Creating Safe Spaces in the Classroom

Creating a safe space in your classroom is vital for class discussions. If students don’t feel as if they are accepted in the classroom, they probably won’t want to share their views and opinions with the class, either. After all, why would they want to share a moving and personal insight if they were risking ridicule from other students in the class or, worse, from the teacher herself? Without a safe space in the classroom, students miss out on valuable learning experiences; they miss the opportunity to share important insights and the others miss the opportunity to learn from their classmates.

Similarly, creating this same safe space in your classroom can have hugely positive effects on classroom management. When students act out, it is often because they feel threatened, not because they are bad kids. I’ve often seen students verbally lash out at teachers because they felt the teacher was attacking them or wasn’t listening to what they had to say. Of course, once a student does lash out, it is important to follow your school’s discipline procedures if you feel that is necessary. However, in a perfect world, we could all create safe spaces within our classrooms that prevent this from happening in the first place. Furthermore, creating a safe space in your classroom will make students more likely to report instances of bullying or threatening behavior to you because they will feel that you are a trusted adult. This can improve the overall culture of the school and your class by making it safe for everyone.

To begin creating a safe space in my classroom, the first thing I do every year is hang up posters around the room that espouse my beliefs of tolerance and equality. Some of the posters have to do with women’s rights, others have to do with racial equality. My favorite poster is one that has alternative words for “gay” when students say, “That’s so gay” to mean something is ridiculous or undesirable. I don’t often draw attention to these posters because I don’t have to. Within the first few days of class each year, students will ask me about these posters and what they mean. I’ll always take a minute or two to explain their importance and how they line up with my beliefs. More often than not, students appreciate this and begin to see me as someone they can talk to about matters of equality. I find that it also reduces bullying in my classroom because students know that I will not tolerate it.

Along with hanging these posters and talking about them, though, comes the really hard part: You have to be willing to discuss these sensitive topics with students. As the nation saw with the Tennessee legislation’s failed “don’t say gay” bill that was trying to make it illegal for anyone to say the word “gay” in schools, not talking about an issue doesn’t make it better; it makes it worse. It can be difficult to discuss these issues with students, especially if you fear pushback from your community. If that is the case, tread lightly but try to find some other way to set yourself up as an ally in your classroom. It will go a long way toward letting students know that they can trust you, which will improve your classroom management.

Talking to students can happen as a class, but it can also happen individually, as well. My school has a policy that teachers end class a few minutes before the bell rings. That gives the teacher a few minutes to talk to students who came in late or who missed the previous day. It also gives the teacher time to talk to students individually. My former mentor suggested to me that I take one student each day to speak with during this time. It doesn’t have to be an in-depth or long conversation, just enough to start to get to know the students and show you care. I tried it and it made a huge difference. My classroom management improved immensely because students no longer saw me as a threat, but as someone who was truly invested in their education.

Creating a safe space and fostering an atmosphere of mutual respect can go a long way toward improving classroom management, and it doesn’t take much work. Simply talking to students and sharing your views can establish trust and help students feel safe in your classroom. For many students, your classroom might be the only place they feel safe all day, so I believe this is definitely worth a try.

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