Creating a safe space in the classroom

by Mary Turner 
HIV/AIDS Health Columnist 

Our identity formation begins early in life as we first begin to recognize that we are separate beings from our caregivers. Being encouraged to develop a sense of autonomy and independence early in life is crucial for our psyches later in life.  

As we move from childhood into adolescence, our primary task, according to psychologist Erik Erikson, is to determine who we are. Doing this requires the freedom to “try on” different possibilities to see how they fit.  

Of course, this includes exploring possible careers and belief systems. For example, this week, Drew wants to be a geologist and Leslie wants to be a neurosurgeon. Next week, Drew wants to be a journalist and Leslie wants to be an attorney. This is all normal and necessary and healthy.  

Our sexuality and sexual identities are an important part of who we are, and the same kinds of curiosity and exploration are involved in helping us determine those things, too.  

Unfortunately, our predominant American culture is much more forgiving toward those who bounce around between majors or careers than it is toward those who are trying to define and establish identities and values surrounding their gender and sexual orientation. Most people seem able to accept that careers are not binary in nature. Sex, not so much.  

With the new school year right around the corner, it is vital that everyone - parents, teachers, administrators, straight kids, LGBT kids and run-of-the-mill members of the community, educate themselves about how to support kids who may feel different or who are perceived to be different by their peers.  

These kids are at a high risk of being bullied by others. Even when there are policies in place to protect kids, especially those who identify as LBGT+, those policies are often not enforced.  

Teaching Tolerance, a project of the Southern Poverty Law Center, publishes a weekly newsletter for teachers that provides resources, lesson plans and strategies for creating a classroom that feels safe and inclusive to all students.  

Make the classroom a safe space with zero tolerance for bullying and disrespectful words and actions. Address slurs and mean-spirited behaviors immediately. Make your expectations clear from the beginning of the year and let students know that disrespect will be dealt with swiftly and fairly. The idea is not to simply punish which makes behaviors covert, but to help the student learn empathy so the behaviors change.  

Further, we should find matter of fact ways to include the contributions of people from the LGBT+ community in the curricula. Don’t make assumptions about which kids are or are not non-conforming in their sexuality. Every person is an individual and not a stereotype. Not all black people eat fried chicken and some white people can jump.  

Getting too comfortable with making assumptions will lead to mistakes which can lead to causing harm. Work with the policy-makers in the school, the district and the community to help create new policies or to strengthen existing ones so that all students can feel safe and respected.  

Going back to school should be something that students look forward to. Help make that a reality. 

Copyright The Gayly - 8/5/2017 8:13 p.m. CST