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Creating Safe Spaces

Posted by on in Social Emotional Learning
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I recently wrote a piece, Breaking the Silence, that detailed some of the tough conversations that I had with my students surrounding race and how the color of our skin impacts how others view us. The response to my piece has been overwhelming and I have received a lot of support from people all over the world of education. A lot of people have told me that I am courageous and brave, but I'm not buying it.

The ability to have these kind of discussions revolves around strong relationships, a culture of caring, and creating a safe space. As educators, we all have our own way of doing this, but I want to share my approach as it has allowed me to dig deep with my students and get real.

The biggest influence for me in creating a safe space lies with the norms of a program called Challenge Day. I have had the privilege of participating in multiple Challenge Day events in a previous school and I have carried their tenants with me everywhere I have been.

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These norms have helped me create a safe place for all in my classroom!

At first glance, these may seem self-explanatory, but they need some elaboration when discussing with students. It is important to leave things open-ended so that students feel comfortable adding their thoughts and asking questions. Here is how I lead these conversations.

Be inclusive: To understand what being included means, we must reflect on what being excluded means . I start by sharing times when I have felt excluded and invite students to do the same. If they are not willing to share personal experiences, it is up to the teacher to create and describe scenarios of exclusion. We talk about how being included and excluded feels. It is essential for students to grasp that the need for inclusion is a basic human need.

No put-downs or teasing: I love to joke with my students and I know that my students love to joke with each other. When we can play around in a joking way, it shows strong relationships and a familial feeling. The line between joking and playing with teasing is thin and I explain the difference between the two. I tell students that as soon as someone says enough, it is over. These distinctions are essential for everyone.

Compliments & love encouraged: I start by telling my kids that I love them. This is always greeted with some funny looks. I elaborate by explaining that I spend more time with them than I do my own children (especially with 2 hours of daily commuting time) and that this is a choice that I make. We talk about how we spend a lot of time together and that we are a family. I invite students to share what family means to them and we discuss their thoughts. The goal is to invite students to raise each other up, to support when needed, and to love each other. It may sound far-fetched, but trust me, students want to love and be loved, just like everyone else.

Listen with your ears & heart: Most of us listen, but normally, we are just thinking about what we are going to say in response. More often than not, we are interrupting before speakers can even complete their thoughts. In order to listen with our heart, we must shut our minds down and open our hearts. As speakers, we need to say what we mean and mean what we say. Communication is key and we must teach our students how to communicate effectively.

Be open-minded: I explain to my kids that there are things that we don't know and that is okay! We have to remember that our students have limited life experiences because they haven't been on this planet that long. This requires us to explain to them that different is not bad and that different is just new to us. I stress this open-mindedness extensively as I explain to them that we cannot accomplish great things without leaving our comfort zone and taking risks. I share personal examples with them during my life and encourage them to share their own.

Drop the waterline & get real: About 88% of icebergs are below water and humans are no different. I explain to my students that it is easy for us to hide who we really are and only show what we think people want to see. There are many reasons why we do not want to show the real us and that only we know what those reasons are. Again, I share personal experiences with them and this typically gets people to share. We talk about support and unconditional love and how that increases comfort and encourages realness. I promise to my students that I will always love and support them, no matter what the circumstances are.

Be the change you wish to see in the world: Almost everyone is familiar with this quote, but most students struggle to see how they can change the world. I explain to them that their world is their reality and that sometimes it is hard to see past their immediate reality. It is important to stress that they have the power to positively impact their worlds, if they work to fix the issues. Our students need to know that one person can have a huge impact on this world. I finish by promising to support those working to create positivity in this world however I can.

This approach has worked incredibly well for me as a teacher and a principal. When students trust you and know that you are in their corner, good things happen. With everything that we have going on in our country right now, this is now more necessary than ever.

Of course, this is not the only approach that one can use to create safe spaces for kids. There are countless ways that teachers have accomplished this for years. I would love to hear about your thoughts on my approach and how you guarantee that your classroom is safe for all students!

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Born and raised in Cumberland County, New Jersey, Sean has grown his career and family from his native district. Sean again resides in the same county with his wife and their two young sons. Sean currently serves as an administrator at a school in Camden, NJ, where he focuses on the growth & development of teachers and building social & emotional skills with students. A Rutgers University graduate, Sean studied Communications. He later completed a graduate degree at the University of Scranton in Educational Administration and has spent almost a decade working in education.


As a result of connecting with people of all ages, ethnicities, cultures, and beliefs, Sean has learned how to listen and represent the interests of everyone. In order to help unite parents and educators, Sean is adept at innovating to solve problems.


Sean is an unwavering advocate for positive youth development and education. Growing up, Sean faced challenges financially and emotionally. The product of an unstable household and battling a significant learning disability, Sean has overcome many obstacles. School became both a place of refuge and a source of trouble for Sean. If not for certain extraordinary teachers and school faculty encouraging him, Sean would not have pursued higher education and would not have been able to impact his students the way he does today.


Throughout his career as an educator in New Jersey, Sean has based every decision solely on what is best for his students’ future. He has worked to create new, effective programs as well as supports for students and parents addressing social issues. Sean has demonstrated his student-first approach by never being afraid to privately and publicly question decisions that impact teachers, students, and the educational process. As a result, he has been able to create strong, lasting relationships across our state with the students, families, and communities that he has served.

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Guest Friday, 15 December 2017