Creating a Classroom Climate: “We the Kids of 114”

Over the years, I’ve had my fair share of rides on the emotional roller coaster of teaching. Sometimes the ride was my own, and other times I was seated next to students on theirs. I reminisce about the anticipation of standing in line on a hot summer day, rechecking my buckle just to make sure, and the adrenaline, terror, and excitement of the twists and turns. However, the journey always ended with the greatest feeling of all, the exhale rolling into the gate, be it a sense of relief or accomplishment.

 Mapping our personal emotions over the last year (anxiety, fear, anger, glimpses of hope and joy, grief…) would not make for a safe roller coaster, but this year has given us deeper insights into the hearts and minds of some of our students, students like Aaron*.

Aaron was the trifecta: bright, funny, and he laughed at my jokes. Along with his enthusiasm, Aaron also came to school with hidden trauma that would emerge in tears, screams, and behavior. Aaron loved social studies where he could build models of Native American homes and engage in  hands-on learning. This learning was often interrupted by behavior though, and peers saw him as the kid who was different, who needed help, the kid who was not a peer. They had a lot to learn and so did I.

Educators know behavior is communication, and trauma can affect students in different ways. I got to know Aaron and the iceberg below the surface, one that connected the dots between lived experience and explosive responses to seemingly trivial moments. Disagreement about how to build a wigwam, for him, was reliving childhood rejection. Being brushed in the hallway on the way to lunch sparked an eruption with roots in childhood trauma. When a toy was moved to a backpack, the one comfort he held as a young child was taken from him. A flipped chair meant, “I’m anxious.”, “I’m hurting.”, and “I don’t feel like I belong.”

In a year when we’ve explored the full range of our emotional capacities, we’ve been given an opportunity to connect with the daily roller coaster of some of our students. In elementary, it's not rare to span the entire emotional spectrum in a day. For some children, the roller coaster is higher, faster, sharper, and sometimes with breakdowns at the top of the hill, frozen in a state of anxiety. It’s up to us to embrace each child as they are and to create a classroom climate that shows all students are valued. We can’t control the behavior of students, but we can control how we respond. Our response becomes the model for the class.

To be clear, we need more counselors in schools and stronger partnerships with community mental health programs that support students and families. Students need them in all schools, particularly those in mental-health service deserts, or frankly, in schools that are not equitably funded to meet the needs of kids.

 Student and family needs have been magnified this year, and while the burden doesn’t fall solely on us, an opportunity does.

We have the opportunity to set the tone, culture, and climate of our classrooms and the opportunity to be our students’ number one fan, ally, advocate. As Rita Pierson puts it, “Every kid needs a champion.

In our class, we work toward the ideal of everyone being everyone's champion. It is far from easy, but our class government embodies empowerment, empathy, the importance of “We”. “We the Kids of 114…” begins the constitution of our class, a coffee-stained and revered wrinkled poster. Students drafted the document to include every student in“We the Kids” and to make a classroom for all. It had shared values, rules, and rights like taking breaks, using sensory tools, and a class pet (#IVetoedTheSkunkBill). Aaron became Senator Aaron. Students normalized the use of fidget tools, coping skills, and acceptance for people different from us. The government became part of our culture, a mechanism that empowered students to resolve issues and to create change inside and outside the classroom. Recess disputes with Aaron led to empathetic debate and creative bills that embraced everyone’s needs and rights.

Aaron saw how his class valued him and quickly realized how necessary he was to the class. He was a fully integrated asset. Aaron went from flipping chairs to standing on one, leading a service project with his peers, peers who genuinely looked up to him with their eyes and their hearts. In this moment, I released a breath, one of both relief and accomplishment. For now, the ride was over, yet only just beginning.

We created space for grace, something we could all use a little more of these days. In 114, we are messy, emotional, passionate, gracious. We are perfectly imperfect and wild about each other, a theme park full of roller coasters with plenty of enthusiastic riders. You are welcome to join us, we just ask that you buckle up for the ride. Everyone has a #1 in 114, and maybe even a few new friends as we roll into the gate.


Anthony Coy-Gonzalez is an elementary teacher of the Deaf and the 2021 Ohio Teacher of the Year. He is passionate about hands-on learning and making an impression on students with humor, emotion, a little magic, and opportunities to live through learning. He craves partnership with the community and an outward lens to instruction. He works to connect students with community role-models and encourages students to be civically-minded young citizens. He believes partnership and teacher empowerment can lead to greater equity in education. You can connect with Anthony on Twitter @ACoyGonzalez.





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