The comfort zone

John Hattie

Creating a positive classroom environment in which students feel welcome, accepted and respected is probably high on the agenda for most teachers. It certainly was for me during all my years of classroom practice.

Students require an environment in which they feel comfortable and supported, as well as encouraged and challenged to stretch beyond current levels of skills and knowledge, to step beyond their current comfort zones with confidence in the knowledge that, while learning anything new can be a risky business, they will be supported in the process.

But this does not just come from a “feel good” place in teachers’ dreams and imaginations. Research provides evidence that it is true. Professor John Hattie, a researcher in education, undertook a very ambitious project, synthesising data from over 800 studies involving more than 80 million students. He published his findings in two books called Visible Learning and Visible Learning for Teachers.

Hattie says that

“It is teachers who have created positive teacher student relationships that are more likely to have the above average effects on student achievement”.

Thank you to my wonderful students, and their lovely Mum who made this for me!

Thank you to my wonderful students, and their lovely Mum who made this for me!

This article, which summaries some of Hattie’s findings about teacher-student relationships, states that

“the quality and nature of the relationships you have with your students has a larger effect on their results than socio-economic status, professional development or Reading Recovery programs. It is not that these things don’t matter, but rather that your relationships with students matter more.”

It is wonderful to find that what I have always believed and practiced is now firmly backed up with research.

I have written before about my use of affirmation songs and of connecting literacy learning to children’s lives and interests. In this post I will share just a few of the physical attributes of the classroom that contributed to that overall positive and supportive environment I worked so hard to establish.

Readilearn bookmark

From the very first day of any school year I ensured that children not only felt welcome in the classroom but knew that it was their classroom, that they had part ownership of the space and its environment.

I would prepare a large welcome chart for the door with my name and photograph and the words: “Welcome to grade one.” Children’s names and photographs would be added by the close of the day.

Welcome to year one

In our school each child was allocated an individual desk with a tidy tray underneath for storing belongings. I would arrange the initial seating of children in groups based on what I knew of their friendship groups from the previous year. For each child I would place on the allocated desk:

  • A desk name (to identify the desk, to use as a model for writing, to assist children in learning to read each other’s names)
  • A welcome letter
  • A name badge (to identify them and their class at break time)
  • A small gift e.g. a pencil or keyring
Welcome pack

Welcome pack

During the day I would photograph each child and print two of each.

One of each child’s photographs would be added to the welcome chart  with the child’s name. (see above)

The other would be added to a self-portrait and displayed on a classroom wall.

I am Michael

I usually asked the children to complete these during the first session so that I could have them on display when the children returned to class after first break.

This was just the start. Throughout the year my classroom was a constantly changing display of children’s work. Children love to see their work displayed. It gives them an immediate sense of belonging, of being valued, and of ownership. Parents love to see it too, as this (unsolicited) letter written by a parent to the principal at the end of a school year testifies.

Marianne's letter

This week at the Carrot Ranch Charli Mills has challenged writers to In 99 words (no more, no less) write about a place of comfort that is a refuge.

My classroom welcomed everyone: children, parents, volunteers, aides and administrators. It was a comfortable place to be. Fortunately it was not often required to be a refuge in the true sense of the word, though allowing me to experience over and over the joys of being six certainly shielded me from many less pleasant situations that may have been met elsewhere.

While Marnie of my stories is a fictional character, sadly there are many children suffering as much as or more than I portray for her. It is for children like her that a warm, caring relationship with a special teacher can be empowering and life-changing, the one bright spot in an otherwise difficult life. I wish for all children a loving place of safety, acceptance, trust and respect. Marnie found it in a special teacher, Miss R.

Safety

Marnie loved art classes with Miss R. She loved art, but she loved Miss R. more. The days when art class was last were best; had been ever since that first time when she’d dallied, nervously, reluctant to leave, and Miss suggested she stay and “help”.

Miss R. understood Marnie and Marnie trusted Miss R. Sometimes they would tidy in silence. Other times they’d chatter lightly about distracting things like television, music or books. But sometimes, when dark clouds loomed, Miss R. would gently ask, “What would you like to tell me?” Today the clouds looked about to burst.

Thank you

Thank you for reading. I appreciate your feedback. Please share your thoughts about any aspect of this post or flash fiction.

36 thoughts on “The comfort zone

    1. Norah Post author

      Joe, thank you for popping over to my blog and leaving such an encouraging comment. I loved my days in the classroom and miss them still. They are warm spots in my memory. 🙂

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        1. Norah Post author

          Well now, that would be giving it away wouldn’t it! But thank you for asking. My first year of teaching was 1973. I had some years “off” when my children were young. I also spent time in other educational roles. My last year in the classroom was 2011. I had just over 20 as a classroom teacher. Nearly 4 as a resource-remedial teacher, 4 + writing educational resources, 3+ as a consultant for an educational publisher and 5-ish running home-based early childhood sessions and “Help Your Child Read” sessions for parents while attempting to establish an alternative school and home educating my daughter, plus a few other bits and pieces sprinkled in. That’s the long answer. You’re probably yawning like my (adult) children do when they get a long answer, but it seemed too simplistic to say x years. Education has been and still is my passion. Although I am no longer in the classroom, my heart is still with children and learning and I’m not ready to let go. I had too much fun and learned too much along the way to want to do so.
          I have been enjoying your posts for the passion I read in them and the respectful way you treat children, putting them at the centre of the curriculum. I would have loved to work with you at your school. It would be wonderful to work with similar minds.

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  1. Bec

    Marnie’s story this week is very moving, and it’s great to see how the parents recognised and appreciated the extra efforts to encourage the students’ belonging in your classroom. I imagine these needs are very human – outside of the classroom too! How nice to start these people off early with their grade 1 class where they know they are valued.

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    1. Norah Post author

      Thank you Bec. I’m pleased you enjoyed Marnie’s story.
      It was always nice to receive acknowledgement of my efforts by the parents.
      I bumped into one of your primary school teachers today. She was thrilled to hear how you were going. I think she was one of your favourite teachers. I’m pretty sure we both let her know she was appreciated! 🙂

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  2. Wendy Janes

    What a lovely piece, Norah. Sometimes people can lose sight of the importance of a nurturing environment when they’re pushed to meet targets. Your words are a wonderful reminder of the bond between teacher and pupil.

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    1. Norah Post author

      Thank you Wendy. Unfortunately those targets can have a negative effect, despite what was intended. I appreciate your reading and commenting. 🙂

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  3. Sacha Black

    wow. I genuinely wish I’d had you as my teacher Norah. You are one special lady.

    I love that this Hattie’s research showed such positive findings – I know certainly from memories that the better I got on with a teacher the better my grades were. Although I appreciate its not as linearly simple as that.

    Lovely flash too Norah, you know how I do so love Marnie. Today she reminded me a little of Matilda.

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    1. Norah Post author

      Thank you for your kind words Sacha. It’s interesting to think that I could have been your teacher, except we were half a world apart! 🙂 Nice to have confirmation from you about the importance of relationships to learning.
      You know, I can’t write about Marnie without thinking about you. Your encouragement keeps bringing her story out!

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  4. Yvonne

    Oh, your classroom sounds a wonderful place to be! I’m not surprised by Hattie’s findings. It makes sense that children learn best in a positive environment. Fear is not conducive to learning, and neither is put-downs. My girls have dropped subjects partly because of teachers’ attitudes. But in the Scottish secondary schools teaching is high-pressured, with constant assessment and lack of funds.

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    1. Norah Post author

      Thank you, Yvonne. I’m so pleased you enjoyed the post. I think if children experience a positive environment in which they feel loved and safe they will have no need but to offer the same to others. The relationship with the teacher is so important. I’m disappointed to hear that your daughters have not always had the encouragement they deserved. The constant pressure, assessment and lack of funding is a global phenomenon I think. Thanks for sharing your thoughts. 🙂

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  5. Pingback: Finding Comfort « Carrot Ranch Communications

  6. Charli Mills

    What a wonderful and welcoming environment you created, and yes, for many that does equate to safety. The cards you did, the letter of appreciation from someone who experienced your classroom as a parent and volunteer, all show that it can be the consistency of little things that makes the big difference in a student’s experience. Ultimately it does impact how a student learns to learn. I’m blown away by the volume of research Dr. John Hattie conducted: “over 800 studies involving more than 80 million students.” I’ve read so many studies then go to find the actual research and it’s based on 35 participants. Not persuasive! But Hattie’s is. Oh, and Marnie. It’s in her younger years so young and vulnerable that she breaks my heart. What a powerful question Mrs. R. asks.

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    1. Norah Post author

      Thank you so much, Charli. Yes, I’m hoping it’s more to do with the consistency than the transgressions that are so often easier to see. I know what you mean about research. 35 participants! While true for them I’m not sure how applicable any generalisations would be! I’m pleased my flash with Marnie rang true. 🙂

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  7. Sherri

    What a wonderfully heartwarming post and flash this is Norah. I love that you shared your special gift and letter received (one of many I’m sure) from your students and parents. Teachers like you are worth more than gold, priceless infact. And I thank you so much for reminding of the the wonderful teachers my children had in California. When you described the way you made the children feel so at home in their classroom, that it ‘belonged’ to them, I was transported to the way teachers there did very similar to you with the personalisation of everything from their desks, to the welcome on the first day, the photographs and the various progress charts updated throughout the school years. I was amazed at the way the teachers made the children feel so involved. I could not remember ever feeling that way at school. Volunteering in the classroom for each of my children over the years opened my eyes to the joy of teaching and the way it should be done. All I kept thinking was, ‘This is how it should be’. I will always be eternally grateful for those teachers who gave my children such a postive learning experience in their early school years, and I know you have many students and parents who continue to feel the very same way about you, and rightly so. You have left a wonderful, life-long legacy for so many, and for that you should be so very proud 🙂

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    1. Norah Post author

      Thank you, Sherri. That is a very lovely comment. It’s funny when I read comments like yours I have to stop myself from responding with something self-deprecating. In fact I was very reluctant to share the letter, but then thought blow, it does explain succinctly, from a parent’s point of view, what I had been attempting to do. I thought it made it more authentic to back up what I was saying with evidence. Interesting too in that I am listening to a wonderful book at the moment called “Playing Big” by Tara Mohr. In the chapter I was listening to today, Tara talked about how women do not like to self-promote. I certainly find it difficult to do so. She said we do the hard work and then often given credit to others and downplay our own contribution. I could identify with that too. Then she said that we need to think of it differently; think of making our work, our contribution visible. I think that’s a good way of looking at it, and was pleased, then, that I had made the decision to do just that.
      How good would your children’s teachers feel knowing that you appreciated their efforts. For so many the appreciation doesn’t exist or isn’t expressed. I love hearing parents gratitude for teachers’ efforts.

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  8. Sarah Brentyn

    It is the little things. We have talked about that before. What a wonderful letter. Norah / Santa. 🙂 Yes, the classroom is an absolute must as a place to feel comfortable. Excellent use of the prompt, as always, to include education.

    I love this flash, Norah. That last few lines… This reminds me of a post I just read. I can’t remember where. I’ll have to find it.

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    1. Norah Post author

      Thank you very much, Sarah. I appreciate your support. I’m pleased you enjoyed the flash, and look forward to hearing what it reminds you of, if you have time to find it.

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        1. Norah Post author

          Thanks Sarah. I enjoyed reading the article and am pleased that I “got it right” in my flash. I’m chuffed that my words would remind you of this. 🙂

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    1. Norah Post author

      Thank you, Michelle. I am very happy to hear that your children had warm, caring and nurturing teachers in their days at school. It definitely makes a difference to their view of themselves, of learning and of life in general.

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  9. TanGental

    I was a little teary reading this; for you and that fabulous letter but also for the many teachers I had who in different ways at different times did what you did and made me feel like the classroom was in part my space. Those welcoming environments are what count and what makes learning bot possible and a joy – so much so that today, my classroom is my world, the best lesson school can leave you with.
    PS. Wonderful flash Mrs Colvin

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    1. Norah Post author

      That’s a lovely comment, Geoff. I’m so pleased you had welcoming teachers who helped you see that education is not confined to the walls of a classroom but only by closed thinking and lack of imagination. So pleased you found the freedom of learning without walls.
      Also pleased you enjoyed the flash. 🙂

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  10. katespencer17

    I felt so WELCOMED in your classroom! I was one of those students growing up who responded and studied based on the relationship I had with my teacher. Recent studies in the corporate world have revealed similar results: employees don’t leave jobs because of the work they do or the amount of money they make, but rather because of their managers or company leaders. Excellent take on the flash. We all need a safe place to unburden our fears and worries.

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    1. Norah Post author

      Thank you so much for your lovely comment, Kate, and for pointing out the necessity for positive relationships in the workforce as well. I have experienced that myself so know just what you are talking about.
      I’m pleased you enjoyed the flash.
      Thanks for stopping by.

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  11. Annecdotist

    Aargh, my comment coincided with another one coming through and got lost so I’ll have to be more concise second time round. But I do love to read of how you’ve created such a great space for children to learn.

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    1. Norah Post author

      I’m so sorry your comment got lost, Anne. I do always enjoy your thoughtful responses. I understand your frustration and reluctance to write it in full again. I appreciate your support.

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  12. Allison Maruska

    Great post. I love seeing how you created such a fun and loving atmosphere.
    Having worked in schools in both middle and lower socio-economic neighborhoods, I’ve seen how this teacher/student relationship looks different yet achieves the same outcome. Generally speaking, in a middle-class school, students need to feel their classroom is a safe place to take risks and where they won’t be criticized when they don’t do as well as they would like. No one is expecting them to be perfect. In a lower-class school, students need to be held accountable for their choices and learn that excuses will lead them nowhere. At-risk kids aren’t afraid of failure as middle-class kids are; they are likely to blame the failure on an outside entity, so it doesn’t motivate them to learn. They have to learn how to claim both successes and failures and grow from them. All of that comes from the teacher.

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    1. Norah Post author

      Thanks for sharing your interesting perspective and experience, Alison. Most of the schools I worked in were low-mid with mainly what would be considered working class rather than professional parents.I think all children respond to a welcoming supportive atmosphere, but definitely some children and families value education and what it can offer them more than others do. The teacher’s role in helping them see the potential and possibilities within is crucial.

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