OKTOY Blog: Make It Safe

At the end of last summer, my two-year-old son Vincent was jumping off the diving board like a stunt man! This summer, only just last week did he make his first attempt off the board. I was struck by how quickly a child can lose his courage and freedom to take risk.

Some of us may recall our kindergarten years when we were eager to be called on. If you ask a room full of five-year-olds a question, nearly every tiny hand is in the air, regardless if they even heard you. More of us, however, likely remember our middle and high school years, when we stopped raising our hand because it was painful to be wrong in front of our peers.

We have created a culture of right, where there are only one or two correct answers, choices A through D. We no longer have time afforded for creativity. But part of our job is chiefly that – to prepare students in finding creative solutions well beyond their schooling. Every student will join our society, and many of them will marry and have children which certainly requires creativity if it is to last a lifetime. We have important work to do in re-opening this door to creativity.

A first step is to make it safe. Yes, there will be incorrect answers and poor choices. Regardless, in our classroom, we can encourage to give courage. In an effort to see that a publicly wrong answer does not dash an individual’s will to try again, we can make it safe by helping students retrace their thought processes and find more creative answers. We can be kind first, and if we need to be right later, there is still the option (but it doesn’t work the other way around).

Sarcasm has little to no place in the classroom. What I find so great about sarcasm, when used well, is that it is witty and may establish a fun, relationship-building banter with a student. However, there is no chance to mess it up. If a person does not understand sarcasm, either because they are still concrete thinkers or perhaps not mature enough, then it doesn’t come off as a joke. Instead, the delivery is either mean or confusing. Don’t risk it – avoid sarcasm as well as you can. It may take work, and one solution is to state things concretely. Instead of a sarcastic, “Nice job,” when a student drops his textbook, earnestly help the student with, “Please let me know if I can help you.” It takes less time in the long run and helps the student feel safe. When you really do mean, “Nice job!” the words have positive meaning.

We are challenged to continually make our classroom safe, especially when we have answered the same questions and faced the same student challenges for a generation. Through practice and creating in our students a sense of security, we can begin the first steps toward greater, deeper, riskier and most importantly, more creative thinking in our classrooms.


Peter Markes
2014 Oklahoma Teacher of the Year
Twitter @PeterMarkes



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Last updated on August 6, 2014