Determining the health of a classroom ecosystem

Last week, I had the opportunity to go on an overnight field trip with our fifth graders. As part of the trip, we studied the local pond to see if the water was healthy or not. In order to determine the health of the water, we gathered and identified species of invertebrates. To help the students, they were provided with an identification guide – a flow chart to help students determine which creature they found. Under each animal a large letter had been added – T (for Tolerant), F (Fairly Tolerant), and S (Sensitive). Our guide explained that tolerant creatures can survive in most types of water. Fairly tolerant can survive in somewhat healthy water. The sensitive animals, however, only survive in healthy water. These are called indicator species – their mere existence lets you know that the ecosystem is a healthy one.

What if we looked at classrooms in the same way? Every teacher knows that a classroom is a fragile ecosystem. So many factors play a role in its success – from the school culture, to the physical space (often described as the third teacher), to the relationships in the classroom. A colleague once explained to me that adding a student into a classroom is more than just one student, or one desk, or one locker. It is that student plus all of the relationships that accompany them. Going from 22 to 23 students in a room means you have just added 23 more relationships. Placing more students in a classroom is not additional, it can feel like exponential growth.

Using this ecosystem analogy, we can also view students as critical indicators to the health of the classroom. In any given classroom, you have different types of students, and the T, F, and S labels are relatively apt.

Tolerant students are those that will survive in almost any classroom. They love school, both academic and social, and as long as the classroom isn’t in complete chaos, they will survive and stay the course throughout the year. These students are typically solid all around academically, ready and willing to work hard enough to complete the assignments given without question. Socially, they are able to get along with most classmates and have a varied group of friends, so if something goes awry they can easily migrate to a slightly different group and still enjoy their social experience at school.

Fairly tolerant students are a little more susceptible to changes in the ecosystem, but are flexible enough to adjust to most classroom settings. These students are solid academically, possibly excelling in an area or two, but also needing support to get through certain classes or assignments that don’t come easily to them. With the right support, they feel confident enough in themselves that they’ll keep working through challenges. Socially, they have enough friends to feel good about each day. They might worry about social problems or get caught up easily with the students who push the boundaries. Once they see a teacher who is unable to hold their ground, they might join in the subversive behavior that makes the classroom difficult. Without someone keeping an eye out for subtle changes, they could lose their confidence and struggle to regain it, either socially or academically.

Sensitive describes students who may actually be sensitive, but it also describes students who love to push the boundaries of a classroom. In both cases, they are sensitive to environmental shifts. These students may struggle with the social dynamics of a room and need a safe environment to navigate multiple relationships. They may be students who struggle academically and use disruptive behavior as a way to avoid work that makes them feel less than. They can also be students who simply need firm boundaries and will challenge the teachers and classmates to maintain the limits of acceptability.

Carla Shalaby wrote the book Troublemakers, making the case that students who cause trouble in our classrooms are the canaries in the coal mine. They should call us to examine our own teaching practices to determine what has permitted or even urged them to behave in such different ways. This stream ecology activity reminded me of how important it is to consider the entire ecosystem of a classroom, and sometimes a school, to determine how it is impacting students, both individually and as a group.

As I move forward in the coming weeks, I will be considering what makes students more sensitive or tolerant? Fortunately for us, the students do not cease to exist in an unhealthy classroom ecosystem. Unfortunately, they fail to learn. If we had to make a chart to determine the indicators for a classroom’s health, what would they be? What characteristics would we recognize in the students and teachers in those ecosystems?

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