Towards “welcoming” classrooms

Sometimes, things that people say stick with you and get you thinking. The words sink into your mind and give you a different way of seeing or understanding, or provide a fresh insight into an issue or a process, or just awaken a dormant idea that has gathered dust over time. A while ago, I had just such an experience. At a recent gathering to discuss interventions in education, Harsh Mander, human rights activist, former member of the civil service, and former country director of Action Aid (India), said that one of the fundamental requirements of an equitable classroom is for a teacher to approach every single child with “complete and unconditional acceptance”. It’s a simple enough idea, but one that seems to be quite difficult to practice. Of course, teachers in primary school probably know this better than those who teach higher grades – they are more likely than the others to begin with acceptance of each child irrespective of who the child is or what they see the child as being capable of doing/learning. As children travel up the school ladder, they find acceptance to be contingent on a variety of factors, not the least of which is scholastic performance or what is loosely defined as correct behaviour. The schism then between what they are appreciated for (marks and grades) and what is expected of them from society (civil behaviour and prosocial attitudes) grows wider.

But what if we went back to this idea, the notion that our classrooms must be accepting, welcoming places, where even while we may demand a certain level of performance, or place high expectations on children, we do not judge them as individuals – as people – based on these criteria. This is not to deny that there is a link between some of the characteristics we prize as human qualities – commitment, integrity, hard work – and academic performance, but the relationship is neither clear nor direct. In this issue of Teacher Plus, we’ve tried to explore what it takes for a school, a classroom, to build a caring, compassionate, empathetic, kind individual. We could build in simple activities and opportunities for discussion and reflection and imagination that get children to think beyond themselves and their performance and develop all these qualities. But it’s important for us, as teachers and individuals, to recognize that such attitudes are not only about doing and thinking in a certain way, but essentially, about being a certain way. Attitudes of kindness and compassion must be continually modelled in the classroom and outside in ways that can be felt. These attitudes emanate from the teacher, from all the responsible adults that a child interacts with, and in order for such attitudes to “catch on”, they must be demonstrated within a space that is itself kind, compassionate…accepting.