Building an Ethic of Caring in the Classroom: 5 Protocols for Promoting a Caring Classroom

My Post (3)

Check out the first post of the series HERE.

The temperature we set in our classroom matters. While the literal thermostat in a classroom does matter (“Why is it so hot in here?”), the thermostat I am writing about is the instructional climate we set for our students, which I believe should be challenging but comfortable—where challenges can be taken on in a caring, trustworthy space. How we do this comes in many forms, and I would argue context, of course, matters. But I would also argue there are few actions any teacher can take to create a caring classroom that students want to enter every day. This shouldn’t surprise us, but really, it always goes back to good ol’ Maslow. In today’s post, I explore a few practical protocols any teacher can put into motion tomorrow in his or her classroom.

Space matters. Take a look at this article from Edutopia highlighting experiences with the effect of classroom space on learning. The look and feel of a classroom tells a story to every person who walks into it, especially for the student who will frequent that room. There is a reason you might feel a sense of positivity and warmth when you walk into a first grade classroom. Sure, the upbeat tone and flurry of activity in the room is part of that feeling, but so are the warm colors, the separation of space for centers, the hands-on objects throughout the room, and furniture built for accessibility and use by those first graders. Somehow as students get older and matriculate they encounter classrooms that start to lose their warmth. As a high school English teacher, learning the value of setting up my space to be welcoming took far longer than I care to admit. My first classroom came with student desks, a teacher desk, two metal cabinets, a bookshelf, bulletin board, and white board. That’s it. With what little money I had, I dressed up my room with a few meager posters. The reality here? We don’t always have full control or resources to change our space, so what do we do? More importantly, while the space students learn in is important, how we interact with students in that space is just as important, and that we can control.

5 Protocols for Promoting a More Caring Classroom:

1. Always Greet Students at the Door
Harry Wong’s First Days of School gets this absolutely right. This sets a tone for caring the moment your students cross the threshold of your classroom. Shaking a student’s hand, looking him or her in the eye, and saying their name is powerful and meaningful. The act tells students, “I see you; I know you.” Not everyone will agree with me here, but your email can wait; you’re students need you the moment they come to your door. Will you know their names on day one? No. But you can get to know them before your first role call, and the next suggestion will help reinforce those names.

2. Use Student Names from Day One
There is some inherent difficulty in this suggestion much like there is difficulty knowing the names of students as they walk in the door. But using your students’ names both as they enter your class and as they interact in your class is another effective way to ensure your students know you care. I typically handled this with name plaques. I would have a marker and piece of card stock paper at a desk for them already. Their first task in my classroom was to write down the name they prefer to be called, fold the paper to make a tent, and set it in front of them. Not only did this provide me with a constant reminder of student names, but I could use it to group and regroup students and seating arrangements as often as I needed since I kept the name tents with me in my room. There are some other very nifty ways to use name plates in a caring-centered classroom, but I’ll save those for a future post.

3. Offer Students a Way to Interact with You Discreetly
Everybody has a bad day. If you have taught a teenager, raised a teenager, or simply interacted with a teenager, then you know just how many bad days someone can have. Kidding aside, students need an opportunity to have a bad day in your class and know you still care even though they are not at their best. As a personal fan of the notion of grace–this particular approach to my classroom was important to me. To ensure my students could communicate they might not be their best self on a particular day, I set up a protocol on day one that they could simply write on a slip of paper, “Bad day,” put it on my desk discreetly, and I would check to see if I had any notes on my desk as I began class. The protocol helped me avoid assumptions about a student’s engagement or behavior and more importantly it gave my students a discreet way to tell me they weren’t in the best head space for learning. Sometimes students would write exactly what was going on (i.e. “Didn’t sleep last night,” “Got in a fight with my best friend,” “My parents are separating”), but most of the time if it was used, which really wasn’t that often, they simply wrote “bad day.” All the note really meant for me is I checked in with student at some point in the class, and I avoided spotlighting them in the class, including avoiding coming down on them if they appeared spaced out or disengaged. This didn’t mean let them off the hook for learning, but how I approached addressing them was informed by those notes.

4. Keep Snacks Handy
I’ll be honest. I got in trouble for this one a few times. Food in the classroom is a big no-no in some schools, including ones in which I worked. The logic is sound–no food = less bugs and no rats. Still, a hungry student can’t learn. If there is any major takeaway I had as an undergrad studying Maslow was those basic needs must be met in order for students to progress in their learning. While I couldn’t control a student’s sleeping arrangements or how much sleep they got the night before, I could control if they had food in their belly. Just like I set the discreet note protocol in place on day one, I put this one in place day one as well. I simply told my students that if they were ever hungry for any reason, to let me know through a discreet note or in a one-on-one conversation and that with no questions asked I would get them a snack. My snack of choice were peanut butter crackers, but I kept a few other snacks on hand in case there was an allergy. I never gave out candy–I was not looking to set the kid up for a sugar crash. Crackers are not the snack of choice for most of my students, so I know when they asked, they really needed them. (There was a strong preference for Flamin’ Hot Cheetos back in the day.) I didn’t give out a snack every day, but certainly at least once a week I had a student who needed it. I just made sure I gave it to them as discreetly as I could.

5. Stop Putting Students in the Hallway
My biggest pet peeve in classroom management is the tactic of putting students in the hallway alone. There are nothing but negative messages and consequences to this way of managing a classroom. The student can’t learn; they may grow resentful; they may make a worse decision left on their own outside your classroom; they may now see you as just another adult who simply doesn’t care. The teacher doesn’t benefit either. I know administrators don’t want to see a student sitting outside and alone when they should be in class. Admin aside, building good, caring relationships with students doesn’t start with kicking them out of your room. (Consider how effective it is for a parent to kick a teen out of their home with no where to go, no support.) Instead, I recommend having a protocol in place where you speak to the student outside the classroom briefly and with the goal of hearing the student, not telling the student what they did was wrong. In many cases, you may not be able to take the student outside the classroom to speak to them right away. That’s fine. Redirect the student as best you can, but my approach typically included me walking up to the student and saying calmly and quietly, I need to talk with you outside in a moment. When that moment comes, I cannot stress enough how important it is to start the conversation with asking, “How are you feeling today?” or “What happened in the classroom a moment ago?” And then listen. Just listen. Hear the student out, and then react. I might suggest to react with grace in mind as well.

Let’s Revisit Space One More Time:

Alexa Darby’s article in National Education Association (NEA), the article referenced in the Edutopia link earlier, makes it clear that designing a space with all students in mind is important; however, instructional climate “is of first importance.” Darby explains,

“One cannot have a community of learners without having a positive instructional climate. Instructors help to create this climate by everything that they do, from the way they respond to student questions to the arrangement of the classroom chairs. It is amazing, for instance, how changing the seating arrangement from rows to a circle can transform class discussions.” 

Mic’ drop.

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