• Grades PreK-12
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Safe Space Classrooms

Tue, 7 Sep 2021

When we talk about teaching, oftentimes the focus is on what students need to learn, or how they learn it, but another important component that can support positive learning outcomes is where students learn.

In this video, we talk to sixth grade teacher Jacalyn Mueller about how she designed the physical space of her classroom to create a learning environment that became conducive to her students’ content learning and mental health.

Creating and Establishing Classroom Routines

by Jacalyn Mueller (she/her)


“Do not smile the first month of school.”

“Be firm and strict until the second semester. Do not compromise.”

“Students need rules and control.”

As a new teacher I lived by these “rules”. I had all the seating charts, and the lists of classroom rules that ensured complete control over everything in my classroom. Students were not allowed to talk and had to ask permission to do the most simple of things. I felt super powerful and in control.

Fast forward almost 20 years. The rules I laid out for myself and my students are long gone, but I am still in control of my classroom. These days, it’s not because I demand it, but because I work hard to earn my students’ trust.  My students feel accepted and safe, and I spend less time managing behaviors and more time digging into content. This happened by focusing on three things: mental health, expectations, and routines.


Social Emotional Learning (SEL) is the new buzzword around educators. Really, it’s just how to teach students to deal with big emotions and normalizing mental health. I teach middle school. Emotions for a middle schooler—they are a HUGE deal. The pressures of school and social media multiply any emotion that a student might have. In my classroom, we normalize these emotions. No matter what they are: sadness, fear, anger, embarrassment, frustration, happiness, joy. We discuss how humans are full of big, messy emotions. That they are all okay feelings to have and are perfectly normal. 

But, how do I do this and teach math? I model it. In real time, I talk through my feelings and emotions, and the strategies that I use to regulate myself. I model using the strategy and describe how I am feeling after. It takes less than three minutes and normalizes big feelings around life. Eventually, students begin to remind me of strategies when I express an emotion and—this is the best part—they support each other in the big emotions of life. There is no embarrassment and no judgement. Just support.


Middle school students support and encourage each other. It’s real. I promise. But it doesn’t just happen on it’s own. I put in a lot of work in the first month of school making sure students know what I expect from them, what they can expect from me, and what they can expect from each other. These aren’t rules. They are roles. These expectations help us all to be better community members, and we come up with them together. I start by asking my students, “What do you need from me to be successful this year?” and, “What do you need from your classmates to be successful this year?” Sometimes I do this anonymously, sometimes we do it as a class. These questions can also be changed to:

“What do you need to feel safe?”

“What do you need to feel confident?”

“What do you need to feel part of the community?”

Whatever the questions, let them be answered honestly, without judgement. 

I answer the same question about what I need from them to have a successful year. My answers are always the same:

I need you to be honest. If you are confused, ask. If you didn’t finish something, ok, let me know. If you lost your work, no problem. You can’t focus today? I got you. Just be honest. We can find a solution together.

I need you to be brave. We are going to learn some new things this year. That can be really scary. That’s ok. I promise to give you all the tools you need to be successful. I just need you to be brave and try. I won’t leave you behind and I will always support you.

I need you to be open. Open to learning new things. Open to meeting new people. Open to learning from others. Your world just got a whole lot bigger. That might make some of you feel a little anxious or super excited. Whatever you feel, that’s ok. We will get through the hard places and have lots of fun in between.


After establishing that big feelings are normal and supported in my classroom, and after students know what the expectations are, our routines can be created. I think of a routine as something that can be taught, practiced then owned. Good, solid routines create a classroom that runs itself. Sounds like a dream, huh? I teach 90 minute blocks. The first 20-30 minutes students are doing independent work and I am free to meet with those that were absent, maybe pull a small group or have some conferences with students. When I have to be out for a day, my sub plans are a breeze! I have three routines that create consistency and predictability. These help students feel safe and have a sense of belonging because they can explain what happens in the classroom to any visitor.

  1. Weekly Agenda: I post my weekly agenda in a highly visible area. It has two parts, what we do in class and any work that they have to turn in. Super simple but allows anyone a quick review of the week. 
  2. Weekly Task List: Sort of like the weekly agenda, but more detailed. This requires a little more work up front, but makes it easy for students to make up work or plan ahead. I try to keep each day to a total of eight tasks. The first 4-5 are the independent ones that should take a total of 20 – 30 minutes. I have a student set a timer (or I start the one I have) when class starts to help keep us all on track. 
  3. Hello & Goodbye: This routine is the most simple one to implement but also the most powerful. I greet each of my students by name at the door. It gives me a chance to get a quick read on each student before we start. Recognizing a student that might be having a bad day, gives me a chance to validate whatever they are feeling and letting them know that I will support whatever they need to be successful that day. Just as I greet each student at the beginning of class I send them on their way at the end with a “Love you, bye!”

The key to good routines is simplicity. Keep it simple. Oh, and use a timer. All the time. For everything. 

I want to leave you with a simple thought…First love, then teach.

This is what I live by now. Get to know your students. Get to know their families. When they feel safe and accepted they will want to be there. They will want to learn.

First love, then teach.

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