(Re)Creating Safe Learning Environments – #SLE2017


On November 9, 2016, the day after the election, I remember thinking, “I’m so glad I don’t have to be in front of a classroom today.” I couldn’t imagine having to muster the courage to engage my students in a conversation around the outcome of the most contentious election of my lifetime. In my career as an educator, I’ve taught at incredibly diverse schools. This means that I’ve had students with incredibly diverse opinions, perspectives, and backgrounds. How would I balance giving voice to all of those opinions while fostering a safe and civil environment when our most prominent politicians set such a poor example on how to be civil?

It was with this perspective that I held so much empathy and admiration for all of the amazing teachers and school leaders who found themselves in that position on November 9th (and once again on January 20th). I heard so many stories of educators who used the election and its outcome as a learning opportunity for students. For example Dr. Carmen Garcia, principal of San Diego High School, has shown herself to be a true leader in maintaining a safe learning environment at her school. Before the election, she engaged students in an open-mic conversation where she listened first, and then encouraged students to find alternative ways to express their viewpoints, rather than walk out. When they ultimately decided to walk out, however, she walked alongside them to ensure their safety. This is just one example of many.

Unfortunately, I also heard from many other educators who were afraid to engage students in conversations around the election. They either felt ill-equipped to facilitate such discussions or were themselves so deeply passionate about the election that they didn’t know how to do so from a neutral place. So when our Institute discussed ways in which we could go to bat for our teachers, I excitedly joined in the urgency of planning a symposium that would bring together students, educators, leaders, and community experts from all around San Diego to engage in this topic.

On January 5, 2017, our Institute hosted more than 130 folks, who work directly with students, for our symposium titled: (Re)Creating Safe Learning Environments and Fostering Civil Dialogue on San Diego’s K-12 Campuses (long title, I know). You can hear more about the prolific panels and participants from the San Diego Union-Tribune’s recap and also by searching #SLE2017 on Twitter to see posts from attendees. Albeit to say, it was a powerful experience hearing directly from so many incredible folks doing this work and connecting with brave educators looking to engage in this conversation on their campuses.

The highlight of the day was hearing from a panel consisting of seven student leaders from San Diego Unified School District. Tears were in the eyes of many as the students viscerally recounted incidents of intimidation and hate speech. Tears were also in our eyes as we saw our students process these moments in empowering ways, finding courage as they received a standing ovation from the packed audience.

The symposium was a huge success. What quickly became apparent is the need and desire from attendees to continue this conversation. Educators want help learning how to talk about contentious subjects and a place to convene to share ideas with their peers. Here is a list of resources we have put together as an easy place to start (and please email me if you have ideas/resources for us to add – mtlc@sandiego.edu)

I’ve been reflecting a lot since our symposium, in particular, to ponder the best collaborative ways to move forward. But that student panel has stayed at the forefront of my mind. My heart is with our students who are looking to us to empower their voices, to create safe environments to be themselves and to make sure they know they are loved even in the midst of vitriolic rhetoric from our nation’s top leaders who craft a world that is black and white. I’m hoping you’ll join us in this work, and I encourage you to lift up the voices of our students – they are the reason we do the work that we do. This is urgent. Let’s not let this opportunity pass.

Andrew Simmerman
Communication & Project Development Specialist, IEE
Follow me on Twitter: @maestrosim



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