Helping Students Feel Safe, Seen, & Stretched in the Classroom

Julie Schmidt HassonBlog, Connect Better, Engage Better

TL;DR:

  • What do teachers say and do to make a lasting impact on students’ lives?
  • What people remember most about their teachers is the way those teachers made them feel.
  • Memorable teachers make students feel safe, seen, and stretched.

Julie joined Dave on the Daily Drop In to chat about her research.

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Let’s Chat About A Teacher You Remember

It all started when I set out to answer a big question…What do teachers say and do to make a lasting impact on students’ lives? I’m a qualitative researcher, which means I try to answer big questions through interviews and observations. In order to understand the lasting impact teachers make, I knew I would have to interview a large number of former students. People who were once students were not hard to find—I just needed to go where they congregate. I decided to visit farmers’ markets, craft fairs, and public parks with a sign that said Let’s chat about a teacher you remember.

Over and over again, people described feeling safe, seen, and stretched in their favorite teachers’ classrooms. When teachers created a safe space for students, those students could show up fully as themselves and be seen. Click To Tweet

 

Sitting at the park with a sign was not my typical data collection method, but it was the best crazy idea I’ve ever had. After hundreds of interviews, I gained a greater understanding of teacher impact. Using a grounded theory approach, I analyzed the stories people shared (and my own field notes) line by line in order to identify emerging categories and concepts. It became clear that what people remember most about their teachers is the way those teachers made them feel.

Over and over again, people described feeling safe, seen, and stretched in their favorite teachers’ classrooms. When teachers created a safe space for students, those students could show up fully as themselves and be seen. Then, teachers gently pushed them toward their potential. They helped them stretch. Former students carry memories of feeling safe, seen, and stretched for years (even decades) after leaving the classroom.

Helping Students Feel Safe

One of my favorite stories about feeling safe came from a young woman named Genelle, who I met at a craft fair. As a middle schooler, Genelle lacked confidence in math. Her math teacher, Mr. Sampson, helped her grow in confidence and competence. He used to write “not yet” next to answers rather than marking them incorrect. Genelle described Mr. Sampson’s math class as a safe space to make a mistake. Struggling and persevering were celebrated as the path to success. Genelle’s story, along with the other stories about feeling safe, contained examples of building trust, providing psychological safety, and encouraging vulnerability.

Helping Students Feel Seen

While collecting stories at a farmers’ market, I met Cathy, who shared a sweet memory of feeling seen. Cathy wanted to learn to tie her shoes, but her mom worked two jobs and had little time to teach her. One day after school, Mrs. Nash, her kindergarten teacher, sat next to her on the carpet and patiently taught Cathy how to make two bunny ears out of the laces, crisscross the tree, jump into the hole, and pop out the other side. It took several tries, but she soon became an expert at tying shoes. Cathy said the time and attention from Mrs. Nash made her feel important. She felt valued and worthy, and she has carried that memory for four decades.

Helping Students Feel Stretched

One of my favorite stories about feeling stretched came from Wyatt, who sent me a story about Miss Dell, his chorus teacher. By the time Wyatt got to high school, he had been playing piano for several years but was pretty green as a vocalist. When Miss Dell was choosing pieces for the spring recital, she asked Wyatt to perform a new song by John Hiatt called Have a Little Faith in Me. She asked him to sing it as a solo at the piano, and he was completely intimidated by the song. But with time and practice, he did it. Wyatt expressed his gratitude to Miss Dell for having faith in him and helping him see that he can do hard things. Miss Dell’s lessons continue to impact his life thirty years later.

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Helping Students: Have a Lasting Impact

There are so many lessons hidden in the stories I’ve collected. The stories are inspirational, affirming the impact teachers make on students’ lives. And they are also informative, revealing strategies for making a greater and more consistent impact. Like memorable teachers, we all have the power to help the people we teach and lead feel safe, seen, and stretched. By emulating great teachers, by using them as models, we can all make a bigger impact. We can all become the kinds of teachers and leaders that students remember.

For a deeper dive into long term teacher impact, check out Safe, Seen, and Stretched in the Classroom: The Remarkable Ways Teachers Shape Students’ Lives 


About Julie Schmidt Hasson

Julie Schmidt Hasson, Ed.D. is a professor in the Reich College of Education at Appalachian State University. Julie’s research on the impact of a teacher is the topic of a TEDx talk and is the focus of her engaging professional development programs. She founded the Chalk and Chances project, a vehicle for elevating and celebrating teachers, in 2017.