear you try to answer.” And then, I would usually follow up with a guiding question or asking if the student wanted to talk with their group for a second (Borngesser, 2014).
5. I can do small things like strive to remember my students names, hobbies, and religious/cultural holidays.
- By modeling these things, I am showing my young learners that they do matter creating a more positive bond with them.
- In addition, I am also showing them that things like one’s name or culture are important enough to remember, and I would hope they would come to internalize the value of knowing about another person’s culture as well.
Setting up a Social and Emotional Safety in the Classroom
As teachers, we don’t just need to create a positive student-teacher relationship. We also need to create a classroom environment where everyone is equally supported, and they feel safe. Now when I say equally supported, I mean that you have to acknowledge that sometimes certain students might need more support than others.
For instance, I have many different ethnicities in my international classroom. But the dominant ethnicity by far is Japanese. This can create a situation where students who are not Japanese feel excluded because their viewpoint isn’t represented as heavily in the students attending the school. And the society they live in has different standards than their native culture. Standards these students don’t intuitively understand because it’s not their native culture. So, I would want to employ these support strategies to put them on equal footing with their peers:
1.dI can put up positive role models from many different races/ethnicities/cultures and make a point of discussing them over the course of the year.
Simply having these visual examples of people that are successful from their own culture can help counteract stereotype biases as well as feelings of inferiority that might develop from not seeing a lot of role models that look/act like them in the culture they’re living in (McGarry, et. al, 2018).
2. I can allow students to help create the rules of the classroom.
- Obviously with three year olds who are just learning the rules of the classroom, there is less input available. But I can ask open ended questions like: “How should we talk to someone when we talk nicely?” Or “To be safe, we shouldn’t hit. If I’m angry, what can I do instead, so that I am still following the be safe rule.”
- For second graders, I can actually create a class contract with them. I would provide the general template of the contract, and then we would talk about what exactly each rule means or if it should be changed (McGarry, et. al, 2018). Not only will this acquaint them with the standards, but it also shows me what they value and gives meaning to potentially meaningless rules (Teaching Tolerance, 2016).
- This would also give them a chance to express their values and agree on values that merge their cultures together
3. When I discipline a student for disrupting the class or hurting another student, I can make sure to have a zero-indifference and restorative mindset.
- It’s much less work to have a zero-tolerance policy where student are always punished the same when breaking a rule. But it doesn’t really make sense because a student might have broken the rule because of a cultural miscommunication (McGarry, et. al, 2018).
- For instance, maybe a student from another country is more blunt in their native tongue. This bluntness is taken as meanness by a classmate because of a difference in culture. Technically, the student has broken the “Be nice to everyone.” rule. BUT their motivations are different than a student who is lashing out because they are angry. By taking the time to understand the motivation for the behavior, a teacher can figure out what punishment is most effective (warning, cool off time, or a talk with parents for example) as well as give the student constructive examples about what to do next time.
- In addition, I think a restorative mindset towards punishment is healthy for both the teacher and the student (Teaching Tolerance, 2016). You, as the teacher, should never be the enemy in your students’ minds. Instead, you should tell the students why they are in trouble, what the penalty for that is, and what they can do next time to make sure they have the tools to avoid the situation a second time.
- This student would likely then need positive praise soon after about something not necessarily related to help continue to rebuild their positive relationship with you.
4. I can make it my mission to always intervene when I see a student being harassed regardless of whether I am teaching at the time, in a hurry, or feel uncomfortable about intervening.
- It’s easy to let little harassment slide in the classroom when I’m in a hurry. There’s a schedule to keep, and it’s important we stick to it. But the problem is that students model what we do. If I’m not showing my young, impressionable learners that safety is a priority in my classroom, they won’t trust me regardless of how often I preach about being kind and understanding.
- In addition when I model how to intervene, I am providing my students with the tools to self-police the classroom, so they can also contribute to a safe environment both in the classroom and outside of it where most bullying happens.
- Also, I can take a stand and making students aware of Take a Stand statements (GLSEN, 2018). Examples of these statements would be “Man, you’re so gay” or “Go kill yourself” or “So when did your family hop over the border?” these are not acceptable, and they should inspire immediate action from the students and you.
5. I can teach my students about the Internet and cyberbullying through videos, discussions, and presentations.
- Cyberbullying is the newest way of bullying; and in my opinion, it’s terrifying. This bullying follows you home and there’s little to no legislation to protect the victims who eventually might choose to become bullies themselves due to their pain (Withers, 2013) .
- There are also other key issues like stranger danger on the Internet and watching out for fraud that might have personal or financial implications.
- Programs involving recognizing the dangers of the Internet need to be implemented because students right now don’t have a lot of opportunities to watch people model appropriate behavior on the Internet. Most of the time when we learn about social norms, we do so by watching what others do. But most people don’t look over someone else’s shoulder to watch their computer activities. A proper program could help my student’s recognize and deal with issues via role-play and discussion; so that when they are inevitably confronted with a problem, they have the tools to successfully solve or at least deal with it (Withers, 2013).
Creating a Work Environment to Spread this Message of Considering Students’ Cultural, Ethnic, and Racial Backgrounds
I’ve been talking about my classroom and possible techniques inside the classroom I can use. But why am I always focused on the classroom?
Well, it’s the only thing that I consider as completely in my control.
But that’s not true. Just like the students we teach, we as teachers can band together. Talking to our colleagues about creating a student-centered environment that takes the time to consider students’ cultural, ethnic, and racial backgrounds feels tricky because it’s an emotionally loaded topic. Furthermore, it’s helpful if our classrooms feel safe and positive; but for maximum impact, it’s important for the whole school or even community to strive to be a safe, inclusive place for students (GLSEN, 2018) (McGarry, et. al, 2018)(Teaching Tolerance, 2016).
Strategies to convert our colleagues into allies include (McGarry, et.al, 2018):
1. We can use “I” statements with them.
- People tend to feel less attacked when we start a sentence with “I think”. If they’re not feeling defensive, they’ll be more likely to listen.
2. We can make a point of attending teaching conferences and encouraging others to do the same to educate ourselves on the variety of approaches and strategies for creating a safe, inclusive classroom.
3. We can help head or collaborate with other teachers during curriculum planning to integrate ally programs, inclusive topics, and methods/activities to develop more positive student-teacher relationships.
Overall, this unit made me a lot more thoughtful about the subconscious messages I’m sending to my class, and I’m looking forward to implementing some of these strategies as I move forward in my teaching career.
Barr, J. J.. (2016, October). Developing a positive classroom climate. The Idea Center. Retrieved from https://www.ideaedu.org/Portals/0/Uploads/Documents/IDEA%20Papers/IDEA%20Papers/PaperIDEA_61.pdf
Borngesser, T. (2014, December 9). Positive student teacher relationships. Retrieved March 3, 2018 from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RffD7QN1XW8
Edutopia. (2018, February 6). How a district integrates SEL with academics. Edutopia. Retrieved from https://www.edutopia.org/package/how-district-integrates-sel-academics
Edutopia. (2010, November 16). Smart hearts: Social and emotional learning overview. Retrieved March 3, 2018 from https://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=4wOWEGyO60o
GLSEN. (2008). ThinkB4YouSpeak: Educator’s guide. [PDF for teaching strategies when bullied]. Retrieved March 3, 2018 from file:///Users/nichole/Downloads/M4U1A2%20Guide%20to%20ThinkB4YouSpeak.pdf
McGarry, R. A., Friedman, L., Bouley, T., Griffin, P. (2012) Ready, set, respect!: GLSEN’s elementary school toolkit. [PDF document on tools to combat bullying in elementary schools]. GLSEN. Retrieved March 3, 2018 from file:///Users/nichole/Downloads/M4U1A2%20Ready,%20Set,%20Respect!%20GLSEN’s%20Elementary%20School%20Toolkit%20(1).pdf
Teaching Tolerance. (2016) Critical practices for anti-bias education. Retrieved from http://www.tolerance.org/sites/default/files/general/PDA%20Critical%20Practices_0.pdf
Withers, A. (2013). Cyberbullying: What’s crossing the line. TeachingChannel Retrieved March 3, 2018 from https://www.teachingchannel.org/videos/cyberbullying-or-teasing