3 Ways to Create an Environment Where Students Thrive

May 10, 2017

By Jessica Law, Third Grade Literacy Teacher, E.L. Haynes Public Charter School

My third graders come to me with a variety of needs. Some show up eager to read, inspired by the text in front of them. Others can be less enthusiastic. They enter the class with varying reading levels, and for many, much of their energy is quietly spent trying to make sense of the difficult circumstances of their lives outside of school.

In light of this, I was struck by a recent interview with former Secretary of Education John B King, where he reflected on his experience as a young student, describing how a turning point had occurred where school had become for him a sanctuary from the troubles he endured at home. I want my classroom to provide that same experience for those who need it, where students can feel free to thrive in a place that is fair and equitable, fun, engaging, and gives them the skills they need to succeed later in life.

This is no small feat, nor is it one I claim to have mastered. Nonetheless, I’ve seen progress, and to that end here are 3 ways I am purposefully creating a classroom environment that allows students to thrive.

#1: Empower Your Students

The circumstances some of my students find themselves in outside of school are not ones they have much control over. This can lead to a sense of powerlessness that can follow them into the classroom and dampen their engagement. It is thus essential for me to try to empower my students however I can, giving them ownership over the things we do in class.

One way I do this is by starting the day with an activity we call Morning Meeting, where kids ask each other “What’s the news?” This activity does a few things. Namely, it gives every student agency. What they’ve experienced in the past day, whether at home, school, through local or national news, is filtered through what they decide is important and worth sharing. This can mean a lot for those of my students who, for example, are the youngest of very large families, and don’t always have a listening ear at home. They have an opportunity to be the focal point and source of knowledge.

#2: Be Mindful of Yourself and Your Limitations

As teachers, we sometimes have to ask ourselves difficult questions about equity. How do we deal with student disruption in class? Do we make assumptions about who will be disruptive? Do we treat behavioral episodes differently based on who it’s from? What is the demographic of the students we most often send out of the classroom to the behavioral interventionist down the hall? Will the other students begin to internalize that a specific type of student is more likely to be the “troublemaker”?

Asking these questions, with a sharp focus on one’s self, can be difficult and frustrating. With all the energy we put into trying to help our kids, every day, the last thing we want to think is that our actions, though well meaning, could be hurting them in lasting ways. It helps to start these conversations with colleagues who are close to you. My colleagues and I have spent a number of structured sessions discussing how our own backgrounds, beliefs, and histories may be playing a role in the way we interact with our students.

This work is not just important, it is a moral imperative. If we hope to lift up the lives of all our students, we have to begin by assessing ourselves in these situations, recognizing how implicit bias can play a role in how we respond to student behavior.

#3: Recognize How Pedagogy Can Affect Student Engagement

Many of my students come into my class wanting to read, but don’t realize there are holes in their understanding of phonics. Whereas the students who have mastered the “code” can engage in the topic, those who are still deciphering the letters of the first sentence can find themselves at a loss, ultimately leading to disengagement. I had the privilege of attending the Standards Institute last winter, and working off the insights learned there, our school will be implementing a new system where we will level our phonics instruction across multiple grades. Students in first through third grade can attend a phonics lesson in whichever track is appropriate for their level, before returning to their class for the larger lesson. Literacy is freedom for our students, and it is essential that we get it right in the early grades, so that they can begin to be self-driven readers.

When Dr. John King was asked if he was hopeful, in spite of everything happening in the education space in this country, his reply was indeed, Yes, because he knew that every day teachers across the country were giving everything they had to their work. I’m encouraged by this. I can’t fix every problem my students are facing, despite a strong desire to do so, but I can remind myself that I’m giving it everything I have, every day. I’m growing my practice, questioning my assumptions, and getting better every year. No doubt, there’s much work left to do, but collectively we are moving things in the right direction.

What are some ways that you create an environment where students can thrive? Please share in the comments below.