Respects Differences: Vignette #8

Vignette #8 

By recalling her own experiences as a student and by observing/interviewing a highly successful veteran teacher in her community, a young teacher works to figure out how to best establish a culture of respect in her classroom. Confident that the best learning will happen for students who feel safe, affirmed and connected in their differences, Malia makes it a priority to gather successful strategies that she can apply to her tenth grade classroom. 

After two years of teaching introductory writing courses for college freshmen and one year of high school student teaching under her belt, Malia Price admits to a combination of nerves and excitement as she anticipates finally having a classroom of her own! A strong background in World Literature gives Malia confidence in her subject matter, but her time in the classroom has already taught her that content knowledge is just a piece of what can contribute to creating a successful classroom dynamic. Reflecting on her own awkward high school journey, Malia recalls positive and negative experiences. She remembers a history class where she fell silent – fearful of how her teacher and fellow classmates would respond to her. In great contrast, Malia recalls her senior English class, which was so powerful that it influenced her career choice to teach. Somehow, Mr. McColl had created a safe and inspiring place to think, work, and contribute. Malia recalls a diverse group of students who all seemed to be able to come together over discussions (heated, but always safe) and project work. Years later, Malia wonders what made Mr. McColl such a good teacher – his years of experience? His personality?  Were there particular strategies and a philosophy towards his students that Malia might understand better and be able to implement in her own early teaching? The strongest memory Malia takes away is a genuine and ongoing “feeling of respect” – for her teacher, for her wide range of classmates, and for herself.

In her quest to understand how to establish a classroom based on such a powerful glue, Malia finds a teacher in the school she will be joining who is well known for her strong teaching and success with students over the years. Lillian Stott is delighted to welcome Malia into her classroom for observations and follow up conversations. Despite Lillian’s years of experience, it seems evident to Malia that she is still open to learning and having dialogues about teaching strategies and philosophy. When Malia walks into Lillian’s classroom of seniors she notices a range of different “looking” kids. Lillian later shares that the differences go beyond the surface, that she has students with a wide range of learning styles, family backgrounds, and first languages. Malia notices that the students have a comfortable rapport with each other and Ms. Stott when they dive into a discussion of Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye. The material is intense and challenging, yet the students seem to clearly trust the development of the lesson. Ms. Stott starts by giving her students a five-minute “warm-up” writing exercise in response to a student driven question about the text. The scratching of pencils turns to impassioned buzzing as the students are then asked to find someone “outside of their social group” to connect with for a five minute “pair share.” By the time students return to the circle of desks for a full class discussion, they have developed confidence and ideas to press the analysis of the text further. In their post class conversation, Lillian shares how crucial these “steps towards discussion” are in helping her range of students gain confidence accessing the material. 

Lillian further shares with Malia the “code of respect” that the class developed together during the first week of school. Students and Ms. Stott discussed what makes a learning environment feel safe, and ultimately agreed that no “put-downs” or “personal attacks” would be tolerated in class. They spend time parsing out what this means, and in the process, the students figure out how to better argue their points and genuinely listen to one another. From the outset, Lillian and her students acknowledge that their classroom is filled with many different people with various strengths and challenges, and that if they could respect each other’s ideas, then they all have much to gain from being part of a collective of such diverse life experiences. Malia observes that when students raise their hands to speak, they often refer to what a student said before them. Lillian is pleased that her students have learned to listen to one another through this technique of acknowledging another person’s words before diving into one’s own question or point.

 In her quest to figure out the “it” factor that enables a classroom of such vibrant discussion and engaged work, Malia recognizes that much of the success comes from a teacher’s ability to genuinely model respect for all of her students. In addition to bringing her own authentic self to the classroom – by sharing stories and being transparent about her own background and beliefs- Lillian makes space for all of her students’ voices. Through process strategies and a philosophy of inclusion, her range of students seem to feel both affirmed in their differences and curious to understand more about their classmates and the world. While Malia realizes that it will take time for her to develop a similar rapport with her students, she feels she has a good model and resource to help her aspire to create a classroom environment of tolerance, understanding, and learning.


    • Inquiry-Based Teaching: Building a Culture of Respect  –  In this video clip, teachers come together to discuss how to create a safe and respectful classroom dynamic where students feel free to take risks and share ideas. In a school culture where no “personal attacks” are tolerated in any classroom, teachers share that it is easier to hold this standard when a community is in consistent and full support.

      • Classroom Culture  –  This comprehensive and clearly written publication from Teaching Tolerance provides classroom descriptions, strategies for implementation, and connection to anti-bias education for the following “Critical Practices” as they relate to developing respectful classroom culture: honoring the student experience, thoughtful classroom setup and structure, shared inquiry and dialogue, social and emotional safety, and values based behavioral management.


      • Creating a Climate of Respect  –  This short article takes a look at school climate reform by clarifying the elements of a positive school climate and outlining four crucial goals for reform: creating democratic communities, supporting teachers and students, ensuring safe schools, and promoting student engagement.


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