Creating a Safe Learning Environment

Create a safe and positive learning environment in your classroom every day.

General Best Practices
  • Address students by name. Make sure you're pronouncing names correctly.
  • Ask for each student's thoughts about the subject. Acknowledge student contributions. When students know their thoughts have a place in the classroom and that differences will be treated with respect, their participation will increase dramatically.
  • Present all sides of an issue. Entertain all views as worthy of consideration. Don't permit scapegoating of a certain. Team up with a student who seems alone in an opinion. Play the devil's advocate for a less-popular view. Consider asking students to research a viewpoint they're least comfortable with, and advocate for it.
  • Acknowledge racial and cultural differences in the room. Ask students to discuss racial tensions or cultural outlooks when they come up in class or in the materials. Explicitly identify classroom norms of respect.
  • Confront bigoted jokes or slurs wherever you encounter them. Don't use or tolerate the use of language that discriminates against any person. Serve as a role model by intervening in conversations that contain such language.
  • Set expectations high. Challenge students by setting ambitious goals, while also providing the resources and support they need to successfully meet those expectations.
  • If you use fictitious names or examples in discussions or on exams, use gender- and culturally-neutral names when possible. Otherwise, use names from a variety of cultures, both male and female.
  • Use eye contact with all students; be open and friendly outside of class. Be aware of the common tendency to look more at people with whom you identify. For example, some women report that their instructors give them noticeably less eye contact compared to their male classmates.
English as a Second Language

If you are a native English speaker, recognize that some international students and ESL students struggle to make themselves understood in English, perhaps because of a pronounced accent or the occasional inability to find the right word when under pressure. Patiently listen to students. Rephrasing a question or response may help, but don't pressure your students when they're speaking. Imagine yourself placed in their situation, trying to understand and be understood in a foreign language. Be on guard for other students to speak rapidly and use colloquialisms. Be prepared to intervene on behalf of those who may not understand and ask for clarification. You can also watch for students who appear to be struggling to understand and approach them outside class in a sensitive and personable way.

If you're an international TA, recognize that some native English speakers struggle to understand English spoken with foreign accents. Even if you speak English fluently and have an extensive vocabulary, your students may not understand what you are saying. Your students want you to succeed and most students will be very understanding of your honest effort. Be aware that some students will not want to offend you by asking you to repeat yourself or blame themselves for their lack of comprehension, while others will be much more demanding. Make the environment such that it's okay to express confusion respectfully.

In some countries, education is more authoritarian or public dissent and debate may be discouraged. International students coming from these educational or social backgrounds may be extremely hesitant about questioning the instructor, asking for clarification, or even answering questions posed by the instructor. Being "open to questions" may not be enough; actively encourage your students to express their viewpoints or needs. Likewise, if you are an international TA from this type of background, it's important to adapt to the more open and familiar American classroom. Don't take personal offense to students asking questions or speaking out in class; that's just what they're used to.

When introducing new terms and concepts, always present new terminology in a written form (on the whiteboard or in a slide, for example). For example, the words mess, moss, moose, and mouse have very different meanings, but without context are easily confused in spoken English. Explain concepts as graphically and concretely as possible.

Use culturally-neutral explanations, or explanations from several different cultures. Not everyone will understand allusions to Star Trek in your attempt to explain a difficult concept. It's similarly risky to use colloquialisms or irony when it's important that students understand exactly. Don't single out international students if you need to explain or clarify something, but rather address all of your students.

Provide help—or refer students for help—with drafts of written assignments. Nearly all students will benefit from opportunities to submit drafts of essays for preliminary comments and advice. The UNL Writing Center provides services to all UNL students and faculty.

See also the International Student and Scholar Office (ISSO) or the English as a Second Language (ESL) department.
Female Students

One might suppose that female instructors are more inclusive of female students, but this is not always the case. Anyone can marginalize the classroom contributions of women students. Something as subtle as changing tone of voice or using different mannerism with female students can dissuade women from achieving their academic potential.

Women students are more frequently interrupted when speaking, and instructors make less eye contact with female students. The implication for a woman is that her contributions are less important then those of the male students.

Female students and instructors are more often judged according to appearance rather than perceived ability, and women's successes, rather than being attributed to intelligence or hard work, are ascribed to special treatment or luck. Discounting the academic successes of women inhibits them from striving to do their best. Judge students on their academic merits, and accord similar praise to all academic accomplishments.

Certain academic projects, issues or disciplines are sometimes portrayed as especially appropriate (or inappropriate) for women. Promulgating such attitudes can deter women from entering certain fields of study or research projects. Your job is to facilitate and enrich students' education, not to constrain it.

To the extent possible, use gender-neutral language. For example, "If doctors find a broken bone, they will…" or, "If a doctor finds a broken bone he or she will…" It's also appropriate to alternate the use of "she" and "he."

Show no tolerance for sexual harassment. Women are often the targets of sexist jokes or other forms of sexual harassment in and outside of the classroom. If a joke or statement may offend someone, don't repeat it. Don't tolerate others talking this way.

Contact the Women's Center

   Students at UNL come from various ethnic, religious, linguistic and economic backgrounds. UNL prides itself on its support of lifestyle choices, a high proportion of female students, growing numbers of international students, and continually improving accessibility to students of different abilities.

   As a teacher, you have a moral obligation to create a safe learning environment in which students can grow and learn. To do your job well, you must be sensitive to the varied backgrounds and needs of these students.

Students with Disabilities

Students with physical or learning disabilities are intelligent and capable people. The best resource of information on assisting a student with special needs, or support for such students is the Services for Students with Disabilities (SSD) office.

Students with learning disabilities vary widely in the type of accommodation they require. Specialized testing and recommendations are available through the SSD office.

Students with vision or hearing impairments may require note takers, copies of overheads and class notes, and special testing situations. Notify your supervisor and ask for advice from the SSD Office. Students who require note takers may solicit your help early in the term to find a volunteer. These volunteers will be trained and paid by Services for Students with Disabilities.

Because UNL campus buildings are highly accessible, students using mobility assistance usually won't need special arrangements—though you may want to leave a little extra time for them to arrive (especially in the winter months). Lab stations may require some modification in order to accommodate wheelchairs. In the case of emergencies, you must ensure the safety of their students. Some students with disabilities may require special assistance evacuating a building in case of emergency or an emergency drill.

Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender (GLBT) Students

Make no presumptions about the sexual orientation of your students. GLBT students and coworkers can be of any race, national origin, or social class.

A person's sexual orientation is a major component of one's life. However, many GLBT people have not had their sexual identity validated by those around them. Therefore these students may be facing extra social pressure, such as the apprehension of coming out (or being outed), along with concerns about how they'll be treated by instructor and peers, and the loss of friends and emotional support. Using general language such as "spouse" or "partner" instead of "husband/wife" can help reduce some emotional barriers to learning by GLBT students.

If applicable, include examples of the contributions that GLBT people have made to your academic discipline or to society in general. Ignoring or avoiding obvious examples can indicate exclusion. Using these examples also helps straight students see GLBT people as positive role models. GLBT students are deterred from some disciplines and professions by explicit or implicit stereotypes. Encourage students equally to pursue their interests, not society's norms for them.

If a student comes out to you, treat the information with total confidence. More help is available at Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, and Ally (LGBTQA) Programs and Services.

Race and Ethnicity

A student's race or ethnicity tells you nothing about his or her background and abilities. You have an obligation to your students to create a safe place for them to learn and develop.

Remember that different racial and ethnic groups observe different holidays. Some students' religious celebrations or cultural events may conflict with instruction time. Students should inform you of conflicts in a timely manner and make arrangements for any absences. As instructor, you should be reasonably flexible to accommodate them.