People learn best when they feel safe to be fully themselves. More than ever, contemporary education research points to the need for social-emotional learning to be fully integrated into the classroom environment, which now extends and applies to remote learning. As teachers of expressive and performing arts, I think most music educators have a leg up on creating these kinds of experiences for their students, but here are five ways I’ve worked on making my class a safe and welcoming space:
1. Model authenticity by sharing who you are with your students.
It’s important for me to show up as myself in front of my students. They see me get excited about Star Wars and laugh at terrible puns. I talk about my hobbies, my family, and my life outside of school. When we’re exploring the text in a choral piece, I share what it means to me and how it connects to my emotional life. This doesn’t mean abandoning healthy boundaries between teacher and student, however. I speak to my students in a friendly manner, but we are not peers, and I decide what’s appropriate to share with them. At the same time, I believe that fully embracing and accepting who I am helps my students do the same for themselves.
2. Create ways for students to share who they are with you.
I often kick the year off with a few activities targeted at this. Large group ice-breakers can be a fun way to encourage the entire group to get to know each other, but even small and simple things can be effective: give each student an index card and have them write their given name, preferred name, and one favorite song, one hobby, and one thing they hope to get out of the class. Try writing a question of the week up on the board that they can answer by writing their response on a post-it and sticking it to the board. While remote teaching, run a weekly poll using a Google form.
3. Use the “shoulders” of instructional time to form connections with your students.
What do I mean by the shoulders of instructional time? I’m talking about transition time between classes, lunch hour, recess, or bus duty—basically, any time that I’m not engaged in instruction or prep work. This has become a cornerstone of how I reach out to students. I always make it a point to greet students by name and offer a friendly comment or a question about their day. If they’ve done something similar to the index card exercise mentioned above, I try to work it into the conversation. I make a note of their new shoes or haircut or the favorite character that’s on their shirt, or I ask about their family. The silent message that I am trying to send each child is, “I see you. I’m glad you’re here today. I care about you and I want to know more about you.” While remote, perhaps schedule some one-on-one time or with smaller groups to just check in and see how they’re doing in an effort to still make sure they feel “seen and heard.”
4. Be deliberate in celebrating the art and artistry of people from marginalized segments of society.
Music is for every child. Every child should be able to see themselves and their experiences reflected back to them in the classroom. Seek to be highly inclusive in the repertoire you choose and the ways you talk about music. Program works written by women, people of color, and from a wide variety of genres and time periods—and not just during Black History Month or Women’s History Month. Explore the many ways that people create music that speaks to their human experience. Decorate your classroom (or Zoom room!) with a broad representation of what it means to be a musician and artist. Celebrate trailblazers who defy stereotypes. Ask students to share who their musical heroes are with you.
5. Make room for student feedback.
While it’s our job as educators to lead our students, it’s important for us to take the time and effort to listen, too. Making time for student reflection can give us insight into what is working within our program, as well as where needs can be addressed. Some student suggestions will be impractical and/or impossible, but many of them won’t. They may surprise you with their insight. Ask them to brainstorm concert themes, or let them provide some input into choosing a single piece (assuming it’s appropriate both in terms of content and being arranged well for their skill level). It’s possible to give students some of what they want while also delivering the instruction they need. Your ability to balance these considerations can help with student buy-in and engagement within your program.
You want every student who walks into your room (or virtual class, for now) to feel that this place is for them, welcomes them, and helps them to grow. The effort that you put into creating a positive classroom environment will pay dividends not just for the individual, but for your ensembles and the larger school culture as well.