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What is a safer space?

Defining safe(r) classrooms

 

The concept of a “safe space” has become a popular and contentious topic among educators. While many have appreciated it for its attempts to address harms happening in classrooms, others have felt that it “coddles” students and protects them from real-world events. Our team takes the stance that an educational space cannot ever truly be “safe,” not as long as academic institutions continue to be Eurocentric and predicated on specific ways of knowing that subvert, dismiss, and invalidate non-Western epistemologies. Instead, we propose that classrooms can be made “safer,” where instructors, teaching assistants, student-facing staff, administration, and students can work collaboratively and intentionally to redress existing elements of the current classroom environment. 

 

The concept of a “safe space” has become a popular and contentious topic among educators. While many have appreciated it for its attempts to address harms happening in classrooms, others have felt that it “coddles” students and protects them from real-world events. Our team takes the stance that an educational space cannot ever truly be “safe,” not as long as academic institutions continue to be Eurocentric and predicated on specific ways of knowing that subvert, dismiss, and invalidate non-Western epistemologies. Instead, we propose that classrooms can be made “safer,” where instructors, teaching assistants, student-facing staff, administration, and students can work collaboratively and intentionally to redress existing elements of the current classroom environment. 

As it pertains to education, safe(r) spaces are described as a fluid, dynamic, and contextual classroom climate predicated on: 

(1) the ability to take risks and be honest, 

(2) fostering and sustaining a sense of community built on being nonjudgmental, respectful, and open, 

(3) creating space where conflict can be explored and worked through, 

(4) a focus on enhancing student learning outcomes, and 

(5) the frame of being an ethical responsibility for both educators and students (Barrett, 2010; Holley & Steiner, 2005; Garran & Rasmussen, 2014). 

These traits are juxtaposed against unsafe class traits, including a space where instructors and peers were judgmental, biased, apathetic, disengaged, overly critical or accusatory of each other, and closed-minded (Holley & Steiner, 2005; Barrett, 2010; Garran & Rasmussen, 2014). According to a survey conducted by Holley and Steiner (2005), 97% of student respondents indicated that having a safe(r) classroom environment was very or extremely important to their learning. 

In a study exploring and comparing students’ perspectives of safe(r) spaces in the classroom, Garran and Rasmussen (2014) found that students from dominant social groups and positionings (e.g. those who were white, able-bodied, cisgender, heterosexual, etc.) defined safety in much different ways than students from nondominant positionings (e.g. those who were racialized, disabled, trans or non-binary, queer, etc.). Namely, nondominant students suggested that the classroom could never be safe for them as they were frequently put on the spot, told that their emotional reactions were irrational or overly-sensitive, forced to educate others and speak on behalf of their marginalized identity marker, and stereotyped. In contrast, students from dominant positions framed safety as the ability to make mistakes, take risks, and avoid being attacked, judged, misunderstood, or shut down by their peers (Garran & Rasmussen, 2014). As Garran and Rasmussen (2014) conclude, “[t]he very nature of the dominant group of students’ concerns reflects privilege, that is, an unexamined quality to their spontaneous comments” (p.407). Here, creating a space where taking risks and self-expression are prioritized and celebrated will likely occur at the expense of or “on the backs of” marginalized students. In this process, safety is predicated on preserving and protecting dominant students’ empowered positions rather than challenging them (Barrett, 2010; Garran & Rasmussen, 2014). 

Instructors play a pivotal role in establishing safety in the classroom. As the studies above indicate, many students mimic the instructor’s approaches; if an instructor is judgmental or closed-minded, then many students may act in the same way. Instructors may be active contributors to establishing the classroom climate, which directly shapes the safety and engagement of students. However, this relationship is further complicated by the instructor’s identity, where many racialized instructors may be faced with precarious safety in parallel with racialized students’ experiences. For the purpose of this section, we will be focusing on how white instructors shape safety.