By Isaiah Moore
I first noticed it in retrospect. In my second year of college, while writing a proposal to my city advocating for better youth programming as a strategy to thwart teenage homicide, I thought about the variables that allowed me to write such a proposal instead of being one of the subjects discussed. I concluded that the most important factor was my schooling, and no, it was not the sustenance of school lunch or the Advanced Placement classes that mattered. What made the difference was the environment. My ninth–grade year was lackluster, but in tenth grade I met my AVID (Advancement Via Individual Determination) teacher and a history teacher who had mentored my sister before me. They were connected to the junior varsity basketball coach, who was from my neighborhood. Those three turned out to be connected to the two Black male guidance counselors in the school. Before I knew it, I had a broad and secure network of support that prompted my intellectual, emotional, and spiritual growth.
As I matured, I continued exploring and researching the phenomenon I encountered in high school and concluded that this system of connections was my safe space; I felt comfortable enough to study and grow. This support is the very reason I became the man I am today; it’s the whole reason I decided to enter the best profession known to humankind. Having experienced the benefits of such a network, I now seek to create it in every school I am in. Every child deserves to feel safe while learning.
Reflecting on this practice, I realized there is a formula for success when setting up support teams. Underpinning this formula is a foundational tenet that every safe-space educator must understand and truly embrace: Please be mindful that the hinge needed to open the door to safe spaces for students of color is authentic relationships and not the supposed need to “rescue” them. Once this principle is accepted, the following six factors will help you succeed when collaborating with other educators to create safe spaces for students of color:
1. Recognize the Myriad Issues Facing Students of Color
Social issues seep into schools; classrooms and schools are microcosms of society. This means that students of color face many problems. It’s draining simply thinking of all these problems, and even more of a depressing experience trying to solve them all at once. Focus on one or two that you can manage and research ways to fix them. Such issues may include a lack of diversity in the teaching staff (which makes it harder for students of color to find mentors) and schools devaluing the cultures and interests of students of color. Issues may even exist within the curriculum itself; certain cultures may be misrepresented or left out of school learning entirely, which causes students to lose interest in education. Whatever problems you identify, try to narrow in on the specifics and then seek out the best ways and people to help solve the dilemma.
2. Create a Diverse Team
On average, people are more likely to have an impact in a group rather than alone. That’s why a crucial step is to create a diverse team that contributes to alleviating the identified problem or problems, and to creating a safe space for students of color. When assembling a team, do three things: create a team of differing skills, take into account people of different ethnicities, and seek out diverging opinions. Take inventory of the skills needed to solve the problem you’re focusing on. This means that if you need someone with artistic ability or someone who has counseling experience, consider asking those people to help out. And while it is important to surround students with individuals who look like them, it is also important to introduce them to individuals unlike them. This normalizes learning from both like and unlike individuals. Lastly, be intentional about seeking out differing opinions. As Adam Grant, an author and specialist in organizational psychology, says in his book Originals, “create a strong group culture that also allows for dissenting opinions. Go for an organizational model that mirrors the ‘commitment blueprint’” (p. 180). Grant describes this as finding people whose values and norms match that of the group. Dissenting opinions on the details, coupled with commonality in the larger goal, allows for creative ideas that have been vetted and thus are more likely to help solve problems.
3. Well-Being First, Then Academics
And there will be problems to solve, because every individual has dilemmas. These dilemmas have the potential to not only impede learning, but to stop pupils from forming the relationships they need to feel safe. To that end, it is important that collaborating educators ensure the mental well-being of students before focusing on academics. Dr. Michael Lindsey (executive director of the McSilver Institute for Poverty Policy and Research at NYU’s Silver School of Social Work) argues that schools are some of the largest providers of mental health services, but those services are still inadequate or absent in too many schools—especially in schools serving low-income areas, and those serving largely Black and Brown students.
To help fill this need, support teams must be aware of the many issues plaguing communities of color; recognize that these issues can be a burden on adolescents who may not have developed the skills to manage their emotions; and attend to these challenging emotions first and foremost. This can be done, in part, by advocating for more mental health support for schools. Educators should also seek to decrease microaggressions and increase micro–affirmations. Micro-affirmations have been defined as “tiny acts of opening doors to opportunity, gestures of inclusion and caring, and graceful acts of listening.” Making micro-affirmations an intentional practice, while minimizing microaggressions, will increase positive feelings within the safe space you are building.
4. Seek to Decolonize Curriculum
To increase feelings of safety among students of color, safe-space teams must actively seek to incorporate the stories of those they are forming bonds with. According to the University College of London, “Decolonization is crucial because, unlike diversification, it specifically acknowledges the inherent power relations in the production and dissemination of knowledge, and seeks to destabilize these.” Providing students with an education that is not exclusively Eurocentric broadens the scope of learning and allows all students to encounter their cultures in what they learn.
This is an act of inclusion that can seem daunting. Teams may go into it feeling as they need to overthrow their whole curriculum, but keep in mind that these changes can start small. It can be as simple as replacing elements of the traditional canon with books like Justin A. Reynolds’s young adult novel Opposite of Always or Juana Martinez-Neal’s picture book Alma and How She Got Her Name. Teaching inferences or cause and effect through these books will allow students to see education differently while activating prior knowledge where they’re comfortable. If they continue to enjoy this learning experience, consider offering them inventive ways to express their findings and thoughts, such as through a podcast.
5. Extend Practices to the Community Beyond Your Classroom and School
To create lasting safe spaces that extend outside of the influence of the core support team, seek to expand the safe-space team’s practices to the rest of staff. While this will naturally include other teachers, administrators, and counselors, the list should also include librarians, custodians, attendance workers, cafeteria workers, and other people who help make your school the community that it is.
For instance, micro–affirmations can go a long way when students show up to school late for various reasons. Similarly, it would do wonders if cafeteria workers identified when students weren’t eating. This way they could inquire about how the child feels and get to the root of the problem.
And the safe space should continue outside of the school, as well. Sometimes people that meet the aforementioned criteria of differing skills, ethnicities, and opinions while having the same goal in mind can be tough to find in one school, so it is important not to neglect the wider community in the building of safe spaces for students of color. Not only will this increase the pool of people to choose from, but it will break down the walls between academics and community, an outcome most schools strive for.
6. Challenge Students
The goal to extend safe spaces for students of color outside of the confines of your group is worthy and ambitious. However, it is not imperative for a team to have done this before establishing one of the most important components of a safe space: Once support is established, safe-space teams must challenge students to grow. Encourage students to self-evaluate and set their own goals in multiple arenas—and then hold them to it. The Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia suggests intentionally using language that promotes a growth mindset. Additionally, encourage students to take higher level classes and step out of their comfort zones to learn, knowing they have your support.
Remember, the safe space you create is not intended to be the only space where students feel safe. The goal is to prepare them to extend those spaces with different people throughout different environments. The ultimate goal is that they will, in turn, create safe spaces for others. That is the preeminent challenge.
It is with that challenge in mind that I now walk through life. As a person of color, I felt as safe in my high school Advanced Placement English class—where I was one of three students of color in a class of thirty—as I did in my male mentorship program with my mentors and friends. I was even comfortable extending that space over 500 miles away to my college campus in Atlanta, Georgia, away from all of the influences that had molded me until that point. It was not that I had never felt uncomfortable in any of these places or at any of these times. But, crucially, I had been prepared to work in and through discomfort before it became comfortable. I am a product of safe spaces and know that their existence transforms students into productive citizens of the world. My hope is that this post will help other educators replicate these spaces so they can impact students like the one I was and continue to be.
Isaiah Moore is an eighth-grade English teacher in Virginia Beach who’s had the pleasure of speaking to crowds of over 1,000 but still becomes nervous when conducting a 45 minute session for 30 students. (Don’t worry, he doesn’t show it.) An Albert Einstein quote guides his life: “Try not to become a man of success, but rather a man of value.” Through word and action, this quote was taught to him by four Black male teachers in high school. Because of their impact, he decided to pursue education in hopes of impacting others the same way. To do so, he attended Morehouse College and became an Oprah Scholar while receiving his undergraduate degree in English. Afterward, he obtained his Master’s of Arts in Education from the College of William and Mary’s School of Education. Isaiah believes that education should be relevant, so he prides himself on developing lessons that incorporate real-world topics. This shows students their education extends beyond the four walls of his classroom. When Isaiah’s students apply these concepts to their daily lives, it is at this point that he sees his value. Here is where he becomes a man of success. Isaiah writes about his daily life in the classroom at his blog, Running Thoughts . . . Can’t Let Them Get Away.
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