SW Teaching Alliance: Is Your Classroom Healthy?

Perhaps you have some pot-plants lurking in the corner? Some inspiring quotes on the wall or some posters and displays covering the magnolia paintwork? Maybe you have an array of interesting paraphernalia for your classroom teaching sitting on the shelves? Anything you have added to your classroom to support your children’s learning goes a long way to providing a nurturing environment in which they can develop. But how healthy is that environment for them to emotionally flourish?


This was a key question explored during a recent ThoughtBox CPD training with the South West Teaching Schools Alliance on 20th October, held at one of our ThoughtBox model schools -  Marine Academy, Plymouth. Joined by thirty teachers from across nine different schools, we spent the morning together sharing and exploring a range of different inspirations, sticking points and methodologies for creating safe spaces and healthy environments for students to explore and discuss difficult issues.

Our world is changing rapidly and the pressures on our young people today are more acute than ever. Not only are they dealing with the everyday pressures that come with adolescence (“Nobody understands me”, “I suck” etc.) they are also having to deal with the anxiety of terror attacks, economic crises, global migration issues, Brexit and Donald Trump. Enough to frazzle anyone’s sanity and certainly important to recognise as contributing factors to the huge rise in mental health issues in schools across the country.

Supporting our young people is crucial in these rapidly changing times, but even more significant in the process is supporting teachers in guiding students towards a more emotionally resilient future. This is at the heart of ThoughtBox’s CPD programme, focusing on the following key questions:

  • How can we create healthy classroom environments?
  • What is the role of empathy in supporting emotional health and resilience and how can we model this?
  • Why is critical thinking a vital life-skill and how can our students develop and practice this skill?
  • How can we create safe spaces to support healthy dialogue, deep listening and active discussions in the classroom?

During the CPD at Marine Academy Plymouth, we firstly spent time engaging in understanding why we need to develop critical thinking and empathy skills with our students. Learning how to think, feel and ‘unlearn’ (or re-learn) are vital tools for our ‘toolkits for the future’, and it is useful as teachers for us first to understand their worth in our own lives, before seeing the significance of practising them with our students.

Hearing teachers from a range of different schools talking together about best-practice is always inspiring and engaging, as sharing with each other is what this vocation is all about. Understanding that a teacher’s best tool is their students’ questions also helps to shape our own engagement with students, and we spent time exploring the changing role of the teacher and the difference between a facilitator and an educator and how the physical set-up of the classroom plays a large part in this differentiation. Discussions around the table asked teachers to think about whether automated teaching has a place in the future, and if so, are we as teachers really prepared to be replaced by a robot? If not, what do we need to change within our own roles as educators?

Teaching empathy begins with modelling it. In order for young people to be practising empathy building in the classroom, it is vital for us as teachers to exhibit this with them in our lessons. By starting to see the classroom of people in front of us as little versions of ourselves, with similar pressures, anxieties and infinite potentials, rather than putting them into closed boxes with labels such as “Miss Trouble-Maker”, “Mr Rude” “Mr Always Late”, “Little Miss Never Hands in Homework” etc. allows us to feel more engaged in their own wider learning, development and flourishing.

Changing our own behaviour as teachers can have a dramatic impact on the way a child feels. Being seen, being heard and being listened to (no matter by whom) confirms our own importance and worth as individuals– and so simply by changing a few little practices in the classroom as teachers, we can have develop much more positive relationships with our students. During the CPD, we spent time exploring how by modelling empathy, we can engage more fully with our students and in turn have much more effective classroom management. A win-win, really.


Discussing ways to model empathy in the classroom


Exploring classroom management techniques

How can we help our students to discuss difficult issues in a safe space?

It is more important than ever for our young people to have somewhere to go with their questions, anxieties and uncertainties, and as the pressures around us all continue to grow, it is a sign of health and emotional strength to talk openly about these worries.

ThoughtBox has been created to support young people’s emotional health by engaging in healthy discussions about difficult issues (with our curriculum topics covering areas such as Refugees, Mental Health, Religion, Terrorism, Gangs and Happiness) and we spent time during the training exploring the significance of these issues on all of our lives. Like it or not, children from as young as nursery age are hearing snippets about what is happening in the news, seeing anxiety on parents’ faces, grasping that there are worries in the air. Many are struggling to cope with these pressures because they are not talking about them, or rather they don’t know where to go to talk about them. Half-told stories in the playground, rumours in the corridors, overheard conversations on the radio amount to half-truths, limited understandings and ever-growing emotional distress. It is, therefore, vital that we open up spaces for these conversations to be had openly and to be held in a safe way.

For many teachers, the anxiety comes with how to manage these discussions when faced with conflicting opinions, extreme views, uncertain answers and classroom management concerns. Part of the CPD training explores how to create a “safe space” for these conversations to happen, firstly by setting the tone and expectation that comes with having open discussions. We explored a range of techniques for dealing with controversial opinions, allowing teachers to develop tools to extract the idea away from the child in order to discuss it in its own right. We also explored the need to balance opinions with substance, helping our young people to discern which ideas are based on fact and which based on sensationalist rhetoric.

Is there an empathy deficit?

Following a conference I recently attended entitled “Tackling the Empathy Deficit in schools” I posed the question to the thirty teachers during the morning’s CPD – “Are your students lacking in empathy?” The sharing that ensued was not only fascinating, it was terrifically inspiring and a strong reminder to us all about the dangers of labelling our young people as “emotional failures”. Many teachers shared examples of what they have witnessed in the playgrounds – of students supporting each other’s differences (whether they be racial, sexual, physical), of being much more tolerant to diversity and difference than many teachers felt they were growing up, and having a very strong consciousness of the need to care.

Kindness and compassion stood out as core life-skills that all of us teachers wish young people to learn and take with them into the world, and it was heartening to hear teachers share their stories of students exhibiting these skills and characteristics. It was widely agreed that empathy is something to constantly practice and engage in, and these discussions also led us to muse on the value and importance of us, as teachers, constantly modelling these empathic engagements with our students, no matter how annoying them may sometimes be!

What else?

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The final part of the morning’s training was focused on practical ideas for embedding critical thinking and empathy into the wider school environment. Tutor times seem a wonderful opportunity to be having small, meaningful discussions with students about what is happening in the wider world. PSHE or Life-skills also provide good nurturing time to open up the box on some more controversial issues and many teachers shared practices that they already have established in their school, some using ThoughtBox lessons as little starter activities. We also explored the simple techniques of setting up Wonder Walls and Lines of Thought in schools, encouraging more proactive debate and discussions to be held outside of the classroom as well, always ensuring that children know where to go with their questions.

It was an enriching training day with an interesting group of teachers, sharing concerns, exploring new ideas and modelling best practice and I would like to thank the teachers who came to the training for their time, openness and sharing, as well as the positive feedback we received.


Here’s wishing you all happy, healthy classroom discussions in the future!

Rachel Musson