Why Educators Must Build a Safe Environment for Our Students

June 12, 2017

On September 11 of my senior year in high school, I was in my ceramics class working on a project when I heard that an airplane crashed into one of the twin towers in New York. When the class ended, I rushed over to Mr. Hunt’s classroom, where we usually met for our student government class. It was the one place I felt safe. There, my classmates and I watched the twin towers collapse, and we stared in terror and disbelief at the devastation and destruction.

We had yet to graduate from high school, and we were deciding what to do with our lives after we would graduate. It was a time of uncertainty. As a Muslim American, I was as heartbroken and scared as any other person. This was an attack on our country. After 9/11, our Muslim community faced new challenges. I was scared for my family, my community, and my future in ways that I never was before. It was terrifying for me to see my father’s business impacted negatively and to hear stories about people getting hurt because of their ethnicity. My parents insisted that I keep a low profile. Mosques in our community were vandalized with hate messages. South Asians in our community were being attacked. That year, I was bullied by classmates who made fun of me when they saw me fasting and praying. I saw messages of hate all over the news, and it made me feel unwelcome.

But at school, my teachers created an environment in which I felt supported and cared for. I felt safe. Several of my teachers spent time talking about our feelings and thoughts. They emphasized core messages to us: We must respect each other, despite differences in opinions; you are important to me; and I am here for you. My counselor kept his door open for me all the time. My friends, who represented eight different cultures, became closer, and we listened to each other’s fears. These teachers and friends became my support system. Mr. Hunt listened to me, and we talked about our feelings at school, at lunch, and in classes. And through our conversations and my experiences that year, I realized that I wanted to be a teacher so that I could impact students through my actions. In our community, we held interfaith events and created relationships to break through perceptions. School became my stable environment that I knew I could count on, and it made me a stronger person.

Today, our students face more challenges than I did growing up. It’s hard to hear hateful messages spewed by different public figures. Students fear losing their families because their parents or other loved ones might be deported. Students face more bullying and harassment because of what and whom they represent.  Their stability at home is threatened.

Part of accomplished teaching is that teachers must be aware of the social and emotional needs of our students. I refer to the first step of the Architecture of Accomplished Teaching: Who are our students? What are the needs of our students at this time? This step also reflects Core Proposition #1: Teachers are committed to students AND their learning. If we want our students to be successful or meet a lesson’s objective, we must first focus on the student as a whole. We must create a safe environment for students.

How do we build a safe environment for students? We can’t do it alone. Open your classroom door. Talk about your and your students’ concerns with other teachers in your building. Work together with your association. Cue into your students’ needs. We must provide tools for students to listen to each other. Listen actively to your students. Build relationships with the community. Talk to the students’ families. Visit their homes and learn more about their culture. Teaching Tolerance has a repertoire of classroom resources that helps students appreciate diversity among their peers and deconstruct stereotypes. When you aren’t sure what to say, just listen. Ultimately, our students need their teachers, because, for most of them, you are their stability.

Lastly, my teachers told me this: “Ambereen, you belong here. You are an American, and this is your community. This is your home, and we love you.” That message alone still resonates with me, and it instills a strength that I convey to my own students.

Continue this conversation on Twitter: How are you building a safe environment for your students?  What messages are you telling them?  Tweet your responses to @ambereenkb and @NBPTS

Ambereen Khan-Baker, NBCT

Ambereen Khan-Baker is a National Board Certified Teacher in AYA/ELA and has a Bachelors Degree in Secondary Education and Literature from American University and a Masters Degree in Writing from Johns Hopkins University. With ten years in the classroom, Ambereen currently teaches AP Language and Composition and yearbook at Rockville High School in Montgomery County, MD. She is a Coach Coordinator and Candidate Support Provider for National Board candidates in Montgomery County. Ambereen is also an Ambassador for the Montgomery Institute, a partnership between NEA and Montgomery County Education Association, where she works with teacher leaders across the country on collaborative problem solving to improve the quality of teaching and learning. Last October, Ambereen spoke at the White House at the Worker’s Voice Summit and shared her classroom and leadership experiences. Follow Ambereen on Twitter @ambereenkb.