Building a Learning Environment

The most important lesson that they do not teach to pre-service teachers is how to build a nurturing learning environment in the classroom. My cooperating teacher during student teaching had the last name of Hellstern and there was never a more appropriate name for a person. She was cold to her students. She didn’t greet them at the door, she didn’t ask how they were doing. She was there to teach Chemistry and the students were there to learn. Her desk and chalkboard were on this raised platform in the front of class (designed by the school so that students in the back could more easily see the bottom of the board without the students in front blocking them) and she never came around her desk to walk amongst the students. When I took over the class, she actually remarked to me after a lesson that I spent too much time “talking” with my students at their desks about the problems we were working on. The mantra “don’t smile until Christmas” was probably developed by her.

I vowed never to have a classroom like that. I wanted my students to know that I cared about how they were as people as much as how they were doing in my class. Until the last few years, that has always been focused on simply getting to know my students and chatting with them about their non-school lives. Recently, I have made more of an effort to break down barriers by changing the physical environment of the room. This started by bringing in bungee chairs, then giving more options as to where students were allowed to sit in the room throughout the class block (not just during the independent/group work time), and then last year by bringing in lighting for the lab benches and neon colors everywhere. Oh, and calling my room the Room Of Awesome may have been over the top, but it set the tone.

Clearly, something worked. Every year I purchase a yearbook. As I have mentioned before, I do this so that when I retire, I can look back at all the amazing people and events that took place during my carreer. I wanted to share some of the comments that students left this year:

Your classroom is by far the coolest and makes me feel the most safe. 

Thank you for having the coolest and most comfortable classroom ever. I will always remember your chairs…

Thanks for the freedom of playing cards and other games during class when we finsihed out work.

Thanks for letting me sit on your floor for 180 days.

You definitely have changed the way I view teachers and view school. 

Over the past few years my struggles with my [personal problems] have made life pretty unbearable at times, but when I was having a hard day your door was always open and you always took the time just to talk to me. 

So, my message to all new teachers: take the time to learn who your students are as people first. By making sure that I openly recognize that they are human beings, and I show them that I am a human being too, I help create a learning environment that functions so much more effectively for all. We do more activities, we laugh more, we have more fun, and we learn a lot more along the way.

Your students are worth it.

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