A positive learning environment is one of the most critical components of a skills-based health education classroom. A positive learning environment is created when you value participatory teaching and learning and when there is trust and rapport among students and between yourself and students. To establish trust that leads to true participation and engagement in learning, you first need to set the stage by establishing a learning environment in which all students feel valued, safe, and supported.
Let’s further define the characteristics found in a positive learning environment:
- Students feel physically and emotionally safe. They see the classroom as a place where they can be themselves and express themselves and their ideas without judgment.
- Students know that they are valued and respected, regardless of other factors such as ability, gender, sexuality, race, ethnicity, or religion.
- Students have ownership and input related to class structure and expectations. This can range from creating spaces specifically for student use to having a class discussion to establish norms and expectations.
- All students are challenged to achieve high expectations, and all students receive the support necessary to meet those expectations.
- Standards of behavior are established and are consistently and equitably enforced for all students.
- Class structure provides multiple and varied opportunities for students to experience success.
- The teacher gets to know all students and uses that knowledge to create meaningful experiences.
- There is a positive rapport (relationship) between the teacher and students and among students in the class.
Creating a positive learning environment begins with the teacher’s self-reflection, continues with planning, and then is ongoing and dynamic during the implementation of the curriculum. Maintaining a positive learning environment is a work in progress - you must always consider how to maintain a positive learning environment and must be thoughtful about how the learning environment is perceived by students.
As with curriculum development, a positive learning environment takes planning and thought. It is important to continually monitor and adapt your strategies to meet the changing needs of your students. No two students are the same and no two classes are the same. You need to be aware of the differences in your classes (e.g., personalities, dynamics, interests, strengths, learning styles) and adjust your strategies to meet your students’ needs. Also keep in mind that students’ needs can change within a semester, term, or year. You should do the best you can to plan ahead of time, but be aware that once you get to know your students, you may need to adjust your strategies to ensure that everyone feels safe, supported, and valued. This chapter will discuss strategies for creating a positive learning environment in the classroom. Some ideas may work better for you than others, but we hope to give you plenty of ideas that you can use to develop and maintain a positive learning environment.
Before planning the specifics of your positive learning environment, take time to reflect on who you are and how you arrived at your values, beliefs, behaviors, and attitudes. If you haven’t explored how your beliefs and values shape your personality and decisions, it is difficult to guide students as they think about who they are. The Exploring Personal Beliefs and Values sidebar poses a few questions to use as a starting point.
After you have taken some time to explore your personal beliefs and values, the next step is to think about how you will influence the learning environment in your classroom. Take time to consider how you can build on your strengths while also addressing your weaknesses. Remember that weaknesses aren’t necessarily negatives; they represent areas for improvement. As long as you recognize your areas for improvement and don’t let them negatively affect your students’ experience, they can be opportunitiesfor growth. For example, you may have a strong belief that poor personal hygiene is a reflection of a person’s self-esteem. However, you have a student who does not use deodorant for cultural reasons. You will need to respect your student’s beliefs and not let your personal views affect how you teach or interact with that student. It is equally important that you model appropriate interactions with people who have different beliefs, ideas, or values. Your classroom should be a place where students learn, observe, and practice positive interactions with others regardless of differences. When you reinforce healthy and appropriate discourse, you provide students with an opportunity to share beliefs, take into account another person’s point of view, and then filter through everything they have learned in order to form their own opinions.
Self-reflection is not an evaluative exercise in which you criticize yourself or try to identify things you are not good at. Rather, this is a time to get to understand yourself better, to understand where you are coming from, and to discover where and how you can build on your strengths to support your students.
Exploring Personal Beliefs and Values
- What are my beliefs about teaching? About health?
- Why do I teach? Why do I teach health?
- What do I value about myself? My teaching? My health?
- What are my strengths? What do I bring to the table?
- What are my blind spots? What are my weaknesses?
- Do I have any biases? Do I treat any group of students differently because of a preconceived opinion?
- Do I have any prejudice about certain students?
- How has my experience shaped who I am today?
- What are the greatest influences on my life? My health?
- Do I feel uncomfortable with certain health topics?
- Where do I place myself on a scale of cultural competency?
- Am I passionate and excited about teaching?