Saturday, October 31, 2015

Establishing a Positive Classroom Climate

I wouldn’t be getting into teaching if I didn’t highly value caring for others as an aspect of the work I do. I like the ethical guidance that says that our task is basically to heal the world, and I see that assignment primarily as involving helping those around you to flourish (having first taken care of yourself). I got tired of work that has me almost exclusively in front of a computer. I wanted a new career working more with people, and I’m very motivated by imparting knowledge/insight/meaning. And I also wanted some kind of caring role involved. Teaching fits these parts together.

The goal is to create a positive classroom climate. Now comes the interesting part. Me with a class of 20 kids, some of them challenging my control, others beating each other up emotionally just outside of my view. And suppose many of them are not from my cultural background, which is predominantly white and rural, with quite a lot of exposure to privilege. I have to admit, imposing authority hasn’t been my modus operandi in life. But I understand that it’s the necessary other half of the coin for guiding with empathy to be effective. To be trusted to resolve interpersonal problems fairly, to take care of a student in need, the students’ experience needs to be contained within a boundary of active control. The caring and concern needs to be distributed so that each student feels that he/she is an equal recipient of it.

Rules can be bent, in a sense. That is, before imposing a disciplinary rule, the teacher can pull the student aside to a one-to-one chat about what’s going on with that student. Almost certainly, if the teacher is not an out-of-touch authoritarian to begin with, the acting out is going to be more about the student’s situation than about the teacher or the class. The teacher’s task is to get some clue from the student “what’s going on.” Best to get it from the student him/herself. Then a meaningful resolution can be built around that understanding.

I was thinking of the horrible video that emerged this week of the white school cop throwing the black girl out of her seat. There’s a lot that can and should be said about that, and I’m not intending to blame the teacher, but with this topic on my mind, I’ve asked myself, what might lead up to such a situation? Ideally, the teacher would not have had to ask the cop into the classroom to intervene, right? But there’s this disruptive student, not relinquishing the cellphone in class. The things one would hope the teacher would have implemented before things got to this point include: having an agreement that the students have bought into, about no phones in class; making an effort to get to know something about each student; watching out for students who are inclined to be disruptive and focusing extra attention on them to better understand what’s triggering them; and finding a strategy to overcome their resistances.

The main idea is to show the students that they are part of creating the positive climate. It can mean involving them in defining class rules or agreements. Then, when students break these rules, they all have more of a stake in where the situation leads. And this allows the teacher’s response, if it’s more compassionate than literalistic, to be seen as restorative and intentional, rather than as reneging on applying the rules.

With respect to bullying, I like the idea of “zero indifference” – never letting disrespectful conduct go unaddressed; always naming and respond to behaviors. It’s not about punishment. It’s about making every incident of the conduct consequential, modeling concern.

Concerning bias and respecting different cultural backgrounds, the recommendations are to provide safe spaces where students are seen, valued, cared for and respected. If you show you value students’ lives and identities, and commit to avoiding and challenging stereotypes, you are creating conditions in which misunderstandings have less chance of arising or sticking.

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