When I think about times I have felt safe or unsafe at school, it is the teachers I remember very vividly. Teachers play a very important role in how we feel as students. I remember two teachers especially well. One was my science teacher and one was my math teacher. Both were similar in certain ways and yet very different. Both were relatively strict. My science teacher was strict in the sense that he was there to bring order to the chaos of the classroom. However, he also knew how to communicate with his students. He would talk with us one on one to resolve problems rather than yelling at students and making a big deal about it. My math teacher, on the other hand, was also strict, but not in a good way. She would get very frustrated with people she didn’t like and she was outright mean. My science teacher helped create a feeling of safety in the classroom and in the school, but my math teacher just made me anxious and made learning more difficult for me. Let me share some examples.
There was a certain amount of harassment at the school I attended. A lot of kids were being targeted or bullied by other kids. For students in the LGBTQ+ community, for example, the F slur was thrown around quite a lot by some. Because of this, students who were part of the LGBTQ+ community would separate themselves and actively stay away from all the rest. They would kind of huddle around together in the back of the cafeteria. Even at recess, they would always go in their own little group. Some of the teachers even contributed to this. They would be negative or even outright aggressive verbally. The students were the ones that used the actual slurs, but the teachers would let you know how they felt about you in other ways. In addition, I noticed that a lot of black girls were being bullied and the aggressors were mostly older, bigger white boys. They didn’t use any racial slurs, but the black girls were the ones being targeted, especially my friend, who was quite tiny. Of course, I was scared to do anything because the kids were older than me. Teachers were aware of all this, but most of them would disregard it. I remember one teacher saying that “they’re just playing around.”
The one teacher who did something about all of this was the science teacher I mentioned. People saw him as overly strict in his class, but he was also strict about everything else. We liked him because he didn’t discriminate against anybody. And, honestly, he was the one doing the most about the bullying. The laid back teachers just kind of let everything happen. But my science teacher would actually go over to the students who were using slurs or bullying other students. He would step in and actually talk to the kids. He threatened to report the bullying to the principal unless they stopped. My friend and I both liked this teacher for that reason. He gave us a sense of safety and predictability at school. In my opinion, he was one of the best teachers at that school.
My math teacher was also strict in class, but she didn’t make me feel safe. She was very direct about who she didn’t like, and I was one of those kids. I would mess up and she would make a big deal out of it in front of the whole class. Whenever someone like me who she did not like would ask for help, she would blame it on not paying attention. Instead of actually helping the student, she would say, “You should have been paying attention in class.” And then she would just move on with her teaching. She told me I could not use my fidget toys in class, which were an accommodation my school had given me. She would get annoyed when I started getting anxious during work. When I get anxious, I tend to lose control of some of my body parts. I have developed some tics that I do when I get stressed or excited, because of my ADHD and anxiety. I start tapping or humming at times, just to keep myself grounded and focused. Regardless of how many times I would explain to my math teacher why I make these sounds, I would get in trouble with her again and again. Even when I was excited or happy about something, she would get annoyed at me. When I’m happy, I wave my hands around and start kind of waddling in my seat. I call it my happy dance. So, when I would get happy she would shut me down because of these things. And then this would just make me anxious. Her version of strictness did not make me feel safe or supported in her class, and this affected my learning.
It’s important to make a safe space for students. The teachers are in charge of making the environment safe for students. If they are not actively trying to create this kind of environment, then more likely than not they are serving as part of the problem. Therefore, please ensure that creating safe and supportive environments for students is a priority for all teachers and in all schools.
“Teachers play a very important role in how we feel as students.” —Ethan
“The teachers are in charge of making the environment safe for students. If they are not actively trying to create this kind of environment, then more likely than not they are serving as part of the problem.” —Ethan
When teachers create a positive—emotionally safe classroom—I see that I learn best: this is the optimal learning environment for students. Read Ethan’s 2022 Statement