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September 3, 2015

Teaching@Pitt: Providing a safe environment


Students learn better when they feel comfortable, or safe, in class. Research shows that negative emotions such as fear or anxiety interfere with the brain’s processing of information. As instructors integrate more interactive learning activities in the classroom, it is especially important that all students feel a sense of acceptance and belonging.

How can you ensure that you have provided a safe classroom environment for all students? An initial step is to do a candid assessment of your own possible assumptions or stereotypes about race, gender, sexual orientation, age, socioeconomic status, belief systems or disabilities. Be alert to subtle ways that your assumptions may be conveyed to students.

Lately, schools have been increasingly attentive to issues of students’ gender identity and sexual orientation. Here are ways that you can communicate to students that your classroom is a safe space for all, including those who do not fit into traditional categories of sexual orientation and gender identity.

• Post a “Safe Zone” sign in your classroom. Safe Zone is a program that indicates to LGBTQ students that this is a place where they will be accepted and supported.

• Use your syllabus to demonstrate your vision of a safe classroom. Explain why respect for others is important, and set ground rules that encourage respect for each individual. You may want to include a “Civility in the Classroom” statement in your syllabus. Here is an example excerpted from a syllabus of Susan Marine, a faculty member at Merrimack College:

“Together, we must endeavor to engage in these dialogues with two competing ideas in mind: that the classroom is, by definition, a space where free exchange of ideas must happen, but where consideration for others and their life experiences is also paramount. When you are uncomfortable with an idea, it is your responsibility to speak up about that, recognizing that some discomfort in the learning process is not only inevitable but desirable. As we learn about people with very different life experiences from our own, it is imperative that we respect these perspectives while continually working toward the highest aims of education in a democracy — equal access, without discrimination, for all regardless of where they are from, who they love, what they call themselves, or who they aim to serve through the concerted application of talent to social problems.”

• Tell students that you want to get to know them as individuals. Ask students to fill out an information sheet to safely disclose important information; encourage them to visit you during office hours.

• Ask students to introduce themselves the first day of class, inviting them to make their gender identities known if they wish to do so. For example, invite them to state their name and the pronoun that they identify with. To clarify their gender identity, students can request that others refer to them with traditional pronouns (he, him, his or she, her, hers), or they can pick from a number of hybrid options, such as ze, hir, hirs, or use the plural pronoun “they/them/their” to refer to an individual. (See Senate Matters column in April 16 University Times.)
• Integrate content and activities that promote diverse perspectives. For example, invite guest speakers and include materials written by authors who do not relate to traditional identities. Develop learning activities, such as role playing, that encourage students to relate to identities that are not their own. When forming groups, prioritize diversity and multiple perspectives. Use reflective writing assignments to give students a voice in private.

• Encourage challenging conversations by pointing out diverse perspectives on a topic, for example commenting, “The other side might say X. How would you respond?” Be sure to let students know that you are doing this intentionally to expand their awareness. Alternatively, encourage students to look at a topic from a different perspective and share their findings.

• Be proactive about recognizing the potential for conflict. Let students know in advance when a topic may be sensitive and advise them to use active listening skills, such as deep listening, no interruptions and restating what another has said, asking for affirmation or clarification.

• If conflict occurs, acknowledge it immediately. Give it a name. Even if there is silence, sometimes it helps to name it as “discomfort.”

• Be candid: Sometimes it is necessary to acknowledge your lack of experience in a particular area.

• Prepare to deal with intentional or unintentional negative verbal or behavioral slights, known as microaggressions. Here are several suggestions:

— Recognize out loud that it happened.

Think before you speak. Allow yourself time to regroup.

— One way to respond is to first ask the student to repeat the comment by saying, “I don’t think I caught what you said.” Then respond, “I’m glad you brought that up.” Pull the conversation back to the original topic.

— Another way to respond is to comment, “This is what I heard you say….” This gives the student an opportunity to explain: “That’s not what I meant.”

— Check in with any student who may have been directly affected by another’s verbal or behavioral actions. Also, consider following up with the student who prompted the incident.

— You can neutralize disagreements by commenting, “Really smart people fall on both sides of this argument.”

Setting the tone and establishing expectations for a safe classroom climate at the beginning of the semester will pave the way for lasting learning experiences for all students.

Carol DeArment is a senior instructional designer for CIDDE.

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