Making Schools Safer

This is the second essay in a three-part series on approaches and strategies in making schools safer through the varied applications of narrative practices in the school setting. You can read the first essay here and the third essay here.

Now more than ever — given the collective experience of the pandemic as well as its different manifestations in our individual lives —  we are called upon to make spaces safer with care. I was introduced to the idea of safe schools through the world of trauma-sensitive schools, which I stumbled upon accidentally while looking for non-blaming, anti-bullying resources when I started working as a school counsellor. It instantly resonated with me.

I prefer to use ‘safer’, because no place is absolutely safe till the world we live in is socially just, without oppression and marginalisation of any kind, and with the celebration of all ways of being. We simply try every day to make it safer for everyone in the school. Sometimes we fail and then we try again.

For this article, I turned to the wisdom and experiences of people I am accountable to, people who I am in solidarity with, and those who are in solidarity with me, to think with me about making schools safer. So this is really a collective document of the wisdom of children, young people, educators, parents and counsellors who have generously shared their experiences with me for the purpose of this article.

What might safer spaces mean?

In my previous article, I wrote about children being experts of their own lives and how we could honour that as school counsellors by resisting dominant single narratives about young people, by excavating and rescuing multiple and alternate stories instead. To put it simply, to me, making spaces safer means extrapolating this to the level of the school as a unit and extending it to all members of the school community.

Often it feels like this cannot be done in a group, that it is easier done individually. This might be true; it might be harder in groups — because the dominant stories may be more powerful in groups. Dominant stories are stories influenced by systems such as patriarchy, ableism, toxic masculinity, capitalism, cis-heteronormativity (to name a few) that subjugate and marginalise diverse ways of being.

Our lives are multi-storied. There are stories influenced by dominant discourses but there are always alternate stories of resistance against these dominant discourses.

Deconstructing dominant stories with other people and rescuing alternate stories of resistance make the alternate stories stronger, make it more possible to hold on to many stories about our lives. Alternate stories need witnesses and audiences. When they come together, they make spaces that resist single and dominant stories. Thus, spaces can be transformed. Every member of the school community plays an active part in this ongoing process of transformation.

If the idea of safer spaces is defined by one person or a group of persons exclusively, it might replicate the power dynamics that already exist in the system. Safer spaces are created in conversation with everyone involved.

Shahid, a Social Emotional Learning  (SEL) educator from Apnishala who works with Bombay Municipal Corporation (BMC) schools says, “When we talk about safety, the idea of being able to provide that… there is some power in it. I want it to be collaborative. It should be a collective belief in the system that we want it to be safer.”

When it happens collaboratively — when we all come together and tell, receive and witness alternate stories, ours and those of others, we can begin to create these safer spaces.

Echoing Shahid’s thought of collaboratively creating these spaces, Alejandra, a teacher from Nepal says, “From the support staff to the teachers, coordinators and students, a safer school will acknowledge diversity and take those aspects to listen, negotiate and communicate among the members.

Making spaces safer does not mean we do not have conversations about marginalisation, oppression and violence, it does not mean that there is no pain or discomfort. Something Padraig O’Tuama, poet, theologian and conflict mediator wrote comes to mind to illustrate what the idea of safer spaces means, “These are the kind of things we need for the tired spaces of our world. This is the way we need to move forward in a world that is so interested in being comforted by the damp blanket of bad stories. We need stories of belonging that move us towards each other, not from each other; ways of being human that open up the possibilities of being alive together; ways of navigating our differences that deepen our curiosity, that deepen our friendship, that deepen our capacity to disagree, that deepen the argument of being alive. This is what we need. This is what will save us. This is the work of peace. This is the work of imagination.”

Safe spaces are not spaces where differences do not exist or are not acknowledged, they are spaces where differences and disagreements are held in ways that allow conversations about them. It is possible to say, ‘What you said hurt me,’ and then have a conversation about where those responses to harm are coming from, and find ways to heal together.

Why safer spaces?

We live in a complex society that often harms us, sometimes in ways that are invisibilised, and makes our homes and environments unsafe for us to be in as ourselves, to imagine and thrive in all our possibilities, to find belonging. A school seems like a unit where, with consistent effort, commitment and rigour, it is possible to reimagine what safety and belonging could feel like.

Violence is systemic; acknowledging that and working with the intention to prevent it are essential to building a peaceful society. Schools seem like a good place to start. Nora Samaran starts her book ‘Turn the World Inside Out — The Emergence of Nurturance Culture’ with a chapter on ‘The Free School’.

She says, “If we become collectively willing to grow until we recognize even the most hidden kinds of ongoing systemic harms, and become able to support one another even as we challenge each other and struggle together, we will have found one part of the path to a healthy community that can handle these kinds of harms, both internal and external, without continual fracturing.”

In creating safer spaces it is important to acknowledge that it is the discourses around us that bring violence and oppression — that people are not the problem, that the problem lies in the systems that convince us that there is only one way of being.

Supporting one another even as we challenge each other and struggle together, seems like what we need to learn to do. To believe that these things are mutually exclusive or cannot co-exist minimizes the possibilities of our relationships with one another — ‘human connection,’ as Radha*, a parent and teacher from Nepal, calls it. When asked why creating safer spaces in schools is important, Radha said, “Schools teach us how to be human beings and how to define what kind of human being you want to be. And human connection is key to that.”

Shree, a student, shares the many possibilities for learning and growing that emerge from safer spaces that do not operate on instilling fear, “It gives students the chance to learn with unburdened, liberal and free minds. The absence of fear makes it easier for the students to ask questions and allows them to be themselves and helps them grow mentally, emotionally and physically.”

When we think of safer spaces in schools, it is often only students who come to our minds. But it is not possible to create safer spaces for students if teachers are not feeling safe in schools.

Shamin, a mental health therapist who works with schools on inclusion, speaks about this, “Teachers are different too, in terms of teaching styles, in terms of the way they engage differently in the classroom. Teachers need to be accepted for their own styles, leadership qualities, abilities to engage their own strengths, their own challenges.”

School as a safer space would make possible a space where both teachers and students can support one another while challenging each other and struggle together towards becoming better versions of themselves; a space where we can speak about hurt, violence and oppression with honesty and vulnerability, bringing in accountability and holding each other in respect.

Some intentions to hold close as we invite safety into our schools

Shamin and Shahid both spoke about keeping shame and blame away, about creating openness, honesty and vulnerability for all kinds of conversations, thus making difficult conversations more possible. Shahid eloquently said, “To create a safe space for yourself or others or for children…  you have to believe that alternate stories are always available. Once you believe in that, you always look for that.

In creating safer spaces it is important to acknowledge that it is the discourses around us that bring violence and oppression — that people are not the problem, that the problem lies in the systems that convince us that there is only one way of being — and simultaneously holding ourselves accountable. While talking about oppression and violence, a friend who is a teacher of narrative practices once said, “We are responsible if we reproduce those stories.”

In a conversation some time ago with Daniela, who is now 13, we spoke about kindness in the classroom. It seemed so simple to her. She said, “Teachers should be kind, should explain in a kind voice, should ask students what the problem is and try to see the problem in the student’s way.” And when I asked her what this kindness would make possible for the students, she said, “They’ll actually want to go to school, they’ll trust the teacher more, they’ll feel safe.

As we endeavour to create safer spaces in schools, let us hold close this belief that Shamin mentioned, “People are so much more than the sum of their challenges… than the sum total of their assessments and their limitations. If we all start engaging with that thought a little bit more, in the school of course, but also in the world, it will become a much more safer place to be in.

Transformation is possible in creating spaces where we can firmly believe in the existence of alternate stories about our lives, in our resistance to dominant stories, in new possibilities for one another, for ourselves, for the spaces we inhabit, and for the world.

*Names of some people quoted have been changed. 

Prathama Raghavan is a developmental psychologist with a PhD from Université Paul-Valéry, Montpellier, France. She currently works as a school counsellor, Mental Health and Disability Support worker in Kathmandu, Nepal. Her work is informed by feminism, disability justice, neurodiversity, narrative approaches and poetry. She has recently become interested in working towards building ‘imperfect solidarities’ through group conversations in a far from perfect world.

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