Image composite: Hemera/Ingram Publishing/Photodisc/Thinkstock and Aurelie Jouan

When teachers support students and create a caring classroom culture, they enable students to take risks. The National Teacher of the Year offers advice on how to make it happen.

My son, Silas, is six months old, and his legs wobble like a rubber chicken. Few activities cause his face to light up in delight as much as when my wife stands behind him to hold his arms up. She leans him forward so that he can pick up his feet and “walk” toward the object of his desire.

From infants to adults, people are willing to take risks when they feel the safety and support of others. This is also true of students in the classroom, whose personal growth requires a willing spirit to grapple with new challenges and resilience in the face of mistakes. Students should feel as though they’re attached to a buoy, so that if they struggle or make errors, they’ll be able to pop back up. This is the vital role for the teacher to play, both as a supportive teammate in the learning process and as a cultivator of a caring culture in the classroom.

In our English courses, I teach students at varying levels. There are students who come to class reading well below grade level who are riddled with the fear of embarrassment and others who are strong readers, but hesitant to take risks in deep literary analysis and be mistaken in front of their peers. My other teaching role has been working with students who are pursuing college dreams, often as the first in their families to do so. This, too, is a tenuous journey. Students are wary to give their all to this dream — what if they don’t make it? I cannot be an effective teacher if I don’t create the conditions for students to feel safe to take on these challenges.

My teammate role can also be to push and encourage.

There are many practical structures teachers can implement to support students in feeling comfortable with challenging work in class on a routine basis. Grading policies that allow for test corrections and resubmitting revised work to be regraded are common. Ensuring strong modeling and providing sufficient opportunity for risk-free skill practice are practical strategies many teachers use during instruction.

But the main event is getting students to open themselves to the vulnerability of fully applying themselves to their learning, pursuing their dreams, and fulfilling their potential. This can be a life-altering undertaking. To do so, students need to feel connected to someone who believes in them. They need a human connection that motivates and empowers them to embrace challenging work and learn from mistakes, which is why I project myself as their teammate.

Teamwork makes the dream work

I make a point of using the language of “team” in the classroom: “I am on your team, Thomas!” Each student has a team in life — themselves and their family, friends, teachers, and others — and that team’s goal is the student’s success. In this sense, I am not the team’s coach, but a teammate. In childhood, the parents may take on the coaching role. As a young adult, the student has to lead the team, own their goals, and want to put in the work for the win.

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