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The Cultivation Of Safe Spaces Within Schools

In a socially diverse classroom, there can be no easy opposition between static ideas of contextual safe and unsafe spaces - instead the relational work of cultivating them and creating sites for negotiating differences, and challenging oppression is an ongoing, reflective and dynamic effort. 

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Recently, while reading a children’s illustrated leaflet story School mein Humne Seekha aur Sikhaaya’ [What we learnt and taught at school] with a few 9 year olds, I was surprised when all the readers could empathize with why Nikita [the writer and the main protagonist of the story] felt the need to run away from her school. The young readers were acute in their recognition of how schools can be unsafe for some people at times. Nikita and her friends, in this lovely autobiographical story published by Muskaan, are constantly rebuked by their school teachers, their class mates call them names, and they are made to feel small and stupid both inside and outside the classroom.

This ‘story’ is the painful and traumatic reality of many marginalized students in our country, and while for some students, the hidden and often explicit hegemonic curriculum may succeed in pushing them out – there are many students who brave the everyday injustices that the school metes out to them and perpetuates as normal, natural, inevitable – and some still, like Nikita, who struggle in defense of democratic principles, who envision an equal and safe classroom and who go back to remind their teacher of her responsibility. 

(Image from an illustrated story ‘School Mein Humne Seekha aur Sikhaya’ authored by Nikita Dhurve, illustrated by Pooja Sahu and published by Muskaan)

What does it mean for learning spaces to be safe spaces? Guidelines given by national bodies such as NCPCR on the safety and security of children within schools define the idea of safety to include safety “from abuse, violence, psycho-social issues, disaster [natural and manmade, fire and transportation].” Yet one finds that within the school space, the very space that is seen as the critical platform for social change and for envisioning constitutional principles, the physical, emotional and mental violence on children from marginalized communities fails to ensure their full participation and actively ‘locks’ them out. The spheres, terms and processes of exclusion within learning spaces and how they affect one’s experience of schooling may need to be further interrogated if we are to imagine safe and compassionate classrooms. Does school as a safe space then mean that we should actively avoid any such thing that might step on anyone’s toes? Does it mean that we should always feel happy, positive and joyful in our learning spaces [much like the Happiness Curriculum in Delhi govt schools is trying to foster as a practice?] Does it mean that everyone should feel good and no one should make waves, unsettling their otherwise calm being? 

Does school as a safe space then mean that we should actively avoid any such thing that might step on anyone’s toes? Does it mean that we should always feel happy, positive and joyful in our learning spaces [much like the Happiness Curriculum in Delhi govt schools is trying to foster as a practice?] Does it mean that everyone should feel good and no one should make waves, unsettling their otherwise calm being?

Any one who envisions education as something different from the means to an end of producing technical slaves to further the structures of power as they are, will agree that education must challenge dominant understandings of social inequality by providing for critical education, by linking knowledge to practices of social responsibility as citizens. This implies critical education that empowers marginalized groups to both improve their own lives, and in the process, better society. What might a caring classroom look like to this effect? 

One direction in the work of care and compassion in the classroom is offered by the field of care ethics in education. Care ethics traces its earliest articulation in the work of Carol Gilligan (1982), who emphasized on an ethics of care in women’s moral reasoning, complicating the earlier framework and theories of moral development popularized by Kohlberg which centered on an ethics of justice. Further generation of care theorists moved from care as born out of women’s morality to the issue of care both as a moral and political concept. A distinguishing feature of care ethics is the recognition that “human beings are concrete beings, who exist in mutually interconnected, interdependent, and often unequal relations with each other”. (Noddings, 2012) Care ethics theorists such as Nel Noddings hold that the ethics of care starts discussion with neither the individual nor the collective but with the relation.

This caring, where one party acts as the carer, and the other as cared-for are relationships of mutuality, where parties may regularly exchange positions too, and both parties contribute to the establishment and maintenance of the caring relation. In describing the caring relation in teaching, Noddings illuminates the attentiveness, and the listening that is at the heart of caring. Receptive listening [and not just to what we already assume to be true], dialogue and empathy form the basis of the relation between teachers and students. It is this capacity to be moved by the affective condition of the other that teachers try to develop in students as part of their moral education, according to Noddings. In the field of care ethics, “dialogue reflects an open-ended common search for understanding, empathy, and appreciation, permitting teachers and students to discuss and arrive together at sound decisions.” (Owens & Ennis, 2005)

Also read: Caste-Based Discrimination Rampant In Higher Educational Institutions, Affirms Study

Other activities like modeling care, providing opportunities to practice care or experiencing care as ‘doing’, and developing a relationship of trust with students and knowing one’s students well enough to realize what they are trying to become, together enhance the ethic of care. 

The need for establishing a climate of caring, of trust often gets sidelined in most schools as an unrealistic demand ‘on top of everything else’. But as one must regularly do with education, we must ask ourselves what the aims of our education are – do we want to foster a commitment to open mindedness, critical thinking, active learning processes or create a culture of fatigue, fear and shame built on competition and standardization? If it is the former, we would quickly realize that the caring relation lies underneath all that we do as educators. 

Given the state of children and adolescents from marginalized communities in public and private schools in India, it would not be wrong to note that despite the formal right of citizenship to be in school, the substantive right of equal treatment is often not meted out to students. Is access all that is needed to create conditions of equality? Such thinking [that let marginalized children go to the same schools as their dominant group peers and they will have all that is needed to be equal and free] denies the role that strategies of shaming [devaluation and degradation] play in maintaining caste-based, class-based, gender-based subordination, especially in the arena of education. A loving community of learning can move beyond shame, which reinforces the feeling of being inferior, being unworthy – to a place of recognition that is humanizing. Perhaps it means that we need to build a politics of affirmation, where difference is valued, where all voices are worthy, where recognition and respect helps us express our vulnerabilities to a community of learners.

And at the same time, it requires struggling against the strategies used to reinscribe subordination. It means addressing the rituals of shaming used to murder the spirit of students, critiquing the setting of dominant values and norms as the terms of inclusion, and recognizing that no amount of support staff, Mission Buniyaad, positive programming, ed-tech interventions within schools can affirm the right of a student to being well and to be respected if the maintenance of hegemony is not called to question- and It is not just the responsibility of students such as Nikita, but teachers and school staff to challenge the individuals who threaten the safety of students and the spaces they are in. 

In light of the recent release and immediate backlash received by NCERT’s training manual on making schools more inclusive for trans and gender non-conforming students, the question of care, safety, being well – the very idea of mattering itself is put into question. One could wonder, how do you matter to a country that finds you disposable? How do you matter to a government that is dismissive of your identity? That would rather incarcerate you than educate you? To this effect, we need to also unpack the discourses of care, and its relation to social, political, economic contexts. Any conceptualization of care has to involve issues of power, of cultural and social production. (Hankivsky, 2014) The history of care and kindness and its use to marginalize ‘othered’ bodies, be it the do-good civilizational mission of helping otherwise passive beings who don’t know what is ‘good’ for them or bestowing knowledge upon the backward ‘other’, are extremely important to prevent this pedagogical strategy of care and kindness in learning spaces from replaying systemic forms of violence. (Magnet et al., 2014)

Feminist scholars such as bell hooks have reiterated time and again that “love in the classroom creates a foundation for learning that embraces and empowers everyone.” (hooks, 2010) Engaged pedagogy begins with the assumption that we learn best when there is an interactive relationship between student and teacher, when a learning community is built by sharing and receiving one another’s stories. This needs acknowledging the power that each student’s voice holds and creating the space for everyone to speak when they have meaningful comments to make.

Feminist scholars such as bell hooks have reiterated time and again that “love in the classroom creates a foundation for learning that embraces and empowers everyone.” (hooks, 2010) Engaged pedagogy begins with the assumption that we learn best when there is an interactive relationship between student and teacher, when a learning community is built by sharing and receiving one another’s stories. This needs acknowledging the power that each student’s voice holds and creating the space for everyone to speak when they have meaningful comments to make. And with the recognition that relationships within a classroom are often not equal – it also requires honoring all capabilities, not just the ability to speak.

In her work, All About Love: New Visions, hooks describes love as ‘a combination of care, commitment, knowledge, responsibility, respect, and trust’ with each of these factors working interdependently. Image Source: Britannica

In her work, All About Love: New Visions, hooks describes love as ‘a combination of care, commitment, knowledge, responsibility, respect, and trust’ with each of these factors working interdependently. (hooks, 2000) It is this love ethic that is common within all the successful social justice movements across history. Love, imagined in this way, moves us from domination in all its forms, it changes and challenges us. Scholars such as hooks ask why we see the potential presence of conflict in classrooms as threatening to the continuance of a critical exchange. Are we too then indicating that a community is not possible where there is difference? Since in many of our families of origin, constructively resolving conflicts or expressing different viewpoints is not expressed, it becomes the responsibility of a loving classroom to teach, by presence and practice, that critical exchange can take place without diminishing one’s spirit, that conflicts can be transformed constructively, and also, that this is not necessarily simple. 

Also read: Digital Learning: Covid Underlines Privilege Divide And Inadequate Teacher Training

In a socially diverse classroom, there can be no easy opposition between static ideas of contextual safe and unsafe spaces – instead the relational work of cultivating them and creating sites for negotiating differences, and challenging oppression is an ongoing, reflective and dynamic effort. 

References

Gilligan, C. (1993). In a different voice: Psychological theory and women’s development. Harvard University Press. 

Hankivsky, O. (2014). Rethinking Care Ethics: On the Promise and Potential of an Intersectional Analysis. American Political Science Review, 108(2), 252–264. https://doi.org/10.1017/S0003055414000094 

hooks, bell. (2000). All about love: New visions (1st ed). William Morrow. 

hooks, bell. (2010). Teaching critical thinking: Practical wisdom. Routledge. hooks, bell. (2003). Teaching Community: A Pedagogy of Hope. Routledge. Magnet, Mason, & Trevenen. (2014). Feminism, Pedagogy, and the Politics of Kindness. Feminist Teacher, 25(1), 1. https://doi.org/10.5406/femteacher.25.1.0001

Nambissan, G. B. (2009). Exclusion and Discrimination in Schools – Experiences of Dalit Children.pdf. Indian Institute of Dalit Studies. https://in.one.un.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/09/wps0101.pdf 

Noddings, N. (2012). The caring relation in teaching. Oxford Review of Education, 38(6), 771–781. https://doi.org/10.1080/03054985.2012.745047 Owens, L. M., & Ennis, C. D. (2005). The Ethic of Care in Teaching: An Overview of Supportive Literature. Quest, 57(4), 392–425. https://doi.org/10.1080/00336297.2005.10491864


Ragini Lalit is an educator and is currently working as a researcher with the Interest Group on Compassion, Dialogue and Justice at Azim Premji University, Bangalore. Her interests lie in the fields of emancipatory and critical education, children’s literature and music. She lives in Himachal and can be found singing with and in return being shouted at by children of various ages. 

Featured image source: utoronto.ca

1 COMMENT

  1. Very well articulated article, Ragini. I learnt things that in my 2 years on this planet I did not even think about. Thank you for this.

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