Creating safer spaces

Amy Moran, Ph.D. with Kate Okeson 

Welcome back y’all. We wanted to start off the school year with some thoughts on safe spaces and the creation of safe, safer, and brave environments for learning.

We hear the term “safe space” and are supposed to assume that some sort of magic has happened in a place that makes it that way. This magic ensures that LGBTQIA+ and other students of marginalized populations are “safe” from any inhibiting factor that would endanger their capacity to freely learn, explore and comfortably be their authentic selves in that space. “Safe space” stickers can be seen here and there, and many wonder what kind of certification the owner of those stickers must have earned that has taught them the magic of creating and maintaining their space as “safe.”

In reality, the concept of safety for LGBTQIA+ and other marginalized people is continually up for interrogation. It’s not magic, and it requires several elements that educators can actualize in their work environments to help make “safer spaces” for all. It is a process, not a pronouncement.

VISIBILITY: People don’t feel authentically seen, validated or safe if they don’t see positive representations of themselves in their environments. Instead, make LGBTQIA+ identity visible! Post things in classrooms and hallways. Say queer-affirming things regularly. Include intentionally queer-positive options in your choice-based assignments. Signal that LGBTQIA+ community is warmly welcome in your presence, and do so in a way that young people and colleagues have a clear and visible understanding that queer-positivity is the norm where you are.

FAMILIARITY: Once something is visible, it has the chance of becoming familiar. At that stage, people begin to integrate the information they’re being exposed to—such as queer positivity through LGBTQIA+ affirming language, literature, and other signs and signals—and identify it as recognizable. This is crucial for LGBTQIA+ identified students for identify affirmation, but it’s important for straight/cisgender students as well. Those students will become familiar with the concept of queer-positivity, providing an alternative to ideas associated with the harassment, intimidation and bullying of queer identities. If LGBTQIA+ identities and queer positivity are familiar, then it’s difficult to disparage them. Instead, it gives rise to honoring, supporting and celebrating them.

COMFORTABILITY: We all know that it’s hard to be comfortable with something you know nothing about. However, once something is made visible in multiple forms, it has the chance of being familiar. That familiarity—if experienced in a positive way—can lead to comfortability. Remember the first time you read a menu in a restaurant that served unfamiliar cuisine? You may have experienced some discomfort and uncertainty. Yet after having a few positive experiences with that cuisine, you became comfortable in ordering familiar dishes and maybe even tried new dishes as well. Similarly, because of the ways in which queer culture and LGBTQIA+ experiences have been marginalized in nearly all realms of our society for so long, it may take straight/cisgender teachers a little extra effort to bring their learning environments into the realm of comfortability with LGBTQIA+ issues, but it’s totally doable! Start with visibility, move toward familiarity, and tinker toward comfort. Your queer students really need it. And your straight/cisgender students do too!

NORMALCY: So many of us take for granted how normalized parts of our lives are in the contexts in which we live. For example, we may never have to think about wheelchair access if we are able to walk. We may never have to think about missing perspectives in a conversation about immigration if no one in the conversation has ever been a migrant—as a refugee, as a child of migrants, or as an adult who migrated by choice. That normalcy is one of the hallmarks of privilege: having unearned advantages based on being similar to a majority of others.

Just like everyone has various privileges related to demographic attributes (such as race/melanin content, ethnicity, religion, sex, gender identity/expression, sexual orientation, economic status, physical abilities, wellness status, body type, and more), we each also have blind spots about how others may not experience the same privileges we do.

Public schools often do an amazing job of normalizing—and celebrating—all kinds of things that were considered “abnormal” even a short time ago, such as women in STEM, people of color in leadership positions in the White House, and religious/ethnic identities and experiences that aren’t Christian.

Look at how we’ve done it. Many of us create classroom or schoolwide celebrations that honor Rosh Hashanah, Lunar New Year, Diwali, and Eid—in addition to Christmas. By taking these simple, entry-level steps, we acknowledge, celebrate and normalize the experiences of our students and colleagues who practice Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism and Islam within a larger national context that has privileged Christianity above the others. In doing so, our Christian students learn that there are multiple ways of being in the world, that religion can be an important part of our humanity, and that our commonalities are as beautiful as our differences. It tells our non-Christian students that their religious, spiritual, and ethnic identities are welcomed and honored.

How do we normalize LGBTQIA+ identities in our classrooms within a national, local, and perhaps schoolwide context that—through their decades-long exclusion—communicates that queerness should be silent and invisible? It’s not magic. Think about other marginalized identities that you’ve chosen to bring to the center. Think about the reasons you’ve done it for those people and do it for queer people too. Make LGBTQIA+ identities visible, familiar, and comfortable. Do it with language, literature, signs and signals. Then, queer positivity can be a normal part of your classroom culture, and everyone benefits.

SAFETY: We work hard and continually to co-create learning environments in which social-emotional learning (SEL) competencies are expanded, where incidents of harassment, intimidation, and bullying (HIB) are minimized or extinguished, and where we understand that teaching for tolerance was never a high enough goal. Rather, as the newly renamed publication Learning for Justice (formerly called Teaching Tolerance) exemplifies, tackling systemic injustice is what makes spaces safe.

Schools have notoriously been sites of unjust treatment of LGBTQIA+ students and teachers through microaggressions, macro-omissions, and everything in between. It’s not possible to envision your classroom to be a “safe space” for your LGBTQIA+ students if queer positivity isn’t first visible, familiar, comfortable, and normal. Only once it is can queer students, queer colleagues, and queer community members experience your classroom as a “safer space.” And you can do it.

Please reach out to to share ways that you helped make your classroom, your curricular unit, or your schools, a “safer space” for LGBTQIA+ students and/or their families. We’d love to hear from you and maybe share your story!

Rainbow Connection shout-out

Shout out to Hillsborough High School GSA and Hillsborough Middle School HMS Cares groups who teamed up with the local Hillsborough YMCA and hosted “Together with Pride” in June 2022.

From Hillsborough Schools OT, Jeanette Sena:

“This event was how our school’s GSA celebrated Pride as well as affirming LGBTQ+ students,” said Jeanette Sena, an occupational therapist for Hillsborough Schools. “It was a multigenerational event, with alumni, students, faculty, parents, and community members. First of its kind! The event included high dchool GSA speakers, HMS Cares speakers, breakout sessions, and a tie-dye shirt activity.”

From left: Kevin Hodulik (HHS Math), Rob Robson (HMS French), Anna Mahler (HMS School Counselor), Stephanie Moore (HES fourth grade), Jeannette Sena (OT), Lisa White (SME School Counselor)

Learning for Justice

Mentioned in the article, Learning for Justice is the new(er) name for Teaching Tolerance. Its resources, publications, and professional development are thorough and meaningful. Following the web navigation to “Frameworks” and then onto “Critical Practices” leads you to strategies for anti-bias education. Further along in this section is “Classroom Culture,” where wonderful guidance and thoughtful information awaits.

Planning for Social Justice Change

Rethinking Schools is a nonprofit social justice education publisher and advocacy organization, offering tremendous works that are relevant and critical when embarking on social justice education work. They have partnered with Teaching for Change and Howard Zinn on the Zinn Education Project, which focuses on teaching People’s History. 

Rethinking Schools in conjunction with Education Liberation Network, have created a remarkably useful lesson planning book, Planning to Change the World, that illuminates so much of what is at the fore in social justice education. Resources therein abound.