Don't Fear the Teacher; Creating the Optimal Learning Environment

As I have talked about effective practices for teachers and administrators, I really wanted to shift the focus on what the best environment is for student learning.  If we are to have students become leaders and grow within our classrooms, they have to be in an environment that creates that.

There have been points in my own childhood where I feared the teacher and didn’t feel safe or cared for.  The belief at that time may have been that if I “feared” the teacher, I would listen and respect their wishes.  The fact was, when I felt unsafe was the time that I caused the most issues in a classroom.  A mutual respect between teacher and student must be created to ensure that there is an opportunity for optimal learning.

Here are some key conditions that I believe must be created for students to give them the best opportunity for learning (in no particular order):

1. Kids need to feel safe – This is the most important factor for students to not only succeed, but to also excel.  Safety is not only that they do not worry about being emotionally or physically hurt by those that they share their space with, but also that their ideas will also be valued.  The environment is safe to make mistakes, share thoughts, and know that their ideas will not be attacked or ridiculed.  I have seen students cower under these conditions and it could not only affect them in their current classroom, but could very well stay with them long past the time in that environment.  Trust must be apparent for students to succeed.

2.  Students are cared for as people first. – A child will not succeed in the classroom if they are starving.  They will also not do well if they are dealing with tragedy in their lives.  Take care of them and show them that you care about their personal well being.  Ask them about their day, talk to them what is important about their lives, and find out what is important to them. We always need to teach kids FIRST then curriculum.  Remember that.  Always.

3.  Opportunities for fun. – This is a no-brainer.  If you enjoy what you do, have a sense of humour, and can laugh in your environment, you will do better and enjoy what you do.  This has been proven over and over again, and it is essential that we can learn to laugh at ourselves, and with our students.   I do  not want to work in an environment where I do not enjoy what I do and kids are not the same.  Staff are encouraged to allow students to use Ipods in the classroom to not just connect with the outside world, but to also just let kids listen to music while they work.  For many people (including me), music engages the spirit and helps people to perform better as they are less distracted.  Allowing students to use them responsibly in the classroom while respecting the learning of their peers is just one way we can create a better environment for students to learn.

4. Ideas and opinions are valued. – I have heard some crazy ideas from students and I have talked to them about these ideas.  I have listened to them and talked to them about their thoughts.  Those same students have also come up with some pretty amazing ideas after that.  If I would have simply scoffed and ignored them because of what they shared with me the first time, they would have never come back.  Even the most famous inventors have failed before but we have to show students that even when they fall short, it is all a part of the learning process.

5. Opportunities for individualized learning. – Kids need to have the opportunity to show their understanding in a way that is meaningful and relevant to them.  Having one way to get to the same destination is not fair and is not differentiating learning for each child.  Students also take different lengths of time for their learning, but if they get to the same level of understanding eventually, you have gave them the opportunity to be successful.

6. Understand their knowledge and guide them to further their learning. – What do students know about what they are learning?  What is the knowledge they need to build a solid base to move forward?  I do not believe that “marks” are the best basis for this because they do not give any feedback for growth.  As teachers, it is our responsibility to give strategies to improve learning and help them further their own learning.

7. Student as a leader in the classroom. – To be a leader does not mean that students are the most popular.  It simply can mean that they have the opportunity to show leadership in areas they excel and are passionate in.  We have to help students find out where they are leaders and give them opportunities to exhibit this.  As an educator who has worked extensively with technology integration, I have seen students lead ME in this area several times over the years.  I appreciate learning at all times, even if it is from a child.  Not only will students appreciate that they have taught their teacher something, they will go out of their way to further their own learning to ensure that it happens again.  Do your best to find opportunities for ALL students to exhibit leadership in different areas of the classroom.

8. Opportunities for all to reflect. – Even as I write this blog post, I know that I am improving my learning and putting my ideas together.  Time has to be given to students where they can self-assess their learning and put their ideas together.  This could easily be done in a journal, blog, through music or art, or through just having conversations with others.  It is not the avenue that is important, but the opportunity.  Find time in the busy school day to let students reflect on what they are learning.  The time spent now will be well worth the dividends in the future.

Through writing this post, I realized that this is not JUST an environment that we should try to create for our students, but for all those that we work with.  People are more engaged in their work if they have all of the opportunities listed above (and probably more) and will ultimately move their practice forward.  It is essential as administrators that we not only work to provide these opportunities for our students, but also for our staff.  The optimal learning environment can be implemented in classrooms, workplaces, and even at home.  Do your best to create this for everyone and you will be amazed at how people flourish.


  1. Wow! What a great blog post. I completely agree with what you've said here. Earlier on this week, my students were adding comments to @bcrosby's "High Hopes" blog post, and one of them wished for "school 7 days a week instead of just 5." She mentioned that she misses school on the weekend. I just loved this! As a teacher, there's no bigger compliment than a child that's excited about coming to school and excited about learning. This child will learn because she wants to be at school to learn. How wonderful would it be if all teachers and students felt exactly the same way too?!?! I think that your blog post is a good stepping stone to help this happen.

    Thanks for another wonderful read! You've got me thinking now …
    Aviva (@grade1)

    • You could not ask for more than that! I know that I have been afforded all of those opportunities in my job and that is probably why I am still here on Friday night(of course with some music cranked)! The more I can do to help education in my school and outside of it, the better 🙂 Obviously I love what I do so I appreciate you saying that this could be a "stepping stone" to what others do.

      Thanks for the very kind comments 🙂

  2. Thank you for your wonderful blog posts, and for continuing to get me thinking about what I already do at school and what I can do to provide even more for my students. Wow! You're obviously a very dedicated principal, and you definitely inspire me. Your staff is lucky to learn with you and from you, and thank you for sharing as much as you do here and on Twitter. I look forward to reading your next blog post!


  3. Kelalford

    Another great post! I really believe kids need to feel loved to be able to function in life! I agree that we need to create this type of risk free environment with teachers . I am so thankful for the PLN concept because I feel I can share and get ideas. Our school is so toxic- It is like the movie Mean Girls!
    Thanks for another great post!

    • Mean girls does not equal optimal learning environment! People initiate the change first and if you are willing to put yourself out there, you definitely can lead in that change. Thanks for the comment 🙂

  4. Another reflective, inspiring post! This post reminds me of one of my favorite researchers: Dr. Barb Fredrickson from Univ. of North Carolina Chapel Hill whose research cites the benefits of positive emotions for learning and overall functioning! Her research also highlights the "narrowing effect" of an unsafe environment and how we cannot think critically when under threat.
    We can improve learning environments so radically when we use humor, fascination,and fun! Thanks George 🙂

    • Thanks Joan! I appreciate not only the post but the link to other information. Best part of my blog is having the opportunity to share and learn with others. I know that the environment I speak of is definitely evident in your classroom already 🙂

  5. Yes yes yes! All such wonderful points – and definitely the learning environment I want for my kids!

    Here's the thing I see though:
    What I suspect you and Joan already know (from knowing you on Twitter and via blog posts) is that all of what you talk about here STARTS with a fundamental knowledge that children are just smaller people – they are not there for adults to control, they are not "blank slates" for us to write upon, they come with needs and spirits and thoughts, and we can learn as much from them as they learn from us!

    These are not our traditional, societal beliefs. This is not how we were likely raised! Our culture holds a contempt for children that shows up in many ways – in our parenting, in our classrooms, in public… And until we talk about and question those fundamental assumptions individually (and eventually change our culture!!), the environment you talk about CAN'T exist!

    Kids KNOW when they're being "talked down to" – we all do! We feel it. So we need to ask questions of each other – like "why do we think that children's needs are any less important than an adult's needs?" "why do we expect kids to do as they are told?" "why do we think we need to know the answers?" "would I EVER talk to an adult that way? then why is it okay to talk to a child that way?"

    I know that sometimes, I'm SO grateful when my children DON'T listen to me…

    Food for thought…
    And I love your blog – thanks for writing!!

    • I agree. I always say that we need to ensure that we treat our students the way that we want to be treated as adults. If we can create that environment for our students then they (and we) will thrive.

      Thanks for the really positive comments! I am glad that you are enjoying what I am writing 🙂

  6. Farhana

    Wow! What a brilliant post! I recently started following your blog over the past week and have been inspired by your articulate and insightful comments.

    Your post made me realize that it's really important that we take a holistic approach to education. As educators, we often get so engrossed in the technicalities of our profession (curriculum, marks, testing, report cards) that we sometimes need reminders that our job is to prepare them with the SKILLS they need to be successful in whatever the choose to do. One of my favourite quotes about education is by Elliot W. Eisner; "The primary aim of education is not to enable students to do well in school, but instead to do well in the lives they lead outside of school."

    Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts through these blogs – I don't know how you manage to find the time to do all this, but it's definitely appreciated!

    • This is my opportunity to be reflective in what I do and to ensure that I am on the right path so that I can enable my staff and students to reach their full potential. I now see it as PART of my job to reflect and learn about how to create these environments for staff 🙂

      It is essential that we prepare our students for what they do outside of the classroom but also essential that they understand the classroom is the real world and that their skills and knowledge they share there will be transferable.

      It is great to hear that you are enjoying my posts 🙂 I know that often I am just confirming with many what they are already doing in their class but just writing to share what I am already seeing in many classrooms.

  7. Kristen Beck

    You always seem to post something on twitter that is exactly what I need to read to remind me that I am not the crazy person at my school. I love your insights, thoughts and candid remarks. Yesterday, I sat with the math chair at my school as he rambled on about curriculum and standards and content. Yes those are important guides, but if we do not consider and infuse the 8 things you mention above it does not matter what we are trying to teach our students. As a middle school teacher, I truly believe that the relationships I build with the students are the gateway to getting them to learn from me or any other teacher. I have this post in my "beginning of the year" evernote notebook so that I remember to start with this. I will be teaching pre-algebra to the lowest 20 math students at our school next year and my plan is to have them do an identity project for me so that I can learn about them and start to connect. Again something I have learned from you!

    Thank you for sharing all that you do. Your posts and tweets challenge me as an educator, parent, and learner. I plan on sharing this post with the teachers at my school, many of them need to consider and implement these eight key conditions.

  8. […] started off the year asking kids what success would look like to them and they having them discuss the environment that they would need to be successful?  Why not have them envision the projects or type of learning that they could do in the year and […]

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