LEARN NC was a program of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Education from 1997 – 2013. It provided lesson plans, professional development, and innovative web resources to support teachers, build community, and improve K-12 education in North Carolina. Learn NC is no longer supported by the School of Education – this is a historical archive of their website.

I wrote earlier that when you build relationships with your students and demonstrate an investment in them, three incredibly positive things happen: You get to know a classroom full of amazing kids, those students become invested in their relationships with you, and as they become more invested in you, they become more invested in the material you teach. Those relationships provide an incredible foundation of trust that allows you to connect emotionally and intellectually with your students, and that connection can produce remarkable results.

That is good news, good news, good news.

Ready for the bad news?

Here it is: Just because your students trust you doesn’t mean they are going to trust anyone else in your classroom. And to truly grow, they are going to need to take emotional and intellectual risks in front that group.

It’s a group of their peers. They want the approval of their classmates, and many are not willing to risk that approval to engage in intellectual exploration. It is probably not “cool” to ask a question, even if the answer helps them with their learning. And when you, the teacher, pose an inquiry, many students are desperately hoping you won’t ask them to share their thoughts.

So what do you do? How can you design a classroom climate that encourages risk-taking? And how can you get a group of students to support one another’s efforts, even when some efforts result in answers that are obviously wrong?

Encouraging risk-taking

Begin by having an explicit conversation about the climate you want in your classroom. If you want people to participate verbally even when they are uncertain, you should say so. If you want their classmates to support imperfect first attempts by applauding the participation, you must tell them how.

Then show them. Here’s the method I recommend.

1. Demonstrate risk-taking

First, find something at which you’re pretty good and let your students see you do it. Then make the point that regardless of your current performance level, you will never improve at that activity unless you are willing to push yourself to the point of making a mistake.

I demonstrate this by bringing a basketball into my classroom and doing a ball-handling drill in front of my students. Then I tell them I have a choice: I can do it slowly and perfectly forever, or I can try to improve my performance a little and risk making a mistake. Well, I want to get better, so I start to move it more quickly and in few new ways. (Usually students in the front row start to get a little nervous at this point, so I move to an area of the room where I know a flying ball won’t break a window or injure a kid.) Eventually, I mess up, drop the ball, take a bow, and remind my students that even though the ball escaped me this time, I’ll be able to hold onto it a little longer next time because when you make a mistake, it’s an opportunity learn. In other words, I will be better tomorrow because I was willing to take a risk in the classroom today.

2. Be willing to fail

Second, be willing to try something at which you are terrible, and insist that your students celebrate your willingness to try. I do this by using an old guitar to play are horrible rendition of “Happy Birthday.” Let me be clear: I am absolutely awful, and it is a humiliating experience. But my students love it.

Throughout the year, whenever a student is afraid to give a verbal presentation, participate in a group, write an essay or draw something on the board, I ask them if I need to bring the guitar back in to remind them that we all need to be willing to try. Their classmates usually encourage them to get involved so that they can avoid the cacophony that is my musical output.

I still bring out the guitar on occasion. Sometimes a student who takes a risk needs to be celebrated by a short serenade that lets him or her know that the effort was appreciated. As an added bonus, my humiliation shifts the attention back off of them so they can recover from having taken the risk.

3. Build risk-taking into your classroom management

Develop a management system that rewards students who support their classmates and provides consequences for those who bully, taunt or tease. The rewards can be as simple as extra points on assignments if the whole class applauds after each presentation. The consequence could be a seat outside the door researching the presentation topics instead of listening to what classmates have learned.

Other means

Maintaining a positive classroom culture is not easy, and my means of introducing the topic may not be your style. If that is the case, find an approach with which you are more comfortable.

Somehow, though, you need to let your students know that you understand that trying new skills and learning new material can be intimidating, especially when so many of those efforts are taking place in a classroom that is full of their peers. Somehow, you need to let them know that you appreciate and support all of their efforts, and that you will insist that their classmates demonstrate that encouraging attitude as well.

Finally, make it clear that effort will lead to improvement. Your applause for the participation is sincere, but so is your belief that they can do better — that they can achieve mastery of the material. You will be there to encourage, guide and help them recover from missteps. You will also be there to help them celebrate the accomplishments born of their courage and work.