This week I decided to paint a mural on my wall. Automatically, without even thinking, I put on my highschool MIME sweatshirt. (YES, I was a mime in highschool. No judgement please ;). Being in a mime and clowning troupe was AWESOME.) 

Why was it awesome? Not because I particularly liked miming. In fact, I wasn’t actually very good at it. My ‘wall’ illusion looked like the wall was moving and I was a disaster at riding my unicycle. Usually we don’t like doing things we are not good at, so why did I love being in this club so very much? 

Because when I was in my Mime club (Mimagination) I felt totally free. My teacher created a safe space in which I could explore my creativity and make mistakes. I felt the possibilities of me unfolding because I was not worried about the outcome or product. Free from worrying about perfection, I was able to discover more of who I was and what I was capable of.

Still to this day, my Mime sweatshirt brings me right back to those feelings of creative safety. Of possibility. When I wrote my book I wore this sweatshirt. When I want to dive into creativity and embrace mistakes, I wear this sweatshirt. That’s why I put it on to paint my mural; I don’t consider myself an ‘artist’ or good at drawing and therefore wanted something that would help me to feel the safety needed to creatively explore. I wanted to get rid of the ‘grown up’ thoughts that can hinder creativity. What if it doesn’t work? What if I can’t get it to look how I want? What if it looks weird? What if … ? So, on went my superpower-sweatshirt. It might sound kind of funny, but being in it relaxes me a bit, makes me feel cozy and centered. 

It’s like a piece of music that can bring you emotionally right back to a specific moment in time. Or a smell that can transport you to your childhood and feelings of being cared for. My Mime sweatshirt is raggedy, has holes and has many different paint splatters from across the years. I got it when I was 16, I am now in my fifties and it still has the power to bring me right back to that classroom, right back to feeling boundless possibilities, right back to feeling safe.

This is the power of one caring leader: the feelings of safety we create can last a lifetime. 

We may have a student for only a year, but the feelings of safety we create can last a lifetime. We may not know that or ever see it, as our students often don’t share these things with us or even know at the time how they are affected by our caring leadership and the safe spaces we held for them to learn and grow. But the safety we provide may be gently percolating within them.

How can we bring emotional safety into our classrooms?

We can dive into exploration mode

Our classrooms need to be places where people have the freedom to be human. This means that there is room for difference and room for mistakes. It means not creating a culture of “right” but rather a culture where everyone feels safe to contribute and participate.

One way to support the development of emotional safety in a learning culture is to embed parts of the learning process into exploration mode. In exploration mode, mistakes are not only seen as not bad, they are welcomed. Exploration mode supports the learner in being able to lose their fear of being wrong, so that they may feel comfortable enough to take risks and be creative. In this mode, students have their hands up not only when they have a “right” answer but also when they feel they have something to share, to contribute, or to question. Exploration mode is not limited to young children or certain subjects. It is a style of learning that embraces an openness to discovery—whether that be in math, science, or the arts, or whether the learner is five or eighty-five years old.

This does not mean that work does not get done in exploration mode—it is just that this mode may offer some freedom around how to get there. I’m not saying that working hard or working towards a set goal is bad. Not at all! We need to be able to focus on goals and have the ability to work hard so that we can get things done and accomplish our goals. These are important life tasks. However, it is not a simple matter of either/or. Sometimes, when we are able to embed some of our classroom learning into exploration mode, we are able to make room for more emotional safety. In this way, some of our students can actually feel free enough to ask questions, take the learning further, or be vulnerable enough to admit they don’t understand something. This mode can be an opening for our students to feel safe enough to learn . . . and in the safety of this space, they may discover new capacities within them, become more curious and engaged in the learning, and want to work hard. Shifting into exploration mode can provide the conditions that may lower students’ anxiety so that they can actually aim higher.

We can lean into mistakes

Quite a few years ago, I received a grant to bring modern dance icon Margie Gillis¹ to work with a group of my students. Margie has received the Canadian Lifetime Achievement Award from the Governor General’s Performing Arts Award Foundation, was awarded a Gemini for Best Performing Artists on Film, is a member of the Order of Canada, and is the recipient of other awards too numerous to name. Although my students were excited to have her with us, many of them were also nervous, as they were worried that she might judge their dancing ability. None of my students had studied dance in any formal way, nor did they have the body type that might be stereotypically associated with the word “dancer.” However, I knew that Margie worked within the same framework as I do—working from the inside out and helping others to extract their art-making and stories from within themselves. I knew my students would be in good hands and I was excited for them to have the opportunity to work with such a gifted artist and educator.

This group of students was exploring social justice issues and topics that affect our community. They had selected the topic of forgiveness to explore through the medium of dance and drama for their next project. We held two full days of workshops with Margie to help them to bring their ideas to life. I did the job of matchmaking, and Margie did an incredible job of collecting them before we began. Yet I could still see they were nervous in her presence and holding their ideas back as they were worried about them being “good enough.” Margie could also see this and intuitively said, “Do you want to know how I create? Each day when I wake up I ask myself, ‘How many mistakes can I make today?’ We all laughed at this. But Margie’s words also stirred the students, relaxed them, and began to shift their feelings about “mistakes.” Each time something did not work, or looked ridiculous, or someone fell down, we would clap and someone would yell out, “One more mistake down—only eighty-seven more mistakes to go! We are getting there!” This approach freed up my students so completely that the piece they ended up creating was far beyond anything I think any one of them could ever have imagined. And just as important as the final result (the dance theatre piece) was the fact that the actual process of creating it was incredibly fun and intrinsically rewarding in itself.

I thought that perhaps Margie had just said this to my students to help their creative juices flow and to gently awaken their creative freedom so that they would not be as nervous in her presence.

I thought that maybe her words were simply part of her skilled embrace in knowing, as an educator, how to support their creative development. However, I was able to gain some additional insight later that year. Margie lent me her home when she was away and I was attending a conference in Montreal. As I walked around her home, I saw beside her bed, handwritten and taped to the wall on looseleaf paper, the words, “How many mistakes can I make today?” They were not just words she had shared to help my students dive into their creativity. She truly did live by those words and had shared this wisdom with us. This was real.

I was struck once again with a feeling of openness and possibility. I remembered how I had felt this often as a child with my mother and in my Mime club in highschool. But as an adult, I often found myself feeling less free to explore and make mistakes. It’s so easy to get caught up in the ‘grown up’ world of outcome. What would I attempt to do if I lost my fear of making mistakes and of something not working? I’m a person that likes tangible reminders as they can support me in creating the changes in my life I wish to see. So, I got out my sweat shirt once again and hung one of my favourite quotes up on my office wall. 

An educator at heart

And then, being an educator at heart, I quickly transitioned from not only how I might be able to open up my own life but also how I might do this for my students. What could I do as an educator to open up this extraordinary sense of freedom and possibility within them?

I came back to my classes with a renewed energy to create spaces of possibility that might help my students not hold themselves back. I began to frame mistakes in this way to all my classes.

Instead of saying mistakes were fine and not to worry about them, we actively welcomed them. This reframing of the value of making mistakes makes a huge difference. Saying that mistakes are “fine” and not to worry about them is kind of like saying, “You did something wrong but it’s no big deal, don’t worry about it, I forgive you.” By contrast, welcoming mistakes means you lean into them as a positive learning experience.

This reframing of mistakes shifted the energy in my classes. Even when my students’ poetry was “bad” or their stories did not come out the way they had hoped, they focused on the fact that they were taking risks and trying new things. My classes learned to congratulate each other when they tried something new and it completely fell apart, as we all saw what that meant: that they were aiming for amazing, not just okay. What a freeing experience that was! It’s hard to articulate on paper the palpable difference in emotional safety when mistakes are welcomed, not just forgiven.

What about younger children?

Often younger children feel this sense of emotional safety more naturally, as they have not yet adopted our current culture’s obsession with perfection and outcomes. This means that young children are often more tapped into the freedom of seeing things from different perspectives and have a greater openness to embracing a different process or an unknown end product. They tend to have more looseness around whether or not something is “perfect.” Maybe this is why young children can seem more creative than adults. It seems more likely that children are simply less conscious of what an end product “should” be like, and they have not yet learned societal values of how things must be done a certain way. As students get older, however, this sense of safety around their ideas and schoolwork often diminishes, and they can become more inhibited.

Articulating exploration mode to young children would need to be done differently than for adolescents, as younger students might take the “how many mistakes can I make?” motto literally and try to make mistakes. With younger children, we need to make it clear that mistakes are a perfectly normal part of learning and that we are going to expect them. We can teach in more open-ended ways that don’t lead to one clear path of outcomes. And we can model this by how we respond to answers from our students that are not necessarily “right.”

We can set the tone

As leaders in the classroom, we have the ability to set the tone. We can help to create classrooms that celebrate humanness—spaces where there is less shame around mistakes, and feelings are normalized. We can come alongside our students’ feelings of being worried about things not being perfect or good enough, and say to them:

It is normal to feel this way. We live in a culture that tells us to be perfect all the time. I often feel this way too. I can feel embarrassed when I make a mistake too. It’s part of being human. But it’s impossible to be human, to be alive, and to not make mistakes. We are not robots. This classroom loves humans, and we are going to embrace all that this means!

We can use ourselves as an example

I have found that using myself as an example to shed light on something can often work well; it seems to evoke less defense in others. For example, I may point out that I get lost a lot (I am quite directionally challenged). I will say this in a very offhand way when a child might point out a difference that they interpret as something that is negative. If I hear someone say so-and-so can’t read or can’t do this or that, this becomes my opportunity to celebrate difference. The child putting someone down is simply a part of a culture that says “same is better.” They probably think most people can read by their age, so this child should also be able to read. So, I might casually say, “Yup, we are all different and all learn in different ways and have different gifts. I get lost all the time and Alex can’t read well yet. We all have things we find harder and things that are easier for us. All of us. That is what makes our world so interesting.” I try to do this in such a casual way so as not to shame the child who was putting the “non-reader” down, because if I want that child to potentially shift, I will need to tread lightly so as to not put them into defense mode. By injecting casual statements that speak to difference, without a big talking-to about how important it is not to judge (which students may hear only as blah blah blah), we can make more room for a child to stay open and perhaps be impacted by what we are saying.

What are the results of us creating this emotional safety for our students?

They become free to discover the possibilities that lie within them. When we create classrooms where difference is embraced and mistakes are welcomed, we provide the emotional conditions  for our students to feel comfortable sharing, asking questions, and being who they really are. When we are able to normalize being human, when we come alongside all that being human means, we make room for deep learning and incredible discovery. They are free to ask questions. Make mistakes. Go for gold. Try new things. And be who they are—not just who the culture or their peers tells them they should be.

Our students need to be learners who can step outside the box and imagine, invent, and lead—not just follow what has been set in front of them. In a world of rapidly changing technologies, we need creative thinkers to lead the way. Exploration mode can support a culture of emotional safety, and emotional safety is the womb from which creativity is born.

Thank you Tami Dowler-Coltman

I finished my mural. Is it what I had planned? Sort of. Not exactly. But I had so much fun doing it. It makes me happy every time I look at it. And if I don’t like it in a few weeks, then I can always paint it again – it’s just paint.

I want to end by thanking my high school drama teacher and Mime and Clowning Troupe Director, Tami Dowler-Coltman, for creating the emotional safety I needed as a teen to learn, explore and grow. I never told you then, but you changed me. The safety you provided me is still with me today. So, thank you for giving me a gift that will always be with me. 

This is the power that one caring leader can have in a child’s life: the feelings of safety they create can last a lifetime. 

Hannah Signature

¹ Full story found on page 240 of Reclaiming Our Students: Why Children Are More Anxious, Aggressive, and Shut Down Than Ever—And What We Can Do About It.

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