Creating Safe Spaces: What It Means and Why It Matters
‘Safe space’ is a frequently used term in the world of education. However, it is often used without the full understanding of what it means and why it is crucial for student success.
Most teachers have the intention of creating welcoming, positive, and safe learning spaces for their students without considering that a space is never completely safe for every individual at any one time. Therefore, the first step in achieving relative classroom safety is having a greater awareness of how students feel emotionally, understanding what safety means to them in their lives, and taking the time to listen to them when they tell you they are feeling uncomfortable, excluded, or even harmed.
Creating safe spaces is a three-fold process:
- Consistent self-reflection as a teacher to make sure you are disrupting your own biases and assumptions of your students, and regularly assessing teaching strategies and their effectiveness to maintain safety in the classroom.
- Regular communication with students to “check-in” with how they are feeling by listening to their thoughts, ideas, and stories, and observing them for signs of discomfort or withdrawal from the class.
Empathy and compassion for your students which includes believing them when they tell you how they feel and what their experiences are at school.
Below are three key points to consider when you are addressing safety in the classroom.
Meeting the social-emotional needs of our students
Social emotional learning (SEL) involves a range of skills that are critical for students’ mental and physical well-being. According to the Ontario Mathematics Curriculum (2020), SEL is used to teach students about identifying and managing emotions, building relationships, and thinking critically, among many other life skills. As an educator, being aware of the importance of SEL and acknowledging it in the learning environment is key for creating safe spaces because:
- It places values on emotional needs.
- It encourages students to think deeply about how they feel and what they need to do to make others feel supported and safe.
- It allows students to take risks and make mistakes in a healthy way.
Involving our personal selves: Students and teachers
Students love asking questions and learning about their teachers' personal lives, but some educators are reluctant to share because they don’t think it’s relevant to the learning that’s taking place. Yet, sharing your personal self (with appropriate boundaries in place) can support a safe learning environment. For example, letting students know about your hobbies and interests, or whether or not you have pets at home, can engage students in conversation and be a catalyst for bonding. Students that can relate to you in some way will feel more connected to you as their teacher. Relationships require trust and respect, which comes from sharing and caring. Therefore, involving your personal self in the learning space is important because:
- It shows the students that teachers are human and have unique lives outside of school just like they do.
- It makes you more approachable so that students might be more likely to share important details of their lives with you.
- It allows students and educators to find a common ground, which opens the door for deeper connections.
Experiential Learning: Going beyond the classroom
A safe environment is one where students feel comfortable and confident to explore their interests and try new things. Experiential learning is an approach to teaching that allows students to participate in, and reflect on, engaging learning opportunities where they are in the driver's seat of their own education. It is hands-on, active, inquiry-based, and community-driven. Experiential learning has the potential to shift classroom dynamics due to its playful and cooperative nature. Therefore, it can impact the way that students take risks because they feel supported and uplifted by their peers. Some ideas for experiential learning activities include:
- Taking students into the community. This is a great opportunity to engage in activities that incorporate your students’ cultural identities.
- Taking your lessons outside and incorporating the natural environment. Many students find being outside stimulating and motivating.
- Getting your students moving more and sitting less where they are engaging regularly with many other students in the class to gain new perspectives.
- Embodied Learnings has several resources that utilize experiential learning. Click here to view them!
Why is it important to work towards building safer spaces?
Educators provide much more than academic knowledge for their students. Many are positive and supportive adult role-models that some students do not have outside of the classroom. Creating safe spaces within schools is crucial because it gives students a place of belonging and encourages them to develop the skills that will help them face challenges in “the real world” beyond the classroom. In addition to this, safe classroom spaces help to build reciprocal respect and trust between students and teachers and students and each other. While working to build safe spaces, you also have the opportunity to build healthy and meaningful relationships that go beyond the classroom.
Guest Writer: Samantha Murdoch-Rock, B.A., Embodied Learnings Director and Indigenous Education Lead. Want to know more about her work? Read here!