Trust, Safety, Challenge, and Joy: Fostering a Classroom Culture Ideal for Collaboration


As teachers we’re encouraged to work together and share expertise, energy, and inspiration with the common goal of increasing student engagement and success in our schools. Research supports benefits associated with teacher collaboration including more creative and meaningful lesson plans, shared responsibility for student achievement, improved staff morale/career satisfaction, and an increase of academic rigor for students.

When I think about the various teams I’ve worked with over the years, I found the four key themes of: trust, safety, challenge, and joy were essential for productive and genuine collaboration. For example, trusting my colleagues with confidential conversations, feeling safe when brainstorming ideas, advancing my knowledge and teaching skills, and finding enjoyment with our time together - even during stressful times – all had a positive impact.

Like teachers, students also benefit academically and socially by working with one another. And, the same four key themes foster a classroom culture ideal for student collaboration and learning. Below are four ways to create a collaborative learning environment based on trust, safety, challenge, and joy:

Build trust and safety among your students by getting everyone on the same page.

Guide your students with establishing group norms before group work begins. Norms are agreed upon rules (or expectations) for behavior among the group members. The author of this article, “Developing Norms for Successful Collaboration during PBL,” suggests having all students share their ideas about what makes group work unpleasant or difficult. The ideas are compiled on chart paper, then transformed into norms. For example, a common theme found within the students’ ideas might be, “No one listens to my ideas” - which would become the norm - “I will use active listening skills when others are speaking.” The author of the article also offers other helpful suggestions such as having students agree to the established norms by signing contracts, as well as potential consequences for breaking the norms.

Facilitate community-building games and activities.

Games are a great way for students to learn and practice teamwork and social skills (building trust and a sense of safety among them) while challenging them with academic content. We are Teachers offers 26 Awesome Team Building Games and Activities for Kids which can be modified across grade levels. My favorites include: Hot Seat (a fun way to review vocabulary), Marshmallow-and-Toothpick Challenge (which brings out the creativity in students), and Tick Tock (where students work together to complete tasks within a set amount of time – I suggest also including content area tasks to the list, such as simplifying fractions or arranging historical events in chronological order).

Hold students to high academic and behavioral standards.

The author (a retired teacher) of this article, “Setting High Expectations and Believing in Students,” used memoirs of successful people who overcame adversity, such as Maya Angelou, to reach and teach all students. The memoirs helped the teacher/author look beyond the circumstances of students, and instead, was able to “see them full of promise.” Research shows when students know teachers believe in them, they have an increased attendance rate and perform better in school. We can show students that we believe in them by consistently challenging them with appropriate academic rigor and by holding them to high behavioral expectations.

Help your students spot hidden joy.

This 13-minute TED talk - Where Joy Hides and How to Find it – by best-selling author, Ingrid Fetell Lee, explains the difference between joy and happiness and how tangible everyday aesthetics can make us feel joy, such as pops of color and round shapes. Ingrid shares fascinating research - conducted in four countries - that shows people who work in colorful buildings are more alert, friendlier, and more confident than those working in drab spaces. In this video, you will see how Sandy Hook Elementary School was architecturally transformed with curves and waves to make it feel more welcoming and joyful. Be inspired to create more joy in your own school and beyond.

Building collaborative communities takes time, effort, and practice. Don’t give up - give your students plenty of opportunities to work together. Finally, ask your students to reflect upon the successes and challenges associated with collaborating with their peers by having them gauge their own levels of trust, safety, challenge, and joy within the classroom.

Interested in learning more about creating a collaborative learning environment? Register for our online course, Building an Engaging Collaborative Classroom. We’re looking forward to collaborating with you!


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Jill Rockwell
Jill has over 13 years of experience as a licensed teacher in the areas of Special Education, Reading Education, and Health Education. She embraces diversity and has worked with students in grades K-12 in Wisconsin, Minnesota, and California. Jill completed her Master of Science degree at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls while teaching full time. She fully understands the soaring demands of today’s teachers. Her courses are designed to maximize the time of all educators by providing engaging, meaningful, and applicable activities which can be used to enhance teaching practices. She focuses on research-based best practices and technology integration throughout her own instructional practices. Together with her husband and two young boys, Jill enjoys traveling, biking and the changing seasons of the great outdoors in Wisconsin. 

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