Blog Post

Comfortable Classrooms and Safe Spaces

I recently debated with a few of my colleagues about what it meant to cultivate a “comfortable” classroom environment and whether or not that is a desirable thing to do.  As a young instructor of record, I strive to strike a balance between maintaining an authoritative presence and an inviting demeanor. I joke with my students, I’m sort of goofy, and I invite them to think through ideas with me.  All of my classes are discussion based and I only occasionally lecture and, when I do, it’s for less than 10 minutes.  In a humanities course that promotes and encourages critical thinking skills, it’s important for me to make the students feel comfortable enough to question their previously-held conceptions, think about media and ideology, and re-think the way they engage with the world.  I do this very self-consciously—I perform a certain way in front of the classroom to help facilitate this process.  I am conscious of this process but I doubt that my students always are.  Somewhere around week five, most of them suddenly feel more comfortable and are opening up about their experiences and their reactions to the class texts. 

In speaking their mind, though, they often speak the first thing that comes to their mind. These things are often not very well-thought out or very reflective of the general intellectual development I have attempted to cultivate over the course of the semester.  Sometimes these comments reflect a latent racism, sexism, or homophobia. Sometimes these comments inadvertently work to alienate other students. In the debate I had with my colleagues, one said that students shouldn’t feel comfortable in your classroom so that they will monitor their responses and think before speaking, which encourages them to pull themselves up to your level. I disagreed with them at the time.  Recently, though, a student offered an off-handed reaction to a text that relied on racist stereotypes and it made me reevaluate my teaching philosophy.  I won’t recount the specifics of that comment here, though. A pregnant pause followed the comment as I debated the way to handle the comment. Do I casually reframe and redirect the comment? Do I address the ideological implications of the comment? How do I continue to create comfortable classroom spaces and encourage students to think more critically about their previously held conceptions about the world while not shaming them when their conceptions make the classroom not safe for other students? What sorts of strategies do you all employ to help students open up but encourage them to police their comments and behavior? 

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3 comments

As much as possible, ask them how you should respond rather than decide and then dictate that response. Their involvement produces both trust and more knowledge, more judgment, and more maturity than the best of your answers, unless, of course, they're remarkably insulated and afraid to offer creative solutions. Even in that case, the task is to nourish the solutions that come and build them to solutions that work more generally and in broader settings. For that matter, there is only dictatorial benefit to their "policing" their comments - the goal is to educate those comments, not police them; to inspire not restrict. And that job is both yours and theirs in any reasonable instructional climate.

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Thanks for your insight, Joe! 

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I feel like every teacher should follow this way of teaching because it would be very beneficial to everyone. Teachers who keep the classroom environment loose and fun for the students are rare nowadays and it has many benefits. The first and most important one is that the students will feel comfortable asking and answering questions in the classroom instead of keeping to themselves. When students keep to themselves and cant get their questions answered, they often feel lost and will not be able to understand all the material. It’s also important for the teacher because they will get feedback on the material and know what students need help with. Keeping the classroom loose and fun also helps because it breaks the monotony of just lecturing and talking for the whole session. I have had teachers in high school who start their lecture at the first bell and just talk the entire time with the same voice tone and no jokes and wonder why kids fall asleep. I liked how the teacher in the article I read said she only lectures for about 15 minutes before breaking into discussion and talking about the current reading. It helps promote creative thinking and helps create a open atmosphere where the students can share their thoughts with the rest of the class. Its also important for the teacher to reach out and tell the students that they can talk to them about current issues in the class or at home. Overall, I think that every teacher should create a positive and fun learning environment for everyone only yields awesome results. 

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