Freedom Within Fences

I have to admit that as a child, I found Mister Rogers kind of creepy. Although I loved the Neighborhood of Make-Believe, I didn’t completely understand the charm of Mister Rogers himself. I also have to admit that the quotes I read as an adult are full of wisdom and messages that connect to my core beliefs. I read one recently that said, “Providing a framework doesn’t take away children’s individuality. In fact, structure generally helps them to be more free because it provides boundaries. It’s like a fence that offers security for what can happen inside the enclosure. Respect flourishes best within a clear framework, and it’s that framework that can allow us all to express more of who we really are.” My first response was to wonder why we want restrictions and limits on our learners through boundaries, but then I thought about the fence that all learners need from us.  

Their fence, which provides protection and predictability, is based on the reciprocal relationships we create with each learner. In Innovate Inside the Box, Geroge Couros shares “Relationships don’t serve only to build up our learners; they give us a foundation to be able to challenge them as well. And the truth is, we are more likely to rise to high expectations when they are held by someone we like and trust. If schools do not push our students to grow, then there is no purpose for them to be there in the first place. But if there is no relationship where learners feel seen and cared about, when we push our students or colleagues, there will be little motivation, if any, to respond to that encouragement.” The fence allows us to push them to grow knowing they will respond to our feedback and encouragement. They need to know that we know them, understand that the world is hard for everyone right now, and truly want to see them achieve great things.  

The safety that learners feel in a classroom when they are ready and able to take risks is based on the fence we create as the teacher. That fence is not designed to limit who they are or who they will become, but instead, it is an effort to provide them some predictable boundaries through which everyone can grow. Teachers know that if we want to teach someone to read or do math, we model how over and over again. We also need to model thinking through a problem and finding ways to create over and over again to help learners feel confident in what they are doing, especially right now. They are feeling the restrictions and isolation of this pandemic in so many ways. School, whether virtual, hybrid, or face-to-face can be the place they come to connect and create. We can use this as a time to let our learners find new ways to show their skills with lots of opportunities for feedback from us and each other.  

I prefer to think about the fence in terms of the safety net they put under someone who is learning the trapeze. I am not getting up on the trapeze unless I trust the instructor enough to believe they will have my back with my harness and a secure net if I fall. I would need clear direction on how to use those safety nets if I needed them. That is really what our learners need from us. They need to know that we have their back when they get stuck or when they struggle. They need to know that our reactions to their choices will be somewhat predictable and are transparent. That builds the trust that is the foundation of the reciprocal relationship so learners feel a sense of belonging and want to show us what they know. 

When I was in the classroom, we spent more time talking about what our personal boundaries were than creating “rules”. I was not a teacher that cared where the learners sat or if they needed to walk when I was talking or they were working. I don’t care now if my college students keep their cameras off, although I have told them this is easier for me if they have it on and have asked them to do so once they feel comfortable. My non-negotiables in any classroom have always been based on the way we choose to interact with one another and our desire to support one another as we try things. When I taught middle school, I used to spend a lot of time in class teaching learners how to give encouraging feedback to each other as well as how to handle moments of stress with non-verbals until the language they needed to express frustration or ask for help was accessible again. I was also always clear about exactly what they could expect when I was frustrated with them. Teachers are human and while our responses to learners always need to be professional, they also need to be real and predictable.   

This is very true in our current situation. Teachers and learners are struggling. While we also have many educators finding a stride or new ways to connect with learners, this is just going to be a hard year. It’s time for us to tighten those safety nets and be sure our learners know exactly where to find them. They need to know what mastery is for any topic, that they will get multiple iterations to try, and that we are here to support them as they go.   

Teachers also need to hear this and hear it often. They need to know that as school and district administrators we see their hard work, know they are trying new things and that we have their backs when it is just a hard day or something doesn’t work. They are rising to expectations that we could have never predicted, and we are hoping they feel the safety net to adapt and be flexible. They need to know that our fence will hold them, but that it is huge and has all the space they need right now to empower learners in new and different ways.  

My superintendent and I recently had the opportunity to meet with a group of teachers to get feedback on a part of our return to school plan. As a district leadership team, we have tried for years to create a more collaborative, reciprocal relationship with our teachers. We need to hear from them and listen to them to know what is working well and what we can do to support them differently when they need it. Several of them expressed gratitude that we were willing to listen and were open to the feedback they provided. We got the chance to recognize the amazing lengths they are going to make this all work and hear the parts that worry them. We can’t make the worry go away, but we acknowledged that it is real and that we worry too. We were able to share how much we trust them as professionals to make adjustments for and with our learners as they need it. I hope our teachers are feeling freedom within fences and a supportive safety net as they continue to innovate in and outside the box and watch our learners grow through this crazy year. We are optimistic that these moments to model the “framework that can allow us all to express more of who we really are” will encourage and empower our staff. Because who we are is a team of people who plan to support each other and our learners now and always.  

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