Put your hands in the air

You just taught the lesson of your life. You planned for days, were a master of the content, added a few witty jokes, and even engaged multiple learning styles through a PowerPoint that included film clips, abstract art, comic strips, and inspirational quotes. As you began to wind down, you asked your students a question that in your mind was relatively simple, a question that you thought everyone would know the answer to, but as you scanned the room, only one hand was raised. Only one student was ready to provide you with an answer. What went wrong? Why didn’t more kids know the answer? Didn’t anyone else learn anything?

The scene described above is one that happens to even the best teachers, but more times than not, the lack of student response has less to do with limited student learning and more to do with limited trust. When students feel trusted and safe, they are willing to take risks. They are willing to be wrong. They are willing to be right. They are willing to stand out. Fears in our kids are not just demonstrated by a reluctance to be wrong, but can also be driven by a desire to not be labeled as a “know it all.” Fear is the killer of learning.

As a school principal I have seen these types of behaviors more times than I would like to admit, but I am not just talking about in other teachers’ classrooms. I have seen this at my own staff meetings as my teachers show a reluctance to actively engage and respond to my prompts. I have had teachers approach me the following morning in what appears to be a secret meeting to share their thoughts in a more private setting where they will not be judged by their peers. There are times when I am tempted to cast my own judgements about this timid behavior, until I realize this is more a reflection of me than it is of them.

It is my responsibility to make sure my school is safe. Safe for students as well as for adults. Safety doesn’t always come via having metal detectors and successful fire drills. Safety more often needs to be developed in the affective domain. People need to FEEL safe more so than they need to BE safe. The perception of being secure and supported is what draws people together and allows for willing vulnerability. Vulnerability leads to trust. Trust leads to risk taking. Risk taking leads to learning.

In your classrooms, just like in my staff meetings, maybe a lack of willing participants is more a reflection of the culture that has been established in your room, than the learning that has or has not be acquired. If you want to be able to have true dialogue with your students-if you want to be able to use real formative assessments to gauge understanding-if you want to be able to see evidence of real learning, you may want to spend more time creating an environment of trust and less time working on your anticipatory set (that’s a lesson plan reference for those like me who began teaching a couple of decades ago:).

If you want to see those hands up in the air, you have to make sure that those who put them up, really don’t care….about being judged and only care about growing. You are the model of this. Are you willing to take risks in front of others? Are you willing to take a stand, to be right or wrong? If we want our kids to do it we must be willing to do it too. Today, embark on a challenge to make your space a safe place. Make it home to trust and you will be amazed at all of the learning that takes place as a result.



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