Fostering Safe Spaces
Hello circus friends, and happy new year (I know it's the end of January already, bear with me here)!
It's kind of crazy to think I started 2017 working 40 hours/week as a food scientist and training circus 10 hours/week, and have ended the year exactly the opposite, training circus 40+ hours/week, and working in food science 10 hours/week. While I have no social life to speak of most of my time spent with my fiancée consists of us not talking to each other while we sit on FaceTime and each do our own work (her studying for her PhD, me working my food science job), I'm so grateful to be actually pursuing my dream right now.
That all aside, I know I haven't posted in way too long, so this will be a long update. I've had to put blogging to the side to focus on work I do get paid for (since no one is paying me (yet) to write this blog).
Ciradium went on a much-needed week and a half winter break starting right before Christmas through just after New Year’s. We came back well-rested and refreshed, and began the year with an all-student-and-staff meeting to discuss how the first year had gone thus far, and how both staff and students could work more seamlessly to achieve our goals. Being that this is a new program and a guinea pig first class, we definitely began seeing some new-program aches and pains.
I was incredibly happy to see how the staff was handling issues as they arose. They had clearly spent considerable time over the break discussing their thoughts, and came in wanting to hear from the students. Our director was very open to feedback and change regarding certain elements of how the program was run, and we collectively spent about 2 hours discussing what was/wasn't working, what we needed as students, and how we could better support each other as an ensemble. I left feeling excited for the changes that were hopefully to come, and was impressed by how quickly change was implemented within the first few days of us returning. Friday presentation feedback style had shifted to be more of a dialogue, morning class schedules had been changed to provide more ensemble learning during juggling rotation, and acrobatics became a larger focus like students wanted it to be. Theatre class started a weekly journaling exercising to facilitate communication, and students were given a staff advisor. All these changes were in direct response to student feedback, and it was comforting to see conversations turning into actions.
That being said, one of the conversations that was discussed that I personally wanted to delve into a little more was in creating a safe space in the classroom. In the context of arts schools and specifically Circadium, the concept of a safe space presents itself in classes where students are taking emotional risk and attempting to be vulnerable, such as in acting, music, and writing.
After doing some digging, I stumbled upon an interesting study in the Journal of Social Work Education on characteristics of a safe space. Authors Lynn Holley and Sue Steiner define a safe space as:
These are not physical risks and a safe space isn’t about physical safety. It’s a place with protection from psychological or emotional harm. One point to clarify is that a safe space doesn’t necessarily mean a comfortable space. In fact, a good learning environment is one where you DO feel uncomfortable and you do struggle at times. Safety is not the same thing as comfort. However before you are able to be uncomfortable in a constructive way, you need to create the space to do so. Since Circadium's curriculum is so focused on artistic exploration and pushing the boundaries of what circus is, having a safe environment to have that exploration is crucial and I wanted to take some time to research the less obvious aspects of fostering a safe space.
Creating a Safe Space
Creating a safe space comes much easier when teaching children than adults. Bright colors, soft cushions, and positive phrases tacked up on walls are found in children’s classrooms, creating a space where young students feel eager to learn and share. However as young children become adult students, a safe space isn’t necessarily as easy to create. Alphabet rugs and colorful dry erase markers don’t begin to tackle creating a safe environment for adults who come in with experiences that have shaped them over the years.
Having been in an academic setting through college and taken discussion-based classes like Women and Gender studies which focus on safe spaces, I believe I have a fairly good understanding of a safe learning environment for academic situations (though I am by no means claiming to be an expert, not have I studied safe spaces). Much of that safe environment, especially in larger classes where you don’t have an intimate class setting, is about being non-judgmental when sharing thoughts and opinions, and making a space for every student to feel they have a voice.
Performance classes on the other hand need a somewhat different approach. Safety is not necessarily referring students’ opinions or voice, but feeling comfortable physically and being able to emotionally pushing yourself. I needed to better understand what students through created a safe space.*
Student Perspectives on Safe Spaces
The study I mentioned earlier, called “Safe Spaces: Student Perspectives on Classroom Environment,” examined what made students feel as if they were in a safe learning environment. While this study was pertaining to an academic setting, I feel like most of these characteristics transcend just the academic world. Specifically, the study addressed the following questions:
What are student’s perspective about the characteristics or behaviors of instructors, peers, themselves, and the classroom physical space that contribute to safe and unsafe classroom spaces?
What are student’s perspective about the impact of safe classrooms on their own learning?
Here are the characteristics they found, along with how frequently they were mentioned. Note, characteristics were included in this list only if mentioned at least 10 times:
Characteristics of the instructor
- Not biased; nonjudgmental, open (62)
- Modeled participation; developed ground rules (51)
- Comfortable with conflict/raised controversial ideas (35)
- Respectful and supportive of others’ opinions (35)
- Encouraged / required class participation (32)
- Demonstrated caring (26)
- Challenged students (19)
- Shared about self (15)
- Was informative, knowledgeable (12)
- Laid back, flexible, calm, or comfortable (10)
Characteristics of peers
- Good discussion skills (e.g. respectful, listened, followed ground rules) (62)
- Honestly shared thoughts ideas, opinions and facts (59)
- Nonjudgmental and open to new ideas or perspectives (48)
- Sense of community (48)
- Led respondents to think critically (15)
- Had positive attitudes (13)
Characteristics of themselves
- Tried to be open-minded (42)
- Honestly shared thoughts ideas, opinions and facts (33)
- Actively participated in discussions, spoke up (30)
- Was supportive of or respectful toward others (21)
- Was prepared for class (20)
- Felt comfortable (17)
- Listened actively (16)
- Used other discussion skills (13)
- Was invested in class (13)
Characteristics of the physical environment
- Seating allowed seeing everyone (60)
- Appropriate room size for number of students 45)
- Good lighting (18)
It must be noted that this study was not a completely comprehensive study by any means. It included a total responses of 121 students in both undergraduate and graduate programs in social work courses, with students ranging in gender and ethnicity.
Researchers noted, based on the number of times a certain characteristic was listed, that students put emphasis on the instructor’s characteristics when creating a safe learning environment. Their list included more obvious traits like being non-judgemental and caring about the students, and traits that somewhat surprised me, not because I didn’t see the validity in them but because I hadn’t instantly connected them with the creation of a safe space. Characteristics like modeling participation and encouraging or requiring class participation came up more frequently than caring about the students or even being knowledgeable in what they were teaching.
Seeing how much emphasis students put on participation made it surprising how much less emphasis they put when listing their own characteristics that contributed to a safe space. The authors noted how “students offered many more descriptors for instructors’ behaviors and characteristics that contributed to the development of both safe and unsafe classrooms than they did for peers, themselves, or the physical environment.” Essentially, they were putting most of the responsibility for creating a safe learning environment on the instructor.
As a student, I can see why this happens. We go into class and give over control to a teacher. We listen and offer them respect, and in return ask that they teach us in a way that we will best learn. In this way, students in this study put the responsibility of fostering participation more so on the instructor to encourage or require participation than on themselves and their peers to initiate it.
And that, 1400 words in, brings us to my main question:
On whom does the responsibility lie upon to create that safe space? Is it mostly the responsibility of the instructor? How much of a role do students play in fostering that safe environment?
Often, educators talk about how they can create a safe space, as they are the ones trying to foster this environment. I personally feel like we often spend too little time on the responsibility of the students in creating a safe space. While I believe that a safe classroom environment needs to be initiated by the instructor, once those first steps have been made, students need to actively take the next ones. As this study noted, students seemed to be unaware of their role and responsibility in creating or hindering the development of a safe space. While they noted that in unsafe learning environments they and their peers did not speak up and were not vested in the course, I believe they failed to realize that their active participation is just as influential at creating a safe learning environment as their instructor’s characteristics. Their lack of contribution could be detrimental in attempts to create a safe environment.
On that note, I want to issue a challenge to students of all ages:
How can you take responsibility and work towards fostering a safer learning environment?
For me, it means pushing past my fear of messing up or looking stupid and boring to try something I’m uncomfortable doing. It means acknowledging when I’m uncomfortable, spending time examining what is making me uncomfortable, and taking responsibility for the parts I have the capacity to change rather than pulling back. It means calling myself out for using my participation in certain aspects of class as an excuse to less actively participate when I feel out of my element. And it means consciously acting with not only my best interests in mind, but also those of my peers, because the learning environment that will create will come back to benefit me.
Holley, L. and Steiner, S. “Safe Spaces: Student Perspectives on Classroom Environment.” Journal of Social Work Vol. 41. No. 1(Winter 2005): 49-64
*Note: For anyone who has studied safe spaces or has more experience exploring the concept and has thoughts to share, please do share your knowledge with me. I am trying to explore these concepts as I experience them, but I'm very aware that my exploration is limited.