Safe Space vs. Safer Space

Discomfort vs Harm in the Classroom

The language of safety can also be weaponized to justify forms of systemic and structural violence; therefore, it is important to identify, interpret, and address concerns around safety through an approach that understands how power and violence shape these encounters.

To help identify what is happening in a difficult encounter, consider the following questions:

  1. Who wields power in this situation?
  2. How are people’s feelings connected to systemic or structural violence?
  3. Are feelings of discomfort emerging because power or norms are being challenged or questioned?
  4. What are the consequences that correspond to expressions of feeling unsafe? (e.g. material consequences like job loss or expulsion from school, emotional consequences like feeling vulnerable or anxious, political consequences like increased hostility towards a group)
  5. Can feelings of unsafety be alleviated with reassurance and acknowledgement, or are interventions required to ensure accountability for potential harm?
  6. Is one person or group’s safety being leveraged against another?
  7. Is there a risk that the language of safety is being weaponized to target a person or group?

Your answers to the above questions can help you determine whether you’re dealing with an issue of safety and harm or an issue of discomfort, conflict, or contestation. Distinguishing between these is necessary because of the danger of weaponizing “safety” when feelings of discomfort are conflated with accusations of harm. For instance, attacks on trans people are often leveraged through claims of “safety” for cisgender people, such as the exclusion of trans people from gendered washrooms. Cisgender people who make these arguments are expressing discomfort with trans people in gendered washrooms, which in turn enacts harm on trans people in the form of transphobic violence and being denied access to basic rights. Similarly, the criminalization of racialized people, substance users, and people facing acute mental health crises is often done in the name of “public safety” or “self-defence,” which is then used to justify issuing fines, incarceration, and the use of excessive force, such as police assaults on and killing of unarmed suspects.

Many students and faculty aspire to see the classroom as a safe space or to create safe spaces in the classroom. Although prioritizing the safety and well-being of students, faculty, and staff is of central importance in the classroom, the assumption that the classroom can be safe raises some key challenges that can undermine the practice of safety.

These challenges can include:

  • Learning that challenges our current values, sense of self, and worldview;
  • Learning that connects to repressed trauma in unexpected ways;
  • Learning about topics one may be resistant to knowing (e.g. colonialism, white supremacy, ableism, etc.);
  • Learning about violence, discrimination, injustice, and oppression;
  • Being confronted or challenged on our own power/privilege;
  • Being accused of discrimination or harm; and
  • Being exposed, whether intentionally or not, to harm, discrimination, violence, and/or oppression in the classroom.

Building Safer Spaces

To help build safety in the classroom, you can draw on a collective approach by working with students, including working through the above questions,  to help build a safer classroom rather than assuming safety from the outset. This can be accomplished collectively through class-generated discussions around differentiating between discomfort and harm, developing ground rules for engaging in difficult discussions, drafting class contracts that outline and make transparent the consequences for harm in the classroom, and developing terms of engagement for how to work through difficult and uncomfortable discussions and encounters, alongside your own policies, outlined in the syllabus or other policy documents.

Recognizing Harm

While the above questions can help you identify potential forms of unintentional harm in the classroom, there are also insidious forms of harm that can emerge in educational environments. Intentionally trying to traumatize or harm people through the classroom is an act of violence, and incidents such as these should be addressed swiftly by:

  • Interrupting the behaviour,
  • Holding people responsible for their actions (including our own),
  • Proposing resolution through apology and change in behaviour,
  • Seeking accountability both within and outside the classroom, and
  • Following up with those who may have been harmed after the incident.

However, in many circumstances in the classroom, harm is an unintentional consequence of power inequalities. In these cases, the person who has harmed others may not be aware that their actions have harmful consequences or may have difficulty recognizing this harm due to feelings of shame, defensiveness, or dissonance in their sense of self (e.g. but I’m a good person, I didn’t mean to offend you, etc.). In these cases, it can help to depersonalize the harm by identifying the connection between the individual action and wider systemic forms of harm and encouraging the practices of apology, accountability and responsibility.


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Better Practices in the Classroom by Natalie Kouri-Towe and Myloe Martel-Perry is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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