This is the type of classroom every young student should be entering.
There’s a scene in pretty much every horror and thriller film when one of the characters walks slowly towards the darkness, their heart thumping, not knowing what lies around the corner…
This is fear.
I remember a boy that I went to school with who was bullied relentlessly – he didn’t know what was going to happen to him each lunchtime.
This is fear.
I remember a teacher I occasionally had in primary school who was very unpredictable – we never knew what to expect or who he was going to interrogate.
This is fear.
And in the best classrooms, students feel at home and connected. There are no unseen dangers around corners. There are social norms and a group dynamic that nurture certainty. Whatever happens – especially if I show vulnerability, take a risk, or fail – everything is going to be alright.
In these classrooms, students feel a sense of belonging. They know it’s okay to be less than perfect. They feel listened to and cared for. And their performance is optimised.
This is safety.
We talk a lot, in schools, about the impact of the teacher-student relationship on learning. And for good reason. Whether you look at highly energised and engaged classrooms or read the empirical research, strong and positive relationships clearly power-up the learning environment. And when relationships mature over time, and are given the right conditions, we end up with teacher-student interactions that are enriched by forgiveness, integrity, trust, compassion, and hope. This is the foundation for education in its ideal form.
But there are times when this is not possible, when a genuine relationship with a child or a group of students is unable to be established. It may be that you have not had time to build trust yet. Or it may be that the students you are working with are in a difficult mental or social space that precludes them building a genuine relationship with another adult. Or maybe, for some reason, you just don’t ‘click’ with a certain student or group.
In situations like this, there is no rush. Relationships can wait. Maybe a relationship will never develop. And that’s okay. In fact, your students don’t actually need a strong relationship with you to learn effectively.
But they do need to feel connected and they do need to feel safe. Connection and safety are hardwired evolutionary necessities for complex learning.
As hard as we try, we can’t control relationships. But as educators, those two factors – connection and safety – are within our control. They require us to turn up for our students authentically, to listen to them, to see them, to value them.
Sometimes that is all we can do – and sometimes this is everything a child needs.
Is there a ‘right’ way to teach or to parent children? Is there a ‘right’ way to lead a school or organisation? Is there a ‘right’ way to be a friend or colleague?
No. (Life would be so easy if there was.)
But there are wrong ways. It is wrong to parent with abuse. It is wrong to lead with corruption. It is wrong to manipulate friends and colleagues with fear.
And there are wrong ways to teach. Whilst good and great teachers often have very different styles and commonly embrace their varied idiosyncrasies, there are three things that should never, ever occur in any classroom:
Teaching is a highly demanding profession. We will make mistakes. Mistakes are inevitable, understandable, and forgivable. But the above are not.