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Classrooms: Safe and Nourishing Havens for Students

Almost everyone knows those very public cases of students who are gossiped about so openly by other students, teachers, and the community — the student whose parents are alcoholics and who fight a lot, or the one whose drug dealing parent is no longer around.  But, there are many other students with their very own secrets!  Their deep secrets are hidden and locked away from everyone else.  How about the shy student seated at the back who won’t look any teacher in the eye? He/she appears well taken care of and is always wearing the proper school uniform.  But what we don’t see is waiting for him/her at home. What we don’t see are the drunken rants, the assaults on his/her self-worth, and the emotional pain he/she carries around with him/her like such a painful and ever-present war wound.

The truth is, despite our vigilance, we educators have no idea what happens to our students after they leave school everyday. We cannot know of the hurt, the fear, and the sadness some wear slung over their shoulders like heavy backpacks.  They try to put on a good face, these heroic students, and bury their secrets so well. And although we will never know the many challenges they face, we can make sure that the classroom is a welcome shelter from the storm.

We can make sure that the classroom is a place where students are able to “breathe easy” and know that they’re loved, wholly protected there, and free to learn and enjoy school without always having to look over their shoulders.  Our classrooms should be safe and nourishing havens especially for the daily learning that needs to take place there.  

Each student is a human being, and has value and deserves respect.  Sadly, some of them may not experience respect in the environment where they live.  As professionals and educators, we know that learning for each student will always be tied to the sense of respect he/she receives and to his/her sense of self-worth.  But, how do we educate a student who has no self-worth?  It is important, therefore, that we educators try to see all students everyday through lens of dignity.  For some students, school is the only place where they get respect and dignity.  (For this very reason I do not use labels to describe students, i.e. “at risk”, “below average”, “problem” or “troubled”.)  Even more important, though, students themselves should look up to all educators through lens of dignity!

In high school (especially the first year) students are at a challenging developmental stage where it’s so easy for them to drop back into preadolescent ways of thinking and/or acting.  We should keep in mind that all adults (except the perfect ones amongst us) went through a similar developmental stage in life.  Dignity, nonetheless, cannot be forced on anyone, or taught as a requirement.  Rather, in an effort to understand, honor, and respect each student’s human dignity we educators need to model it for them, as well as for our peers and for others.

How do educators keep a balance between maintaining rigorous standards (the most CXC passes in the country each year!) and maintaining a nurturing learning environment for students?  A heavy dependence on drills and rote memorization is certainly not the answer; neither is it teaching only “to fit the test”.  And, how do we prepare students for a tough working world waiting for them out there, and at the same time “nurture” them to want to learn more everyday?  Whoever said an educator’s job is as easy as:  simply follow steps 1 to 4 and you’re done…

Students come to school to learn to socialize so they can then fit into society.  At school they are trained as tomorrow’s workforce for Belize.  Above all else, at school they are introduced to the greater possibilities that life has to offer.  There, they learn how to create the lives they truly want to create.  But, in order to be able to do that, they must learn and practice the important art of “discipline”.  As a vocational guidance counselor, I know beyond a doubt (especially with seniors) that our young people’s education takes on full focus and purpose once they figure out what they want in life (a career) .  As educators, then, our ultimate purpose is not to teach students how to pass tests, but more so to help them learn to define their goals, visions, ambitions and aspirations.

Knowing what is expected of them during every moment of the school day is a great comfort to students. It allows them to let down their guard and get lost in the steady routine of a well-run classroom.  At school they can rely on having to follow the same daily schedules, routines and procedures.  When they enter the classroom they’ll feel as if they’re walking into a world that makes sense, in stark contrast to the choppy, churning waters that so many of them navigate during their daily lives.

Inconsistency in an educator (word, behavior, or action) confuses students and deeply affects their trust in him/her. It causes resentment, low motivation, and misbehavior in students, and brings tension to a classroom.  It sends the message: that educator is just another adult who can’t be counted on. That’s why it’s so important that we treat every student with kindness, patience, and gentleness—regardless of how difficult at times that can be. Doing this makes us, educators, likeable and allows us to build easy rapport with students.  It makes the classroom feel welcoming.

So, let’s create and maintain classrooms that students look forward to coming to every day — where they’ll feel safe and comfortable working with and sitting next to their classmates.  Let’s make sure they come to school feeling confident in knowing that they’ll be able to enjoy their day without being interrupted, bothered, or bullied.  Let’s maintain classrooms where students know they can learn academic skills and experience the moral character and behavior that they will need to lead meaningful, successful lives.

Author’s Note:
These articles are in no way, whatsoever, intended to be comprehensive or complete.  They are written and contributed in an effort to provide a “starting point” for valuable (and intriguing) discussion.  Why discuss/ review students’ learning capabilities and our current methods of trying to educate them? Educators, students, parents, and our community can learn from one another.  I have the greatest respect and admiration for all educators, especially in Belize!

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