Teaching: A Community Approach

95% of having a successful classroom where student learning consistently occurs, where students feel safe, respected and valued is based on community.

Well… I don’t actually have any quantitative data to support that figure. But, qualitatively speaking, based on my experience, I would stand by that statement 100%. Brain research clearly demonstrates that students who do not feel safe, be it physically or emotionally, are in ‘survival mode’ their brains have turned off all unnecessary elements in order to focus on those that will help them cope with the current unsafe situation around them.

For this reason I make it my goal to do my best to make sure that in my classroom all students feel welcome, safe, and protected from outside forces. Honestly, and unfortunately, there are times when this does not occur. A snide remark from a peer, teasing, picking, or making fun of what some says or does. It doesn’t matter how I handle or deal with the comment or situation, the damage is done. The individual being picked on or teased has been demeaned, most likely feels like dirt and just wants to crawl inside his or herself and hide.

This is the worst part of teaching. I know first hand the feelings these comments cause. The extended impacts, the self-doubt and disrespect for one’s self. And, every time one of these situations occur I try to A) facilitate the repair of the student who may have been impact as well as B) try to have the antagonist see the situation from the others perspective. How would the comment make them feel. But again, the damage is done.

So, how can we prevent these situation from occurring the first place? Community.

Building community is an important process in developing a successful learning environment. From starting day 1 discussing classroom norms, to promoting respectful and positive behavior throughout the school year. And, a few weeks ago I had the chance to do just that. A group of 3 students put together this fantastic yet a bit unorthodox plan, a plan that would play a huge role in developing our classes community. Little did we know.

Background:1. On Fridays one of my College Preparation Biology classes has study hall in my classroom. 2. Throughout the week three guys had been scheming. 3. The same plan got shut down on Thursday in a history class.

What was the plan you ask? One student brought in a panini machine, another a loaf of white bread and a stick of butter, and the third a pound of american cheese (orange). Grilled cheese.

When the students walked in with their equipment I was hesitant at first, but then I thought what’s the worst that could happen. They had just completed in a big project the day before. They deserved a day to be teenagers and just make some grill cheese sandwiches. They were shocked and amazed when I approved their idea (though I did make them setup across the room from and lab equipment and storage cupboards).

It was the best 40 minutes of my week, and I would guess some of theirs as well. So, as everyone circled around watching, chatting, and laughing, the scent of warm melting butter engulfed the classroom. As each sandwich finished it was split and handed out and eventually most students, those who dared, were enjoying a nice Biology lab snack. It was a few minutes of the day when no one was worrying about popularity or status, but just purely enjoying life and the unexpected turn of events.

I’m glad the fire alarm didn’t get set off, but even if it had, I wouldn’t have regretted it, and I would have taken full responsibility. The group of 2o students that were in my room that day are better for it, and so am I. One of my own strongest memories from high school is making venison and eggs in a frying pan, on a hot plate, in chemistry class, my junior year (Thanks, Mr. Kelsey). It’s no wonder I let some  cheese sandwiches be grilled, I come by it honestly.

So, my advice to teachers out there is to do those things that help build community. Some days you just need to stop and smell the butter… or whatever the case may be. Most things important to be learned and experienced aren’t going to come from the pages of a text book. Once the community is built the rest will come.

P.S. It was the best grilled cheese I’ve ever had… in a Biology lab.


6 responses

  1. This is going to make me sound like a huge sappy dork, but Andrew, you inspire me. Honestly.

    I feel lucky to have you as a friend, and I mean that from the bottom my my sappy little heart.


  2. You sound like an amazing teacher who has a grasp on what he’s doing. So many teachers are dead set on having their students memorize a bunch of facts and perform well on exams. They pretty much see their students as grades instead of people in my opinion. These were only a select few teachers at my school however as I had the luck to be taught by inspiring teachers. Establishing a community like this is where anyone can be with everyone is something that many school districts are likely trying to figure out to do. My school is currently trying to figure out what to do and guess what? They decided to make another class that requires kids to do a project and finish hours of community service in order to graduate. My English teacher (one of my favorite teachers) and my classmates had this whole discussion about how this class wouldn’t help establish a community or prepare kids for college in anyway.

    • Thanks for the feedback! So much focus these days in education is spent on test scores and that’s not what school and education are about. There’s so much more to it and I’m glad you appreciate my thoughts and attempt to bring awareness to those other important aspects, like community. Cheers.

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