A Teacher’s Story on Creating Psychological Safety

I was visiting my elderly Aunty earlier this week, who also happens to be one of my favourite people to visit and spend time with.  I can honestly say, I never leave her company without taking away a nugget or two of learning.  She is 88 years of age and was a teacher in the States for nearly all of her career. She only moved back to Ireland 21 years ago to retire.

Not only is she inspirational, she is also a link to my beloved late father, her brother and my grandparents, her parents.  There is a lot of laughter and reminiscing of times gone by as we chat however, there are also lots of nuggets of learning revealed.

Several months ago, on another visit to her house, she told me how she kept a feedback box at her desk in the classroom.   The ‘kids’, as she called them, could leave a note in this box about their thoughts, observations or questions about anything to do with her class. The two rules she had were a) the student had to put their name on the note and b) the note had to be polite.  She would read the notes daily and then would respond to them either personally or on a notice board mounted behind her desk.  It became such an effective way to communicate with her, that the students would ask her on the way into class, ‘did you read my note?’.

On this visit, she told me that she once received a note from one of her students saying that one student was always copying from another student but she never noticed.  She said honestly, ‘you’d need eyes in the back of your head’.  However, the point is that a student felt comfortable to speak out about an injustice in the classroom and by writing a note for my Aunty’s box, he knew that the issue would be addressed.

She also told me about a time when several students put notes into her box saying that they felt that she was picking on a particular student.  She said that this information really upset her.   However, she considered how she had been treating this student differently to her other students.  She was in fact asking this student, more than the other students, a lot of direct questions.  She felt though, she was helping this student learn more by taking this approach. However, it was having the opposite effect, the student felt ‘picked-on’ and told some of his classmates how he felt.

After evaluating the feedback from the other students, she decided to have a chat with the student to see what would help him learn better. He told her that he didn’t like being asked multiple questions and being ‘put on the spot’ as it made him feel uncomfortable.  He agreed that he would come to her after class if he felt that he didn’t understand fully what my Aunty was explaining earlier. She agreed not to ask him as many questions.  The result of these few but critical changes was that the student started to improve in the subject.  A short time after her new way of working with this student was in place, she received a note in her feedback box to say that the changes she had made were appreciated.  This was written by one of the students who had raised the issue.

I probably don’t need to spell this one out, but my Aunty, way back in the day, demonstrated good Leadership. She firstly created a safe space for her students to speak up without being judged = Psychological Safety.  She also acted on that feedback, not in a negative way but did something proactive to fix a situation that a student and those observing her behaviour weren’t happy with. I think now you see why I believe my Aunty to be such an inspirational person not to just me but to the many thousands of students she taught over her teaching career. Some of who still stay in contact with her.