On Supportive Environments, an Alternative to Safe Spaces

by Jason Tougaw

Recently, I had an experience teaching–on Zoom–that troubled me. I don’t think I did a good job facilitating the dynamic of the group. Students made it clear that they didn’t all experience the class as a safe space. Safety is not my primary goal for my students. I want them to take risks, and doing so doesn’t always feel safe. Nonetheless, I certainly don’t aim to foster environments that make them feel frustrated, afraid, or angry. Still, it happens, and that’s probably inevitable. Conflict is important, because it can lead to discussion, action, and resolution. There’s no guarantee that it will, but it create the possibility.

I understand the impulse to advocate for a safe space. It’s an idea with a long history. That history has involved a lot of debate and evolution, with roots in feminism and social justice movements. Let me tell you what I believe in, as a teacher: Building supportive environments and structures that embolden people to try new things, take risks, and surprise themselves (and each other). Related to this, I believe in creating opportunity. It’s not that I advocate against safe spaces; it’s that I believe in a variation that I think is more realistic and more difficult to create.

I study somatics–which is a body-focused form of therapy for trauma and other things. Somatics practitioners work with a lot of community organizers and social justice advocates–people who regularly navigate complicated situations,  working with people who think and communicate in all different kinds of ways and registers. In the somatics I study, there’s a tenet that the idea of a safe space can create a false sense of homogeneity and hinder dynamic relationships and doesn’t tend to account for these differences. There’s a place for homogenous environments designed on a safe space model, though I don’t think that’s what a classroom is.

I believe safety is dynamic and emerges through relationships with people. It has to be established and re-established, in concrete ways. The idea of a safe space can have a tendency to keep things static and protected. I do believe relationships and resilience are crucial for writers. It’s not possible to manifest these by by simply adopting a code. That said, a supportive environment is meaningful and motivational. It can be powerful–and it can be fun.

I hope I’m a teacher who evolves continuously. I’m sure I’ll evolve in ways I can’t predict by working with you all. I want to share a couple of my beliefs about teaching. One, I think it’s crucial that I trust my students, unless something happens to make me reconsider. I aim to create environments where students can trust each other. I’m hoping my revisions to this statement is part of that. Even more than that, in my courses, I aim to create environments in which we dedicate ourselves to the work of developing collective trust, security, support, and encouragement.

Do I always succeed? No. It’s not possible to get it right every time. Every group of people is different, every class dynamic new. Do I regret it when a group I’m facilitating doesn’t develop collective trust? I do. Do I blame myself? I do. I’m human. In the end, though, I believe taking risks is more valuable in a classroom than playing it safe. I believe it’s worth living with the consequences when I don’t manage to manifest the dynamic I’m aiming for. Groups of humans, after all, are unpredictable. More often than not, my students and I do manage to establish and maintain a dynamic through which support and safety outweigh discomfort and mistrust.

Semesters have finite boundaries. They last fourteen or fifteen weeks. Inside the classroom, relationships unfold according to an academic calendar. Outside the classroom, the timelines of relationships are less bounded. You never know how a positive or negative experience in a classroom might resonate a month or a year or a decade after a semester’s end. Sometimes, as a teacher, you find out, when a student gets in touch or takes another course with you. Those moments demonstrate the fact that pedagogical relationships are more dynamic–and therefore less controlled, less contend–than an academic calendar, with its terminal due dates, tends to suggest.

Safety and risk are both dynamic. They both require negotiation. They need not be understood as each other’s opposites. They do both require support.

 

 

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