teachupsidedown: creating a safe & effective classroom environment//even in high school

I have been teaching for 16 years. Well, really I’ve been teaching my entire life. When I was little I had a classroom in our basement. When people visited, they asked my mom if she was homeschooling.

I had everything – bulletin boards, student desks, shelves of teacher’s editions and worksheets…my dream came true when a friend of ours retired from teaching and gifted me her entire collection of books and elementary items. I loved to decorate the room and fill the walls with color and words and comfort – because it made me feel at home.

When I began my college training to be a high school English teacher, I began looking for ways to decorate my classroom as a first year teacher. Time and time again, all I could find were elementary decorations, meant for little kids. All the posters were multi-colored with childish fonts. The borders were filled with crayons and puppies. There were charts and posters and decorations, but none that worked for older students.

During my student teaching I visited different classrooms and found them all to be virtually the same. Either institutional and bare  – OR – there were high school teachers who chose to decorate in their own style with stuff they could find on their own.  But they, I know, had to make lots of effort to find exactly what they wanted because the teacher stores didn’t have anything.

Trust me, I had looked.

Because once kids get to high school they are no longer kids, right? They don’t need to feel safe or comfortable or relaxed in a classroom.

Because now there’s RIGOR and ACADEMICS and COLLEGE PREP.

And why would we EVER combine safety with rigor, comfort with academics, or relaxed with college prep? It’s too confusing. It doesn’t make sense.

Kids should sit in a desk with a book and a worksheet.

That is learning.


When I was working on my Master’s degree at The Ohio State University, I had an amazing professor named Brian Edmiston. I remember the very first class I sat under his teaching – he wrote the word SAFE on the board.

Then he began talking about the basest most fundamental way to reach ALL students.

Make sure they feel safe.

I remember kind of laughing in my head at the time, thinking, “I teach high school students. Why are we talking about safety?”

Because I associated safety with physical harm, protection from bullying, a willingness to take risks.

Um, exactly.

Dr. Edmiston taught me a lot about teaching that I hadn’t thought about before. That starting at the root: the environment of the classroom, the safety of each student, mattered – even in the high school classroom – more than anything else. Once I mastered that, students were going to be more willing to learn, more open to respond, more excited about the subject, more vulnerable to take risks.

And he was right.

I don’t claim to have all the answers. I certainly make mistakes in the classroom on a daily basis. But after growing under the mentor ship of Dr. Edmiston and other master teachers as well as my own trial and error, here are my basic self-rules for creating a safe and effective classroom environment – a place where students feel free to speak their minds, open their hearts, take risks, disagree respectfully, and ask the question “Why?”

Wisehart’s Basic Rules
for Creating a Safe & Effective Classroom Environment

#1:Decorate, decorate, decorate

Now, not everyone likes to be “girly” or “matchy” – and I totally understand that. But my classroom feels like home to me because I live there at least 8-10 hours a day. The room needs to feel like home. My friend Matt, a math teacher, has made the effort to decorate, covering his back board with snowflakes for winter, and sports themed things on his bulletin boards. He has made an extra effort to help students feel welcome in his classroom.

And when students feel welcome, they are more likely to feel safe. And when they feel safe…you know where I’m headed from there.

If you need some practical ways to start the decorating process, feel free to watch this video I made on my YouTube Channel teachupsidedown. It will give you some guidance as to where you can get started. It’s really not that difficult – some letters, some paper, some effort and you’ll make your room your own.

I have another friend who has these huge googly eyes on the wall. Kinda crazy, but the kids love it. My next door neighbor has decked her room out in school colors down to the tree she brings in at Christmas. But every time I walk into her room I feel like spending more time there.

Just don’t make it feel like an institution – a prison, a hospital. Why do people visit Starbucks? Why do they like to hang out at Barnes and Noble? It’s the ATMOSPHERE. Create an atmosphere that students WANT to hang out in. They’ll be more willing to learn.

#2: Be open to the question “Why?”

In my undergraduate training as a teacher, we were told to dress up on the first day because we needed to show the students who was in control. It was important to establish our management routines and authority.

I get that.

But until I stopped being intimidated by students knowing more than me – or asking me uncomfortable questions – I was never going to have real authority in my classroom.

Another valuable lesson Dr. Edmiston taught me is about shared power in the classroom. We all know what it is to feel ownership in something. When we feel like we are part of it, we want to OWN it – to put more effort into making it better.

He taught me that to be a better manager, I had to be willing to share the ownership. Allow students to have voice. When students feel valued and heard, they feel safe. And they are more willing to make the classroom a place where valuable learning is shared, not just received.

I have given my students full permission to ask the question “Why?” ANYTIME. And I have to be ready to answer it. If I can’t, I need to go back to the drawing board and figure out the answer. Because if I don’t know why we’re learning it, how in the world are students going to see the relevance in it?

The other day, my student Wyatt surprised me with his why. He wanted to know why the heck we were reading The Odyssey. His question inspired me to have the students pull out our learning standards and tell me why. Of course I was thinking about historical context and connection, valuable use of language and acquisition of vocabulary. But instead of just telling them that, we found it together.

Funny thing is, once we found it, they were satisfied. They just wanted to be able to see the relevance, the meaning behind what they were learning. I could have been offended by them questioning the content and curriculum. Instead it became an amazing teaching moment.

I have found I am not the sole teacher anymore. I’m the guide. I gently prod and move and nudge. But they are the ones taking ownership in their learning. And it’s much better than anything I could ever teach them.

#3: Teach to ALL the learning styles

Recently I won a Teacher Creativity Grant from Lilly. My grant was to explore the different learning styles and create original videos to use in the classroom that complemented those styles. There are nine different learning styles or intelligences according to Howard Gardner.

As a teacher, I am creative, visual, and spatially organized. So I tend to enjoy those kinds of activities and performance assessments. It has pushed me to grow and change when I am forced to include all the learning styles in my activities in any given unit. It is both a challenge and pure enjoyment to differentiate toward different kinds of students.

Some students need to move, some need logic. Some need to be outside, some need consistent relevance. But they all have the ability to learn. I want to capitalize on their strengths, not their weaknesses – but at the same time, help them to embrace the differences in others as well.

“Everyone is a genius. But if we judge a fish on its ability to climb a tree, it will live its life believing it is stupid.”

-Albert Einstein

#4: Use the rule of 15

I love www.ted.com. Of course, they have wonderful talks given by all the genius thinkers of the world. But more importantly, they limit those magnificent minds to 15-18 minutes.


Because we have difficulty digesting more information than that at one time. I’m sure it is also because the smartest people in the world have trouble keeping their talks short. After my initial exposure to TED, I thought back to high school and how difficult it was to sit through 52 minute lectures. I was lost at about minute 12.

Before I even developed the rule of 15, I had applied it in my life early on. You see, I was a doodler. I can’t tell you how many times I would get in trouble for doodling. But the thing my teachers didn’t understand is that if they would just allow me to doodle, I could concentrate on what they were saying. Not doodling? I may be looking at you, but I’m certainly not listening.

Every 15 minutes I was doing something different…drawing a different picture, transitioning my mind in ways to keep the information in my head. Visual note taking strategies (before I even knew what they were) kept me engaged.

Because of my own inability to stay focused, I developed the rule of 15. As much as I can, we change worlds, take brain breaks, do high fives, move locations, do a few jumping jacks, drive the bus (that can be explained in a later post), move to a new activity, do a short post-it note assessment. You name it, we do it. But as long as we have been changing it up every 15 – I have NEVER had a student fall asleep in class.

Because it’s impossible.

Keep in mind, in the beginning, students will groan and roll their eyes every time you make them move. But what they’ll begin to see is that it keeps their brains active, their blood pumping, and their bodies awake.

And they’ll be thankful for it in the end.

#5: Embrace the “YES” philosophy

In my years of teaching, I have seen countless philosophical changes in education. For those who have taught much longer than me, you’ve seen the cycle of change. Things come into popular trend, they go out.

So I decided a long time ago that a couple things would keep me happy as a teacher. First, I would embrace change. Second, I would say YES.

Because of my other rule about teaching to every learning style, I can’t just embrace one philosophy. The last few years, the flipped classroom has been all the rage. I think it’s great. Do I use it? Yes. All the time? Absolutely not.

By ONLY flipping the classroom, I am neglecting the percentage of students in my classroom who need some hands on learning, not just by watching videos OUTSIDE the classroom. But is it beneficial for certain units, certain lessons? Absolutely. Are many teachers, my friends and colleagues, making the flipped classroom an amazing and successful strategy? Absolutely. I love watching them engage students in crazy awesome ways. They are doing some pretty amazing things – and they are flipping. But I also see them doing experiments and testing and other engaging activities that reach all kids.

Wow, I am surrounded by pretty genius teachers.

I love inquiry and project based learning. Much of what I do involves those particular philosophies. But do I need to also look at objective and logical means and options for students? Yes. Do I always want to? No. But I need to be reminded that the differentiated classroom is one that provides learning opportunities for ALL kids, not just the ones who learn like me.

I love love love technology. I use Twitter, Glogster – all kinds of technology in my classroom. But do I still enjoy getting out markers, crayons, paper and glue? Absolutely. Because technology isn’t the end all be all of education.

It’s super easy to get swept up with the newest philosophy. I am the first to go running after new ideas and want to use them all the time. But there’s always that kid in the corner who doesn’t engage with that idea. And I want to make sure that kid can still learn despite my inability to get it right. So, it’s back to the drawing board to find another way to reach that kid in the corner. Because that’s why I teach. And when I make mistakes, which is often, I can pick myself back up off the floor and try something new.

Say YES again.

Oh my, I am still learning. I do not always want to embrace change. But as all my friends in education know, it is best to be flexible – go with the flow, keep the kids first. Because if you don’t, you’ll get lost in the paperwork and political messes that come with any organized institution.

I stand in awe and admiration as I watch my colleagues use countless ways to reach kids. From taking kids to ring Salvation Army bells at Christmastime to spending hours in a dark room helping them develop photos, I know some pretty amazing teachers who give of themselves in any way possible to touch the lives of their students. I watch them paint their classrooms in the summer and take piles of papers home to grade every single weekend.

Teachers get a pretty bad rap nowadays – and as states try to figure out how to evaluate us, we are constantly trying to figure out how to help kids. Because people are always changing, so is education. So is the classroom.

So are you.

So this is just my humble attempt to educate kids. And if I can help them feel safe, heard, and appreciated in my classroom, it is just one more step for me in my journey to teach upside down, out of the box, and into the hearts of my students.

I won’t always get it right.

But I will ALWAYS keep trying.