Yesterday, a fellow teacher friend was telling me about the classroom she set up last year. She taught Special Education in the Bronx, and she was given the “Special Ed” room for her self-contained class. The room was beat up. It had holes in the walls and dead cockroaches on the ground. It was cramped and all she had to write on was a little white board.
Every day, though, when the kids entered they were greeted by the cadence of softly playing classical music and brightly colored wall posters (she used these to cover the holes). From this point, they would commence reading independently before diving into a mini-lesson and a lesson summary.
Today, I found myself having a discussion with a veteran teacher about her class. She had just taken over after another teacher had left the school. It’s a self-contained US History class most of which is made up of students with learning disabilities. When I asked her how it was going, she responded, “It’s a slow process with that group. Today, I had a break through. A student asked a question. I think she wants to be mad at me, but she’s starting not to be.”
This got me thinking about how important it is to create a safe space in the classroom, especially for struggling students and for those with disabilities. I think most teachers agree with the fact that, before learning can take place, there must be mistakes. The educational system, however, with an emphasis on college and standardized exams, makes it tough for students to make those mistakes.
I think this is especially true for students with disabilities. At the high school level, students are so afraid of being singled out that they’ll do anything to hide their deficiencies. One of the most important jobs of a Special Education teacher (and, really, any teacher) is to create that safe space. A space where students feel a sense of belonging that allows them to make mistakes.
Because I teach at a small school, I see some students several different period in different classes throughout the day. This gives me an opportunity to assess how they interact and function in different educational environments. I have one student in my self-contained 1st period class who truly shines. He participates in class and is always asking and answering questions. I have this same student in an ICT class later in the day, where he usually is acting out or disengaged. I think, at the heart of this Jekyll and Hyde transformation is a feeling of security. In my small, 10 student self-contained class, it is much easier for me to control the environment and encourage students to take risks than it is in a 30 person ICT classroom.
So how do we create a safe space?
Rewards and focused praise. In one of my classes, my co-teacher and I present a “True Grit All-Star” award once a week that celebrates a effort and persistence. This award, sometimes, goes to a very successful student, but it often doesn’t. The focus is on effort and improvement, not grades. In addition to this, we must be very aware of how we praise students. Rather than only praising correct answers, we have to make sure to acknowledge and praise the effort and courage to volunteer. (I recommend reading How to Talk so Kids will Listen and How to Listen so Kids will Talk for more on this.)
Take a seat. In my classroom, I consistently make an effort to sit down with my students. This isn’t because I’m tired (although sometime is it), but because it changes the power dynamics of the classroom. In a traditional classroom, the teacher is the center of attention, the knower of answers. Once I take a seat, though, the playing field becomes more even, and I find students are more willing to talk and ask questions. Whenever appropriate, I let students lead discussions as well. For example, recently before reading a short story on werewolves, I had student list everything they knew about the mythical creature. I then had a student call on classmates while another tracked our ideas on the board.
Get to know your kids. In a Ted Talk, presenter Rita Pierson, a long time educator, simply states, “Kids don’t learn from people they don’t like.” While I don’t know if this is necessarily true, human connections can play a powerful role in the classroom. Having been at the same school for 3 years now, there are several students who I have had multiple years in a row. As I’ve come to know them better, I’ve found them more willing to be active participants in class. They feel more comfortable when they know you and you know them. Even if they don’t like you, they begin to trust you. This trust allows them to take more risks.
How do you think security affects learning?
How do you create a safe space in your classroom?