Recently, with rising Islamophobia, a Muslim child was threatened on school grounds by someone wearing a mask. Though schools may see themselves as "neutral," the sense of safety and well-being of many children continues to be hijacked with the ongoing rhetoric of political leaders and increasing hate incidents and crimes.
For students, schools are homes away from home. Each day they walk into schools ready to learn, to create, innovate and to be prepared as our future leaders and scholars. Students come to us rich with histories, lived experiences, community values, ways of knowing and of course their social identities. They do not come divorced of their local contexts.
For many -- ex. indigenous, immigrants, refugees, children of colour, various creeds, varied abilities, LGBTQ -- the current political context is a source of great stress and tension. Well-being is a necessary for achievement.
The following are some considerations for teachers, principals and senior education leaders to think about as they work to create safe spaces for ALL students:
1. Identity matters - yours and your students.
Understand your own identity/privilege/power and ability/willingness to speak to complex issues and identify learning that you need. How does your identity play a role in helping you identify what you think is important or not? If you're not comfortable because you may not know enough, ask people to help you. Educators are some of the most resourceful people in the world. Speak to your principal/superintendent when necessary for guidance but do not assume that they will understand fully. Go to trusted online sites and people from within the community and engage in learning.
2. Name it and address it.
Do not gloss over issues or pretend they are not there. Across Canada we are seeing increasing Islamophobia, we need boards and schools to address this. If an incident happens -- name it, talk to kids, help them understand how power works. Be aware not to make inaccurate statements -- some include: "We are all immigrants" -- we are not. Indigenous peoples were always here. Many black people and refugees did not migrate here by "choice," they were transplanted here. If something happens between kids and it is racist or homophobic -- name it and then talk about why that's not OK. Then use it as an opportunity to infuse new narratives into the teaching happening.
Another example when addressing power and privilege is talking about "Majority and Minority" as being about numbers instead of about power relations. An able bodied person does not become a "minority" because they are in a room full of people with varied abilities or disabilities. In society, able-bodied people have more power than those who are not.
3. This is not about guilt or shame
Your privilege (ex. class, gender, race, ability), does not make you a bad person. Privilege is unearned -- that's what makes it "privilege." What's more important is how you use your privilege to support those who do not share what you have. When you are comfortable with your own identity, you can teach children how to be comfortable about theirs. This requires a growth mindset and a willingness to unlearn. We all have elements of bias, problematic ways of thinking that we have to work on.
4. Choice is the hallmark of privilege.
What you may feel is unnecessary to discuss may be urgent for some children and families. Get to know and understand your students, their communities and the issues as identified by their families as being important. Many families are scared for their lives and safety. If you ignore that to focus on math, that is problematic. Instead think about how you might address their sense of safety and well-being in order to create the conditions necessary to support learning, ex. where you have many children who are refugees or immigrants, how might you change or challenge the narratives of immigrants currently in the media through the work happening in your school/district.
5. What kind of lessons and experiences are you creating?
Do they reflect your students and community? If not -- change them. Make the lessons authentic and reflect the stories and lives of ALL your students- even if it takes more time to search for resources. More importantly, if you have very little visible diversity, think about how you can expose students to diverse bodies, pictures, resources, stories and expertise. It is important to situate community members as experts for children to see. Principals should also think about how their hiring practices can help impact the kind of learning conditions they are creating in a school. Make sure books, stories, posters, guest speakers, announcements are reflective of diversity.
Unit created by a group of teachers at a workshop on Social Justice based Inquiry. This unit allows students the chance to question critically and bring themselves into the conversation about Canadian identity. (Photo: Jeewan Chanicka)
6. Society does not stop at the school doors.
There is no such thing as a "neutral space." Attitudes and values continue past those doors. Because of the wider political climate, children may be feeling unsafe. As politicians continue to build platforms on Islamophobia and hate incidents continue to rise, Muslim, Sikh and children from a variety of places around the world may be feeling unsafe. It is important to note that if there is prevailing xenophobia, we have a responsibility to model how we can change structures and systems to support all students. Ex. is there a quiet space that allows for prayer or meditation? Provide one.
Help use positive examples that will help children see themselves reflected positively. Do NOT over promise ex. Everything will be OK -- especially if you do not share the same identity and/or are unaware of the realities they may navigate. However, you can say, "at school you are always welcome here -- everyone belongs and if you feel unsafe in anyway, I want you to tell me so we can try to fix it." Principals must be mindful of how this may be affecting staff members as well and check in. Offer flexibility when possible. Ask how they may want/need assistance. Remind them they are valued and if there are things happening that make them feel excluded to please let you know.
Almost all educators came to the profession with the goal and aspiration to make a difference in the world. We are in a very challenging time as a society. This is a chance for our schools to foster the type of democratic ideals we want our children to aspire towards. Ultimately, when we help our students feel safe and included, they will be able to rise to their highest potential. Our work in classrooms and schools will also shape the leaders who will rise and hopefully will become beacons of light for our society to rise towards.
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