I had an interesting interaction with a student in class recently. They asked a legitimate question about an upcoming assignment, which I answered. But in my response, some wires got crossed. It was clear that what I was trying to say was somehow not reaching the student in the way I had intended. As the conversation became more tense and the student became more upset, I tried my best to quell the escalating emotions before moving on with the rest of the lesson. Later, near the end of class, I quietly asked the student to stay after class so we could discuss the interaction one-on-one. In that post-class discussion, I realized that our emotional, in-class interaction wasn’t really about OUR interactions. It was about the stress the student was experiencing from a variety of other sources.
Like a lot of teachers, I try to foster a safe space for students to learn. I know that phrase “safe space” may mean different things to different people, so let me explain what I mean. By safe space, I mean that I want to provide an environment free of bias, judgement, conflict, and criticism. I want to create a space where it’s okay to make mistakes, as long as we learn from the process. I want to foster a classroom culture where different perspectives are valued, and different opinions can be shared. That’s not to mean that I won’t challenge my students’ ideas or present them with conflicting perspectives, but I want my students to feel like they’re valued and respected and supported. And despite my best efforts to cultivate a safe space, sometimes things go awry.
The walls of the physical classroom in which I teach are built of cinder bricks. And while I’d like to believe those bricks can protect my students (and me) from outside influences, the truth is much more humbling. The walls are permeable. They let in far more variables and influences and stressors than any teacher would care to admit. The goal of creating a safe space, while lofty, is probably impossible. The outside always seeps in.
That’s not to mean I’ll stop trying. Returning to my recent classroom interaction, I hope that my post-class conversation worked to honor my student’s experiences and the stressors they were navigating. More than that, however, I hope it worked to reassure them our classroom is place where we all can learn from our missteps and misunderstandings. And while the outside may seep through our permeable classroom walls, it shouldn’t dictate how we treat and respect one another.