Safe spaces: a process of co-creation

We often talk about ‘safe spaces’ in education, as we should. The safety of all our students, staff and stakeholders is paramount and protected through our safeguarding framework and responsibilities. However, consideration of what we mean when we say ‘safe spaces’ is an area worth exploration. When we say ‘safe’ we need to be clear on what we mean. We are talking about psychological safety as well as physical safety. Both are crucial for enabling a safe, inclusive learning environment where we can all thrive. And this is where things become more complex. Can we actually be sure that we are considering the psychological safety of our students and those we have a duty of care towards if we don’t make the effort to understand how they feel, why they feel that way and how their experiences, their identity affects their sense of safety in a given environment. Is it right to talk of creating ‘safe spaces’ without doing the work of understanding the power dynamics of any given space or environment, the wider power dynamics at play and how these impact our students differently? Is it right to come up with ambitious plans of how to create ‘safe spaces’ without engaging everyone in the process? I would argue that there is a danger of missing the mark without this deeper understanding. That just as good teaching considers who students are, what they bring and where they are on their own learning journey, and adapts accordingly, schools need to do the same when talking of safe spaces. Safe spaces for who? Safety from what? And what external factors, outside of the school, may be contributing to the need for safe spaces in the first place?

Firstly, we need to explore the feelings of safety and belonging and how they impact learning. We know from our Trauma Informed training that a student who doesn’t feel safe will not be in a position to learn. Safety comes first. So perhaps if we consider, why some students find our learning environments safe spaces and are able to access and learn with ease, while others struggle we may start to understand more. If we apply this lens, we can see the impact of belonging on behaviour and in turn learning attitudes. So how equitable are we being when we rate a student’s ability without considering the impact of the environment and their sense of safety to function on their ability to learn in that space? We need to go deeper, build stronger relationships with our students to be able to see the real barriers to learning, as well as understand the power dynamics of the other relationships in the learning space or classroom.

We know that children who have experienced trauma have so much more to process in order to feel safe and to learn. We try and make accommodations for this in our schools and classrooms. But how far are we considering the child that is too fearful of putting up their hand and getting the answer wrong and asking ourselves what the barriers are for that child to confidently engage with the learning in an outward way? How much effort are we placing on fostering a safe culture in the classroom, modelling these behaviours, celebrating them between peers and insisting on them? Setting clear boundaries for all, that keep us all feeling safe. We need to be amplifying the strengths of all our pupils clearly and overtly for them and visibly in front of the rest of the class. Explicitly recognising the little triumphs that perhaps go unnoticed and encourage all pupils to do the same for themselves and for each other. 

When looking at a class of children and considering their progress, what is not represented in the data is the disadvantage of not fitting in and how this impacts a child’s learning and their experience. The nuances of identity and how parental networks, language, cultural mannerisms affect how easy it is for a child to fit with the group and feel like they belong all have an effect. How far are they actively hiding aspects of their identity because they don’t feel safe to bring their full authentic selves to the space? As adults, I think we can appreciate the difficulty of not belonging and how this presents as disadvantage in terms of friends, allies, networking, connection, having a voice, being heard, being seen, self-confidence, willingness to take risks, self-esteem etc. Applying the same to a classroom of children, we need to understand exactly those dynamics, listen to our children, and actively foster an inclusive culture, which will go some way to enabling safer spaces. 

We can’t assume that these principles are being endorsed and applied outside of school. In fact, we can assume that cultural biases and hierarchies are prevalent and active outside of school in the wider world and that these will impact the dynamics and realities of all our stakeholders – our children, our families and our staff. We need to consider this when we talk of safety and think about creating a truly inclusive culture. The alternative – assumptions and assertions of safety and inclusivity which is not the experienced reality of our stakeholders – only serves to disempower, alienate, isolate. It leads to masking, compounds feelings of being unsafe and essentially excludes. This can have serious consequences for mental health and learning. 

What we are essentially talking about here is culture. The culture in the classroom, in the school and of course the consideration of the wider culture within which the school and the education system are positioned, as well as our home cultures which shape each of us as actors in that space. Now ‘culture’ is one of the terms that we all feel we have an idea of what it means but struggle to explain. When I embarked on my Cultural Studies Masters Degree at the Birmingham School of Cultural Studies at Birmingham University more than 20 years ago, we started by researching, and thinking developing a deeper understanding of what we mean by culture. We discussed the term at length, each of us having a different perception of what we were talking about when we used the term ‘culture’. I urge you to investigate the term yourself and consider the multiple ways and contexts in which we use the term. A simple google search will bring multiple usages and definitions, all somehow correct yet different. What we really started to understand was the fact that culture is not static, it is not fixed in time or space, it is not a thing, it has multiple dimensions and multiple understandings, meanings and applications. It is when we talk of culture as something that can be conceptualised as having a set meaning and is fixed that we find we are trying to make things fit with an assumption that there is a shared understanding of what the word means. And this is important because when we are able to understand ‘culture’ in this fluid sense, we can really see how it is collaborative, changing all the time, it belongs to us all and we all have an impact and influence the culture at any given time in any given space. One cannot be a static part of a fluid concept unless disengaged and isolated from it, and even then one’s presence, even if not overt, would influence the culture. There are power dynamics yes, but essentially culture is always changing and has the possibility to change through our interactions and engagement with each other building connection. We are all active actors in any given space or time that influence the culture. So if we now think about a classroom made up of 30 students and a teacher, we would be wrong to think that the teacher is the only one that can influence the culture of that space at that time. We would be wrong to assume that the teacher can dictate the culture and make it whatever they want it to be because cultures develop from the ways in which those sharing a space at a particular time build connection, develop common meaning, learn, interact, and engage with each other to co-create common codes of practise for those interactions. The culture is co-created by each person that shares that space and how they interact with all the other people. Each of us is different and brings something different to that space, so creating a safe culture must include everyone – it is a co-creation process and cannot be dictated and created by one person of authority from above. 

With this thinking in mind, we cannot approach this fluid co-creation of culture in a particular space with a rigid approach that essentially forces its participants to fit. Instead, we need to truly understand difference and ensure we are not coming at this with our assumptions. We need to be human-centred in this pursuit. The golden rule: don’t assume that what may feel safe for you, feels safe for everyone. In the first instance, we need to engage our students with this and provide different ways for them to have a voice, express themselves. A collaborative approach is needed, understanding and learning together about safety and how inclusive practice is central to enabling us to feel safe to learn. Remember, not all students feel safe to speak out loud, but this does not mean they don’t have a voice and that their voice is not valid and central to contributing to a safe culture. We need to use various channels of communication for student voice that don’t leave students feeling exposed and vulnerable. This methodology requires careful consideration and should not only take one form. It also needs to be ongoing. Think of it as a journey we embark on together, there is no final destination, just a common direction that we are exploring together, checking in on each other as we travel.

Next, and this is so important – we need to look at our data, our context, and listen to what the data and the responses tell us. This can be difficult. We all want to believe that in our pursuit of putting the students first that we are actually achieving the aims of inclusivity and safety and it can be difficult to be confronted with pupil voice to the contrary. However, we must take comfort in the fact that engaging with this process in the first place, embarking on the journey together, listening to our students, even if we don’t like what they tell us, is us supporting them and putting their needs first. So we must properly respond to the data and include our students in that process. There is nothing worse than asking for opinions, asking questions, receiving feedback and then not actively working with that feedback. Student voice is not a one-time question, we need to keep assessing, building in lines of communication through which our students can feedback, and we need to ensure that students are involved and engaged in this process every step of the way. Remember we are co-creating and this process is fluid and developing all the time.

Finally, being open to broaden and deepen our own lens to understand the realities of those in our care is essential to embarking on the journey of co-creating safe, inclusive spaces.  This is a journey of learning for us as teachers and leaders too and we need to be open and curious to the idea of creatively navigating this process. Educating ourselves on inclusivity, belonging and always positioning ourselves as a co-creator and learner is key. Safety and inclusivity are not an additional consideration to layer on top of our work they are integral to a learning environment and culture that enables everyone to flourish and grow – they are central to what we do as educators. The golden rule: don’t assume a space feels safe for others just because you say it does.

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