How I Make Every Student Feel Valued in My Classroom

10 months ago
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This article was written by a member of the SheKnows Community. It has not been edited, vetted or reviewed by our editorial staff, and any opinions expressed herein are the writer’s own.
I am a proud teacher who believes the noble profession is a craft which is honed through life experience and heart. A teacher has to make a thousand decisions a day ranging from the miniscule to life defining moments for students. Teachers make an All-In declaration the moment they cross the threshold of the classroom door. We parse the days through academia rigor, administrative requirements, educator collaboration and parental expectations and demands.This is not a job for the faint of heart or for those believing in the misconception that your work day ends when students leave the building or that your summers are free.
Each day as I drive to work, I repeat the same mantra-prayer in my head, "Please help my mind find the right words when I feel challenged or impatient, show no malice when a middle schooler tells me to F-off again, keep my sense of humor, be a good listener, teach my content area well and above all else, look into the eyes of each student with kindness." I have repeated this mantra- prayer inside the corridor of my mind for nearly 30 years.I've made mistakes and I've missed the mark more than once. I reset my compass and look at each day as a possibility to make a difference, build stronger connections and role model kindness and compassion. Teaching is exhausting work because there is no down time to reflect, I have to think on my feet, multi-task for 25 people who are with me for 42 minutes, differentiate my instruction, build a positive learning community, expect and respond to the unexpected while constantly assessing the tenor of the lesson and subtle nuances of body language from the class. The brain is on full tilt...a work ethic that doesn't quit is a prerequisite.
At this age, the school experience is more than a sum of students time spent with me or my colleagues; it's a time to explore, try on new identities and be transformative. My job is to facilitate this and be as willing to do the same as I expect from my students. It is essential for me to also create an environment of gender neutrality and inclusivity.
I'm a female science teacher. I've always been good at most sports. I'm a fashionable dresser, both classic and trendy. I love the theatre and all of the arts. I'm not defined by my gender, my interests, my abilty in sports, my closet of shoes or love of the arts. I've never liked the boundaries or limitations we place upon one another. I didn't like it as a child before it became newsworthy and as a teacher I will only create an environment in which students focus on their contribution to the learning process. I don't allow students to contaminate a discussion, activity or project by assigning roles that are gender specific. "You throw like a girl," or "Give the boys the heavy stuff to lift," is not uttered.  My female students are not automatically the secretaries or recorders during a collaborative project and my male students are not the inevitable engineers for STEM based projects.
Developing a climate of gender neutrality and inclusivity begins on Day #1. I refer to my students as scientists, a neutral but realistic title. I change up seating and groupings after every project. At this age students do not need permission to utilize the restroom. Our school has designated male, female and gender neutral bathrooms (which is not located in the nurse's office). As a matter of policy, I do have to know where students are when they leave my room during class. I have presigned hall passes which all have the word RESTROOM written on it and it has my signature. This is modeling; we all have to use the restroom, but we don't need to make it an issue or have lengthy debates about which restroom you need to use. It's modeling respect, privacy and compassion. I'm well aware I have transgender students in my classes. I maintain that in an age of social media where everyone reports their activities, journals their food consumption or bullies an individual, which causes people to feel isolated or misunderstood, provides a great opportunity for teachers to create an environment where people are just people. We all have our personal stories of triumph and tragedy.
In my room, no cell phones, no rude comments, no racial jokes, no transphobia, no hating or shaming of bodies, minds or sexual orientation. We model this as teachers. I call students by the names they have identified they wish to be called by, everyone abides by this policy. I do not check my email, use my cell phone or reinforce social media icons. We work collaboratively as a think tank, we encourage one another to take academic risks and we celebrate each other's successes and failures- it's science how do we not have tests, projects or inventions that fail? 
My classroom is content specific. It is decorated with flexible seating, collaborative tables, plants, and scientific instrumentation. I have scientific fidgets that are not gender specific. Every moment counts in class, every student needs to feel safe, welcomed and valued. I model kindness. I model mistakes because I actually make them and think my way through of how to recover and begin again. I ask my scientists for help. This approach of inclusion for all strengthens our learning community makes it easier for me to keep the focus on content and more welcoming for students considering or dealing with new gender identities. We are not here to pry or evaluate non-conformity, trans-variant students or to inquire them to share anything about their transition experiences.
Full tilt all day? Yes. Creating opportunities for minds to flourish and release the social  pressures in the process? Yes, bring me your original self every day and I promise to show up in my genuine form. Everyone is welcome here.