We Don’t Need “Safe” Schools: Creating Compassionate Classroom Communities
Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God. 2 Corinthians 1:3-4
When we claim our classrooms and our schools are “safe”, what are we promising our students and our families? Safe, in the context of a classroom, can often be rendered as “nothing untoward happening to our students”. I argue that safety can’t simply be a student passively sitting in our classes, but an inherent part of students actively engaging in deeper learning.
We don’t need safe schools; we need “safe to” schools.
Safe to means that students and educators experience safety in their actions as they engage in deeper learning. In a safe to classroom, educators recognize that safety must occur in relationship with others—peers, educators, administrators—creating a culture where engagement is encouraged and celebrated by others. Adults in the school establish a learning environment that is free from fear, creating a culture where students know their dignity and value will be upheld when they engage in learning rather than creating an environment where students balk at stepping out of their comfort zone.
What do you want your students to be safe to do? Take a moment and consider three words or phrases that you might use to complete the following statement:
I want my students to be “safe to” _____________
When I work through this exercise with educators, I am always deeply encouraged by their responses.
Safe to take risks Safe to go deeper in their faith Safe to fail Safe to try a new instrument Safe to ask questions Safe to be themselves
A safe to environment is one that is full of compassion and comfort, where all members of a classroom community both give and receive compassion and comfort.
Let me suggest three ways you can start to work toward creating a safe to classroom.
1. Provide students with a voice.
One of my favourite quotes is by Ronald Short (1998): “We need to risk before we can trust—not the other way around” (9).1We often think that if we just create a trusting environment, students and educators would risk. On the contrary, educators and students need to step out of their comfort zones first, and in doing so they will start to trust each other. Having a voice provides students with ownership in their learning. Likewise, when we hear from others, we grow in our understanding of their value and worth. Asking students to have a voice and to contribute is a beautiful risk that enhances trust and strengthens the deeper learning process.
2. Have students share their “safe to”.
While I encourage you as an educator to share the “safe to’s” you desire for your students, it is also essential that students share what they need.
To be effective as a learner in this class, I need to be safe to ____________
Record these needs, post them in your class, and review them at least once a week. These needs can be the norms by which your class works together to have a safe to classroom. Having students name these norms will allow them to express their needs and allow the rest of the class to respond to these needs with compassion and comfort.
3. Place students in the classroom for optimal interaction.
The physical set-up of our classroom reveals how important we believe student connection to be. A class of desks in rows communicates that we want students to address the teacher, but not each other. Using small groups or classroom circles allows our students to share with each other, to hear from each other, and so increase risk and trust. If COVID-19 restrictions prevent you from creating these spaces in your classroom, see how you might optimize connection in outdoor spaces, gymnasiums, or other large spaces.
This fall, I encourage you to invest in creating a compassionate classroom community that is full of comfort for each other, reflecting the compassion and comfort God provides to us. You will know that compassion exists when you see both your students and your colleagues acting to support the safe to needs of both students and staff in your school community.