We’ve finally reached the final lesson that I may have learned about student relationships from bringing two cats together. In many ways, I think that this lesson is at the heart of all of the others. All of their behaviours are a reaction to their sense of safety. Each cat needs to feel safe.
The Cats Need to Feel Safe
Mikka’s space has been invaded. Riel has been thrust into hostile territory. Both of them are scared. Both of them are displaced. Their notion of home has changed.
I used to live in Riel’s apartment. I also paid the rent and hydro bill. He knew every corner of that place better than I did. Indeed, he could get into more corners of the place than I could see. He would pry cupboard doors open to get into a space. He would stand next to a closed door and wait for me to open it slightly. Every night, he would come out from wherever he was to sleep next to me in bed.
Mikka likes to sit in a box or behind the couch. When I’m around, he’ll sometimes sit on the couch next to me. If my girlfriend is on the couch, you can be sure that Mikka will be cuddled up next to her. If he’s asleep in or on his cat tree and I come by to pet him, he’ll jerk his head back to get a good look at me – I have to approach with caution. Even without teeth, he has a menacing snarl.
Students enter into a new space every September. Their classroom is different. The desks are arranged differently. The walls don’t look the same as they did in June. Back-to-school shopping means that many of them even have new backpacks, pants, and shoes. The person standing in front of them during that first roll call is new, too.
It’s hard to feel comfortable in an environment that is new to you. Until you feel safe in a space and developed routines that dictate how you move around that space, it’s hard to settle into familiarity and comfort. What helps someone feel safe is different for everyone.
School is not a loving home. For some, school may be where they feel the safest and most cared for. Others might feel out of place and a sense of overwhelming anxiety when at school. No matter how we define a “safe” environment, it’s impossible to remove all threats from a learning environment. Part of learning is testing the limits that are placed in front of you and this could mean placing yourself and others in an unsafe environment.
As teachers, we should be responsive to this. We need to address unsafe behaviour and then work to include that learning in our ever-changing definition of what a safe environment is.
In many ways, I think that learning should be disruptive. It should challenge us. It should make us ask ourselves what else we’re capable of achieving. We should not remain in our comfort zones for too long.
The cats are constantly testing us and each other. We have put a physical gate between them so that they can’t get at each other. If we accidentally leave the gate open, we create an unsafe situation because we know that they will no longer feel safe. Students are smarter than cats. They have the ability to measure the threats they face, but this is a skill that is learned. More than teaching students how to do math or write a paragraph, we need to help them learn how to navigate their worlds safely. How they react to their world is defined by how they see it. How they see their world is influenced by how safe they feel within it. Unlike cats, students should not be looking for a corner in a cupboard or a nook behind the couch. They need to be front and centre. They need to stand confidently in front of whatever lies before them. As teachers, the best we can do for our students is to show our students their strengths and help them develop and use them. This might is what will create the safety that our students need to succeed.