Be a Thermostat Not a Thermometer


This is the first of three posts in a series. Our students are coming back to school whether in person or remotely with different experiences of social connection over the seventeen months (since March of 2020). As we prepare our lessons and physical spaces for students, let’s also attend to the social climate of the learning experience.


By Soroya Smith

Building the Habit of Thinking About Your Thinking

I held the key card up to the scanner, watched the light flash green and pushed open the heavy door to our “home” for the next several days as we made some summer family memories in one of our favorite beach towns. Stepping into the frigid hotel room, I flicked on the light switches and then checked the thermostat — 65 degrees. Immediately I began pushing the up arrow to end the onslaught of cold air coming from the vents. By changing the temperature, I was then able to change the climate in the room. Once we were in a comfortable environment, we could play and plan for our adventures.

Noted child psychologist Haim G. Ginott said,

“I have come to the frightening conclusion that I am the decisive element. It is my personal approach that creates the climate. It is my daily mood that makes the weather. I possess tremendous power to make life miserable or joyous. I can be a tool of torture or an instrument of inspiration, I can humiliate or humor, hurt or heal. In all situations, it is my response that decides whether a crisis is escalated or de-escalated, and a person is humanized or de-humanized. If we treat people as they are, we make them worse. If we treat people as they ought to be, we help them become what they are capable of becoming.”

As we head back to our classroom “homes,” we’re entering learning spaces where we can control both the temperature and climate by designing cognitively stimulating environments of connection and belonging. Inside of these environments our learners can take on new challenges that will grow them academically and socially.

We can also read the temperature of the environment by observing our students. Beyond assessing the temperature of the spaces we grow our learners in, we can be the thermostat when we listen to them with understanding and empathy. We can research, reflect, and respond — adapting and adjusting the space to serve them well as we build our metacognitive skills.

Try some of these ideas to set the temperature as a thermostat in your learning spaces.

You First:

When we construct a personal sense of self we can have a better understanding of how we see ourselves and others. We can uncover assumptions we may have about the students and families we serve. Consider implementing some reflective practices (journaling, conversations with someone you trust) to share your story: who are you? What experiences have shaped your thinking? You can think about your story over time — from your childhood to adulthood and how you’ve shown up for those you serve.

You bring to the environment who you are. In their book A Mindset for Learning, Kristine Mraz and Christine Hertz state, “If we want to build a community of persistence, joy, resilience, flexibility, and empathy, we must first be all of those things, and be reliable in those things.”

Kid Watching:

Think about how you can know each of your learners beyond the subject areas. When we truly see and hear our students, it lays a foundation for trust. From here, we can truly know where students are and be “warm demanders” with high expectations while creating rigorous learning experiences with appropriate support. Examples: observations of conversations, emotions and actions, 1:1 conferences/conversations, examination of artifacts (student work, writing samples, photos).

As you are kid-watching what do you see, hear and wonder? What opportunities for “adjusting the temperature” are illuminated through your observations? For example, at what points during the lesson and/or day could students benefit from an energizer/movement?


I noticed…
I can…
The same students are talking in the class. Currently the ways to share
aren’t allowing for equity of voice.
Have silent processing time for students and multiple ways to share. Some examples include: process on post-it note then hang up on wall, process time then pass a talking stick, talk with a buddy then share with a small group.


Environmental Scan:

Think about the physical environment. What in the space sends the message to students, “you belong here?” Are the spaces dedicated to the aspirations of your students (e.g. hopes and dreams wall)? Is there a dedicated space for students to voice their curiosities (e.g. wonder wall)? Are your students able to see themselves in the literature, posters, media etc. in your classroom? Are family members welcomed, given opportunities to partner with the school and treated respectfully? What opportunities are there for environmental differentiation (spaces where students can be active and talk to each other as well as quiet and calming spaces)?

Invite students into the space design for the physical environment: how can we arrange our room in a way that helps us feel connected and learn? Co-create the emotional space with students. Some classrooms create community agreements, norms etc. Ask students, “What do you need from our classroom community to do your best learning? What makes you feel heard? What makes you feel safe?” Think proactively about how you will regain safety in the space when one of the agreements has been broken.

Making Time:

While teaching our content, we can make time and space to form connections between teacher and student and student to student. When designing learning experiences we can create collaborative opportunities for students to engage (reading/writing partner, small group problem solving for math problem, scavenger hunt, project shares-student can be seen as experts and consults for later collaboration).

The responses we have in our classroom humanize the environment, cultivate empathy and nurture connection.


Soroya Smith serves as the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Learning Experience Designer for Mason City Schools. In this role she provides strategic leadership in the area of Inclusive Excellence for the district, proactively integrating diversity, equity, and inclusion into decision making, learning experiences, and implementation of district goals. Bringing twelve years of classroom teacher and teacher leader experience, Soroya functions as a cross-curricular, district-wide team member who supports administrators, Teacher Leaders and teachers in creating equitable and inclusive school communities. She believes all humans are deserving of equitable and safe spaces of belonging where they can experience joy, make connections, engage in rigorous authentic learning experiences and grow in creativity.

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