Cultivating the Classroom as a Safe Space
Middle and high school teachers can create an environment that supports inclusion and gives students space to make mistakes as they learn.
Think about it: the isolation of the pandemic, rising tensions at home, conflicts over mask mandates and debates and fights over whether they should be implemented, sickness and/or fear of sickness and death, racist incidents in the news, and increased bullying attacks on Muslims in the wake of the 20th anniversary of 9/11. Students have returned to school in a charged environment, and many of them are struggling to process the events of the past year. As a teacher, you can help by ensuring that your classroom is a safe space designed to meet students’ academic and emotional needs.
Safe spaces are environments where students feel the freedom to make mistakes without lasting judgment or ridicule and where they can engage in critical, honest, civil, and challenging discussions about sensitive topics. As an educator, you want your students to feel comfortable approaching difficult subjects in your classroom.
How You Can Cultivate a Safe Learning Environment
Crafting (or revising) your syllabus: Include a statement of diversity that indicates your intent to foster a diverse learning environment; this will help set the tone right away. You can choose a diverse reading list with authors of different ethnicities and plan to invite a wide range of professionals from different backgrounds into your classroom; this normalizes the idea that we can learn from people who don’t look like us (or who do look like us in some instances).
Remember to incorporate projects in your syllabus that celebrate different identities and cultures, encouraging students to embrace differences. In any case, consider granting extensions. Many students are experiencing emotional exhaustion and would benefit from extra compassion and understanding from you to help them process their grief surrounding current events in the media.
Setting up your classroom and discussion procedures: When setting up your classroom, make sure that it reflects the diverse learning environment you championed in the syllabus: Choose images that show a wide range of ethnicities in different roles; showcase Asian astronauts, Black doctors, and Latino professionals, for example, and don’t rely on stereotypical imagery when you hang posters on your walls. Include differently abled people in classroom presentations and, if you can, invite a leader with a disability in your community to visit your classroom.
Consider alternatives to classroom discussions, such as online discussion groups, where students don’t feel singled out and have a measure of anonymity to express their opinions. You may not even need to moderate this discourse or can do so in a limited capacity.
Show respect: Pronounce your students’ names correctly—it’s one of the many strategies to help students feel at home at school. It may seem like a tiny step, but when you know how to pronounce your students’ names, it makes them feel included. This models the importance of correct pronunciation and inclusion. Don’t be afraid to ask your students more than once to pronounce their names for you. HowToPronounce is a great tool for educators to use when working to learn to pronounce students’ names correctly.
Respect also means not relying on students to do the emotional labor of reacting to current events in class discussions. Your Black, Latino, and Asian students don’t have to be representatives of their race. Your Muslim students don’t have to be representatives of their religion. Don’t put them on the spot. They are students who might be struggling to understand and process traumatic events. Asking them to react to events in the media can be retraumatizing and insensitive. Listen to them instead.
If a student tells you they are being bullied, listen to them and intervene by confronting the bully privately. Then, follow up with addressing the matter with the class by talking about bullying and discrimination. Work together to establish classroom rules for the entire class.
Teach micro-affirmations to validate your students: Micro-affirmations start with active listening. In order to establish yourself as a safe sounding board for your students, maintain eye contact with them and show them body language that indicates you are engaged with them, such as nodding. Summarize what the student is telling you. Ask questions to make sure that you understand, and then affirm their experience by using a validating statement such as “I appreciate that this might be frustrating for you.” You can use these statements to guide them toward developing a productive stance on their experience.
Remember, however, that micro-affirmations can be used in any interaction, not just in instances when your students are struggling with an issue. They also work when students are sharing positive experiences; they help create a sense of trust and belonging.
Even if you don’t agree with what the student is telling you, you can affirm their experience, validate their emotions, and offer to help them find productive solutions. Don’t treat subjects like bullying and racism as if they are taboo. Instead, work to dismantle these behaviors in your classroom by directly and openly confronting them when they occur. This might mean confronting your own biases (and working to correct them) or raising the student’s issue to school administration, if necessary. Help break the cycle by taking these subjects seriously and doing the work to protect your students. Follow through: Do not back down on these issues—you are carrying a responsibility for keeping students safe.
Creating a safe space for students doesn’t have to be difficult. It can be something you build into each day’s activities. Simply going in with the mindset that you are offering a diverse and enriching atmosphere is a good start.