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Advice from a Student: Making Everyone Feel Safe and Acknowledged in the Classroom

By Cultures Of Dignity | July 13, 2020

About the Author: I’m Sara Davis, an incoming senior in high school from Colorado. I’m an intern with Cultures of Dignity. In this blog series, I am using the tools I learned, along with my own experiences to show how dignity creates a healthy classroom culture.

Advice from a Student: Making Everyone Feel Safe and Acknowledged in the Classroom

By Sara Davis


Young people have diverse needs, but we’re often told that they are secondary to the wishes of people in positions of respect, or that those people know what is good for us. This post outlines, from the student perspective, why safety and acknowledgement are necessary in the classroom. 

Many educators begin the school year by saying things like “I’m always here for you, let me know what I can do”, or old adages like “What happens here stays here” and “My door is always open”. Most teachers recognize how much time students dedicate to school, and want us to feel successful and safe in the classroom. But  saying these things don’t make students feel safe, or at ease right away. It’s important to go further, because safety comes from the norms set in the classroom and your actions. So be mindful of the small things that may make a student feel unsafe. 

I had a teacher who never gave extra time for tests because she gave the entire period for a 15-20 question test. In their mind this was fair, because everyone had the same amount of time to take the test. But this didn’t work for my friend with dyslexia, who had to go back through the test two or three times to make sure she was solving for the correct angle, since the angles were labeled with letters and she often mixed them up. My friend took all honors classes, so she was never comfortable asking for help or extra time for fear no one believed her. My friend didn’t feel safe enough to advocate for her needs, and was under the impression that those needs wouldn’t be acknowledged anyway. Our school system also can’t help students like my friend, who don’t have an IEP because of late diagnosis, or parents who don’t want their children to experience bias due to a label. Her story isn’t uncommon, plenty of students I know have similar experiences. No teacher gets up in the morning intending to exclude students like my friend. If educators use the Elements of Dignity as the foundation of their classroom, everyone becomes more aware of what they can do to 

In addition to increased awareness, the Elements of Dignity help you structure better class conversations because they put the needs of others first. We are going to focus on safety and acknowledgement first.  

1. Element of Dignity: Safety

Put people at ease at two levels: physically, so they feel safe from bodily harm, and psychologically, so they feel safe from being humiliated. Help them feel free to speak without fear of retribution. 

2. Element of Dignity: Acknowledgement

 Give people your full attention by listening, hearing, validating, and responding to their concerns, feelings, and experiences. 

Let the young people in the room set the expectations. What makes me feel acknowledged and safe is very different than what others may need. As an adult it’s important to make sure the environment works for everyone- not just the people who look and think like you do. Having a proactive plan in a classroom means everyone can set their boundaries and feel like they are being treated with dignity. Every set of norms can be different, but here are my recommendations that have helped me and my peers feel safe and acknowledged:

Involve students, they are partners in their education.

Go directly to the students and ask: What do you want to learn, and talk about? Why? What are your goals surrounding the class, or the conversation? Are you worried or nervous about the class? Why?

Don’t “cold call”.

When educators ask questions to  students they think may not be paying attention, or haven’t been sufficiently participating, it makes all the students feel like the teacher wants to catch students being “bad” and embarrass them. No one feels safe when there is a constant possibility of humiliation. This teaching strategy can also place an unfair burden on students from marginalized groups, who may find themselves in a position of speaking for a whole group. 

Discuss barriers to participation.

Ask students to come up with a list of reasons why they may not participate, and brainstorm ways you can help them overcome those barriers. This can be questions about if they prefer to work alone or in groups, as well as if they like to write their thoughts down instead of discussing them out loud. You can collect this information privately in a google form, or discussion board.

Discuss “rules” and what to do if a discussion or activity gets out of hand.

Can students doodle? Be on technology? Leave the room if they are uncomfortable? Where would they go if they leave that is in accordance with the school’s rules AND makes the student feel respected? What does “out of hand” mean for your students? What happens when the “rules” are broken?

Be open to feedback.

Create a system for students to anonymously tell you if someone said or did something to make them feel unsafe, or that they weren’t acknowledged and valued; including anyone teaching them. Include an ask for how they would like it handled. I know personally that I trust the teachers that can apologize, it makes me and my peers feel that our concerns are acknowledged. This system can be on paper, or an anonymous google form/discussion board.

Model what you expect of your students. For better and worse, students talk to each other about their personal experiences with a certain teacher, administrator, etc. The tips I gave encourage students to be vulnerable about their experiences with you. So be vulnerable with them. Talk about yourself and your experiences, and learn from the discussions you have in your classroom. Everyone is a part of the classroom, and so everyone must work together to create the culture that best works for them.

This is part of the Navigating Politics with Dignity in the New Decade series.

Read Megan Saxelby’s blog on Safety and Acknowledgment for the educator’s perspective:

How to Have Necessary, Hard Conversations Using the Framework of Dignity

Join the Navigating Politics with Dignity in the New Decade mailing list to receive the rest of the series on the dignity framework directly to your inbox.


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