09/12/2016 02:03 EDT | Updated 09/14/2016 12:12 EDT

I Strive To Make My Classroom A Safe Space For Students

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Teenage girl (16-17) sitting in examination hall, head in hands

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When she walks into my classroom at the beginning of the school year, she won't notice the shiny floor and the sparkling clean whiteboard. She won't pay any attention to the new posters I have on the wall or the yellow flowers on the windowsill. The "Welcome to English 11"on the board won't get more than a quick glance. What will take most of her attention is who else is in the classroom.

She'll scan faces, registering friend or foe, and then settle back to turn her attention to me. Being in Grade 11, she's already an expert at reading teachers' faces and body language. She's had to learn to do this, to adapt her behaviour every time she switches from one classroom to the next, each one a different kind of minefield requiring a different kind of defense. She'll skillfully hide what she feels behind a blank expression, her grey and brown clothing more camouflage than couture.

It should be no surprise that too many of our students experience anxiety and depression.

I think about students like her when I prepare for a new school year. Although I spend a lot of time preparing lesson plans, what occupies my mind most is what I can do to ensure that when she walks into my classroom, she finds a space that she would want to be.

There's no need to list all the ways that many public schools can be inhospitable places for students. Not only is there the physical discomfort of sitting for hours each day but there is also the navigating of a range of emotional gauntlets: the whispered comments in the hallways, the judgements about clothes, the betrayal of "friends" on Facebook. And all the while students have to keep up with the demand to produce good grades. It should be no surprise that too many of our students experience anxiety and depression.

As a teacher, I can do little to transform an alienating education system, but there is a lot I can do to create a welcoming oasis in my classroom.

But despite my best efforts, I know that she won't like being there on the first day. She won't like that we're sitting on chairs in a circle of instead of behind desks. She won't like answering questions about her favourite music artists or snack foods. And she certainly won't like that dancing is what we do after sitting for 30 minutes.

When she walks into the room, she'll notice how relaxed and comfortable some students are. These would be students who have taken a course with me before. They'll likely be on the pink couch, sipping coffee, teasing each other and me. And she'll be curious enough about all this to come back the next day.

Over the course of the first week, she'll learn that what we do in the classroom is determined by the time of day. When she's in my class during the first block, she'll have time to settle in, to have something to eat, to "chill" in teenspeak. She'll learn that lectures only happen during the second block of the day when her brain is ready to think deeply.

My former students say that it takes a few weeks to adjust to my classroom.

If she's like many of my students, she'll look forward to the block after lunch when we do colouring meditation before any work begins, or perhaps she'll look forward to the first 20 minutes of the last block of the day when we do a body-scan meditation, otherwise called naptime by former students.

She'll learn that doodling is always OK, and that brain breaks are too.

She'll learn that there is a Question Box for anonymous questions from students about anything and everything: questions about conflicts and relationships interspersed with questions about course content. And she'll learn that how we feel when we're in the room is as important as what we learn.

My former students say that it takes a few weeks to adjust to my classroom. I hope this is true for her too, that her fear of the strangeness of what we do will dissipate and that she'll begin to feel safe in the room. Safe to be just who she is, safe to speak her mind and to take risks while grappling with issues and concepts. Because if she doesn't feel safe enough to do this, she won't really learn anything, no matter how shiny and new everything in the classroom is.

Frame Of Mind is a new series inspired by The Maddie Project that focuses on teens and mental health. The series will aim to raise awareness and spark a conversation by speaking directly to teens who are going through a tough time, as well as their families, teachers and community leaders. We want to ensure that teens who are struggling with mental illness get the help, support and compassion they need. If you would like to contribute a blog to this series, please email


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