Thursday, March 5, 2015

Creating a Culture in FDK: Trust and Respect

"In an outstanding classroom teachers do more listening than talking and students do more talking than listening" 
- Alfie Kohn

Above all else the most important part of teaching and learning is relationships. Today I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to visit Tessa Heffernan and Holly Diljee with two new and reflective teachers who were looking for inspiration and guidance on their journey in Full Day Kindergarten.

A warm and inviting way to enter a space: relaxing picture and calm, soft music.

What resonated with me after only minutes of being in the room was a complete culture of trust and respect. In fact, the whole school had a vibe that made me feel at ease, welcome and comfortable. You could feel the trust and respect that Holly and Tessa had for their children in every single interaction that I saw. They so clearly have built a solid foundation with their students based on trust and respect which has become a part of the culture in their room. Culture can truly define a room and is an important piece of the puzzle that can be dismissed sometimes even unknowingly.

When the day begins with a rainbow, it is sure to be full of joy!

As I looked around the room I saw children taking risks, exploring deeply, connecting with their peers, and engaged in learning. Throughout our time, I was reflecting on why and how a culture like that becomes so ingrained in a classroom and I made note of their interactions with the children.

Both educators were quiet and calm in their presence and interactions. They were patient and they waited for the optimal moment to be a part of the play or conversation. Tessa shared that she read that you should wait 17 seconds before intervening to support students. We reflected on how challenging it can be to provide that wait time, but how valuable it is. Often times before the wait time has expired, children have resolved conflicts independently or solved a problem on their own. Holly shared that she often uses simple prompts that allow her to be a part of the process, yet empowers children to independently sort out what is happening (e.g., "what have you said? what have you tried?").

I observed one student who engaged with an activity for over 2 hours in different ways and at different times throughout the day. Not only did she sustain play for a long period of time, but there was depth to her learning because she was given the time and space to explore. She didn't need to put away her materials at lunch which allowed her to revisit her exploration.

When we entered in the morning, there was a simple provocation on a table that included baking soda and vinegar. I watched as the little girl walked over to the materials. She immediately started using some of the materials on the shelf and then gradually searched throughout the room for other materials that would support her in her play. She filled up different sized containers with water, mixed in paint, added the baking soda, and transferred the liquid mixture between containers many times spilling on the table and floor.

To some it may appear to be chaotic or "messy", but sitting back and watching I was reminded of all of the intention that comes with the "messing about". What I thought was most interesting though as an outsider was this students confidence in adding her own selection of materials to the provocations and her confidence in being trusted to "play". She added paint to the water, brought bowls and containers in from different areas, and filled up containers at the sink.

The educators did not focus on asking her to wipe up the table or floor, or not to use the wooden bowls from another table. In fact, she used a mop that was available soak up the water when too much was on the floor without being asked.

The trust was also evident in the students engagement with "Home Toys". Many of the students walked into the room with their hands full of different toys from home. Some children had Pokemon cards, some had beyblades, some had dolls.

Tessa and I had a quick conversation around how valuable allowing these materials into the room can be. Beyond academics there are valuable life skills that are attained such as taking ownership for things that belong to us, understanding how to fairly trade cards, even understanding how to be assertive while trading.

Holly capturing moments of dance during exploration and discovery time.

Tessa documenting and noticing the mathematical skills emerging from the children's Pokemon cards.

We also got to pop over to visit Bryan Farnworth who teaches across the hall from Tessa and Holly. He embraces very similar philosophies as Holly and Tessa do in his teaching and interactions. I enjoy conversations with Bryan as he also challenges my thinking and offers great perspective. While we were chatting over lunch, Bryan made a great point about relationships and our interactions with students. He explained that we all draw from our experiences, different schools of thought, and different strategies...but ultimately you have to be "you" in the classroom. We have value to bring in our personalities and trying to teach in a way that isn't who you are isn't genuine either. Bryan has a different approach in the way he plays and documents learning and enjoys being in the middle of play rather than on the edge. But I think his message is important in that honouring who we are as individuals in education is important too.

This sign was posted on Bryan's door. What a great reminder to begin each day with.

As educators, it is so important to take the time to build relationships in our classrooms but beyond that it is important to practice what we preach.

If we truly believe that children are capable ... give them time to solve problems on their own, trust them to take calculate risks in the classroom, provide them with rich materials to investigate.

Be sure to follow Tessa and Holly on Twitter:
@TessaHeffernan and @DiljeeH
Their Classroom Twitter Account: @KADiscoveries
Their Blog:

Thank you Tessa, Holly, and Bryan for opening your doors and being critical friends. I am so appreciative to have the opportunity to learn from you all and to see your passion in action!


  1. Very well said that important part in teaching is relationship. Well I know this fact. I am a principal in Phoenix preschool and every kid really enjoy when I talk to them, as I share everything in their way and they listen me carefully, and when they talk then I listen them carefully.

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