Whenever I struggle with a teaching problem, I often turn to my farm for solutions. Somehow the natural world of plants and animals always seems to point me in the right direction. This week I’m struggling with helping my students come together as a learning community. Some of my students are loud and boisterous while others are quiet and reserved. I want both types of students to be included in the activities and learning environment, but sometimes the more extraverted students take over. Tending to my chickens this morning, I was reminded about this challenge as I greeted Princess. Princess is the only chicken I have named. I try not to get too attached to the chickens because I’ve lost a few to nature events such as racoons and coyotes. But Princess is special. She was one of 3 younger chickens that I introduced to my older flock. They seemed to have integrated well and were living a happy chicken life. Then, one night when I checked the barn, I found one chicken with blood on her head and what looked like a hole. After further inspection I discovered she had been pecked by the other chickens. I immediately separated her and took care of her wounds. She seemed to appreciate the saving and extra care because after that she became quite attached to me. Every day, as soon as I open her coop door, she comes right up to me and lets me pet her and carry her around. But no matter what I try, the only way for her to be safe is to keep her separated from the other birds. She doesn’t seem to mind and enjoys her solitary life. She gets some special privileges, like free reign of the barn during the day and extra time with me in the garden and yard. She also has a name. Princess just seems to fit. Thinking about this has reminded me that as a teacher part of my job is to tend to the whole flock and to create safe spaces for all my students. Some students need to verbalize and talk with others to learn. Others need quiet and time to process information. At times I need to quiet the cackling hens or the boisterous young voices and give the quiet ones a chance to spread their wings. It can be difficult at times to manage such different needs, but as teachers it is important to try to make our classrooms a safe place for all students.
Standing up for students and helping them navigate the classroom often helps strengthen the teacher-student relationship, just as it strengthened my relationship with Princess. After I "saved” Princess, she seemed to trust that she was safe in my presence. I’ve seen this same thing happen with students. In my book, Because of 4, I share the story of how one student Rick had a particularly hard time getting along with other students. One day as he avoided a fight, I was there to help him process his emotions. That action allowed him to trust me and changed our relationship and interactions for the better. After that moment, he responded much like Princess, accepting me near him and looking to me for a safe space. Sometimes the best way to stop the destructive patterns of a pecking order is to just create space whether it’s a physical space or just a trusted space where the student knows someone cares.