Everyone belongs….don’t they? Creating safe spaces

Creating safe spaces

Growing up in England, I often felt culturally different – not only to my peers, but also to my parents and extended family. School and home were two different worlds for me and neither overlapped and this left me feeling a sense of isolation, disconnectedness and voicelessness. I have sensed those same feelings being re-lived in many of my students today. They don’t talk about their culture and what the student experience is like for them. I suspect it was the same for me.

As educators, we’re probably all be familiar with Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. You cannot make progress towards the ultimate goal of self-actualisation without working your way through the lower tiers. Do our classroom spaces reflect this pathway?

Creating spaces where students feel welcome and a sense of belonging is important. It takes continuous effort to make sure our classrooms are welcoming; that we are welcoming. Words we use are welcoming. We smile, we share kai and play games so that students can get to know each other and feel at ease in the class. We might do an activity to create a class treaty so that everyone gets a say in how the class culture will be.

However, I invite you to ask yourself the same question I asked myself: am I co-creating a space with students where they can truly be themselves? Or, am I inviting them into MY space, and wanting them to feel a sense of belonging in the space that I have created?
This prompted me to put together a proposal for the Dr Vince Ham eFellowship, to do some research into something that was so important, something that could mean that inclusive really means inclusive of all. My final research proposal aimed to collect student narratives and stories to identify factors that create a sense of belonging for students from diverse cultural backgrounds.

From MY space to OUR space – don’t filter the culture

As part of my routine at the start of the year, I introduce myself to each of my classes by doing a mihi and sharing aspects of my life. In return, I ask students to share with me, individually, their mihi, and just one slide about their life, using images. This is done in conjunction with a student profile sheet. This allows students to tell me, in confidence, about themselves and how they feel about taking this class, and answer some questions about their learning experiences. Of course, I do this to build connections between us – it’s about creating a space where they feel comfortable and are able to share themselves.

As I gathered student voice for my research, I realised that I was not creating a space where students could ‘be themselves’. What I was doing was creating a sense of safety in MY space. I was still very much controlling the space. My own culture was the dominating culture and, alongside a colonial education system and curriculum, did this inhibit a true sense of belonging? I think so, and I still have a lot of work to do to allow students to be themselves.

From my research, it was clear how important identity and belonging on your own terms are to students.

‘In class, there is usually one one point of reference and that is the Pākeha perspective and that can lead to feelings of exclusion for students who have not been brought up in a Pākeha world’
‘When people are talking, I can just say “this is my experience”. Yeah. And I don't have to filter out the culture’

There are two things we need to think about, the firstly how do we turn teacher practices around to be more inclusive.

The second is about how we can then create a space where students can be themselves?

My thinking has now turned from inviting students into my safe space towards answering the question ‘how can I create a space where students (and teachers) can be themselves?’ What does this look like in the classroom? In my practice? What does this language sound like?

Recognising the power of the dominant culture

The first thing we need to stop doing is making assumptions that just because we live in a country where European culture is dominant, that all students are familiar with it. In one interview, the following comment from one of the students really resonated with me.

‘Teachers will often make reference to pākeha popular culture “you will all have heard this song, your grandparents will have played it……” this immediately disconnects you from the class if you have not grown up in this culture or country’

I have experienced this feeling. I still experience it. It does not just happen in the classroom; it happens in many, many aspects of my life, including in my social life when talking to people about music, TV and films and food.

Yet, I was still guilty of this within my teaching – teaching through the dominant culture.

Something that I will now do is to use the REAL influences in my life. My childhood landmarks are connected to my own British Ugandan Indian cultural references (yes, mostly Bollywood) music, films, actors and singers but also ood and festivals. In this way I can find connection not through common experience but through modelling respect for authentic and unique experience.

One way in which we can easily change is to re-think our language, this would make a big difference.

Depending on the purpose, this can be rephrased:

‘This is a song from MY childhood, MY grandparents played it”

‘Think of a song you have heard throughout your childhood’

(get students to play it, share it)

There are no assumptions being made about knowledge or culture here – but what it will do is allow students to share openly.

There are many examples that will come to mind about how we can make small, simple changes in order to co-construct safe places for our culturally diverse learners. Another example that comes to mind in my teaching is when I teach Organic Chemistry. I will consciously draw attention to more indigenous medicine from a variety of cultures to look at the chemical composition of the active ingredients.

My challenge to you is to reflect on your current practice and think about how you can make small changes so that all your students feel that they truly can be themselves in your classroom. I believe that these small changes will make all the difference to your students and their sense of belonging.

Rashida Longley's 2021 eFellow's report here.


Rashida Longley

Rashida Longley is the Head of Science at Albany Senior High School in Auckland. Raised in England after her Indian parents became refugees from Uganda, Rashida grew up with a sense of not belonging. This upbringing has shaped Rashida’s passion for ensuring equitable outcomes for all students. Rashida has a strong commitment to developing inclusive learning environments that honour Te Tiriti o Waitangi. Rashida was a recipient of the Dr Vince Ham 2021 eFellowship. Her project aimed to identify factors that create a sense of belonging for students from diverse cultural backgrounds.

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