Acknowledgement and Affirmation
You’re right – emotional, social, intellectual, and of course physical safety are all integral to learning. Much of my work in the past few years has been going in to a middle or high school for a one-off or short-term ‘education intervention’, for want of a better word. In my work at 3FF (formerly Three Faiths Forum, an organisation running well-respected interfaith education programs in the UK), I would run skills- and encounter-based interfaith education workshops, and would always be very intentional and deliberate about consciously setting a safe space for that workshop. Sometimes we talked about this as making explicit the implicit norms and behaviours which (we hope) the classroom functions around every day. We wanted to give students, and teachers, an opportunity to reflect on what inhibits or encourages a safe and respectful learning environment. Sometimes it was clear that this language and framework of safety was very familiar to them; other times it was painfully obvious that this was an unusual conversation to be having.
In these workshops, we tried to sensitively explore different cultures, beliefs, and traditions, through giving students the skills and tools to empathise and question, as well as an opportunity to engage directly with these traditions through interfaith panel presentations and Q&A sessions. Sometimes, the simple act of intentionally setting the tone and framework for a workshop led to fruitful and spirited discussion about how to bring those principles into the rest of the school.
What conditions do you think are necessary for this safety to exist and become part of the fabric of the school day and classroom culture?
As Faith and Values Consultant to the Nishkam School Trust in Birmingham, UK, I thought a lot about how to integrate positive and life-giving values, principles, and practices into the everyday reality of the school, a Sikh-ethos interfaith high school in a low-income neighbourhood. The work of the school trust is built around 25 spiritual and moral dispositions. From the flow of the daily school timetable, to how morning registration is structured, to behaviour management, we tried to build everything around these dispositions. As an example, we thought carefully about how to try to establish ways of marking, celebrating, and acknowledging achievements of all types, including in terms of each student’s understanding and practice of their own heritage, culture, tradition, and beliefs. We wanted to expand the definition of achievement. We wanted to include an affirmation of each student on their end-of-year report card, to identify a particular disposition that they had expressed or practiced that year. So a student may read that their kindness and care towards their classmates had not gone unnoticed, or that their patience in a frustrating situation had positively impacted their peers.
Acknowledgement and affirmation of positive values, practices, and behaviours is one part of building a strong and supportive school culture. What do you think are some other elements?