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Learning to listen: teachers train for responsive classrooms

By Rebecca Rider

rebecca.rider@salisburypost.com

SALISBURY — What if a teacher could stop a behavior problem before it ever starts? Diffusing situations early on is one of the goals of a responsive classroom approach to teaching. Local middle school teachers have been studying the philosophy all week at a professional development session in the Wallace Educational Forum.

At its core, responsive classrooms are about training teachers to create an optimal learning environment where all of a student’s needs can be met – where the whole child is addressed.

“It’s a teacher’s approach on how we can build a sense of . . . belonging,” Michelle Benson, responsive classroom consultant, said.

It’s not a specific program, Erwin Middle School Assistant Principal Jessica Allen said, it’s a retraining of teaching styles.

And a huge part of that is language – teaching teachers to think carefully and critically about their words and tone, and how that affects the way students view them.

“And that takes practice,” Allen said.

In practice, responsive classrooms look something like teachers and students knowing everyone’s name, and taking time to acknowledge each other every day. It may look like a classroom activity that builds trust, or “brain-break” activities to get students up and moving. It looks like self-paced learning, and teaching self-control by modeling. It looks like clear and open communication, and fostering a sense of community.

“If we’re having behavior issues, well, is it a behavior issue or is it an expectation we haven’t been clear about?” Renee Fox, a teacher taking the training asked.

For Allen, it’s about teachers in her school building, a place where students feel safe.

“Adolescents have a rough time of it and are scared of taking risks,” she said.

But using a responsive classroom philosophy, a teacher can build an environment where a student feels confident taking academic risks.

Teachers from the four middle schools that took part in this week’s training will take what they’ve learned back to their schools, and try to educate their peers. Fox said the training gave a logical process and sequence to all the parts of teaching she had already learned – it was like putting the pieces together, instead of “just one more thing to do.” Mark Sells, a teacher at Southeast Middle, said he was “cautiously optimistic” about the process.

While Allen said implementing the full philosophy within a school would take more than a year — and longer than that, system-wide — its impact would be visible by the second day.

“If they just use a piece, it will radically change their learning environment,” Allen said.

Contact reporter Rebecca Rider at 704-797-4264.

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