Anti-Oppressive Learning Environments

Maintaining Boundaries & Calling Students In

Creating a classroom environment that values the wellbeing and educational goals of all students in the room is by no means an easy task; but it is a commitment that faculty across disciplines at UBC are seeking to fulfill by adopting strategies of anti-oppression and anti-racism.

One important step in doing so is recognizing that instructors are active participants in creating classroom climate and, as such, can be guilty of perpetuating microaggressions. The What I Learned in Class Today project lead, Amy Perreault, and Hanae Tsukada co-created an article called “Complicating How Classroom Climate Works: Advancing the Framework” on this very topic. They observe that insomuch as faculty respond to inter-student microaggressions, “instructors can make classroom climate toxic as well as productive” (12). This power to positively or negatively influence the classroom climate led the original What I Learned in Class Today: Aboriginal Issues in the Classroom team to deem the classroom the “instructor’s domain.” It is the instructor’s responsibility to address problematic incidents as they arise and to create an environment of reciprocity in which students can communicate to professors how they can be better supported in the classroom.

Foundations for a Supportive Classroom Climate

Faculty participants in the What I Learned in Class Today: Educational Experiences and Institutional Responses project shared their practices for holding the classroom in a good way. Dr. David Gaertner describes the importance of creating “spaces that decenter white students and that create opportunities for students of colour and Indigenous students.” Being attentive to the narratives and voices that are prioritized in the room requires a cognizance not only of the classroom demographics but of “the deeper structural issues of difference, power, and privilege that give rise to difficult classroom situations” (Perreault and Tsukada 2).

For Gaertner, this means taking preventative measures on the first day of class to outline classroom expectations such as encouraging students to ask questions while being mindful that “we have relations in the classroom that we have to be respectful of.” Oftentimes certain students end up dominating classroom conversations and must be reminded, usually during office hours or after class, to be more aware of the space they take up. In their article, “Calling In: Strategies for Cultivating Humility and Critical Thinking in Antiracism Education,” Robin DiAngelo and Özlem Sensoy outline their intention behind denying “equal time to all narratives in [their] classrooms” (197). By “turning down the volume” (DiAngelo and Sensoy 197) on students who are closest to the dominant norm, instructors are better able to support the learning objectives of all students in the room.

Redistributing the Power: Shutting Down Unproductive Conversations

Dr. Sarah Hunt/Tłaliłila’ogwa (Kwagu’l of the Kwakwaka’wakw Nation) recounts an incident as a master’s student where a course focusing on race issues was co-opted by the experiences of white students navigating the affective side of learning about colonialism. After weeks of class time being designated to conversations of whiteness, guilt, and privilege—inhibiting critical engagement with texts by Indigenous scholars and scholars of colour as well as the learning objectives of BIPOC in the room—the instructor reallocated the power of the class focus. Hunt describes the professor as declaring,

“that’s it, from now on the students of colour are deciding what happens in the class …. For some of the students in this class, this is the only time in their whole education where they’re seeing their experiences reflected in the readings and so that’s where we’re going to need to give the space to.”

Safe Spaces vs. Anti-Oppressive Learning Environments: What’s the Difference?

This defining moment as a student has shaped Hunt’s teaching practices and she now seeks to create a shared foundation in her classes to avoid such climactic moments. Hunt draws her students into conversation about the distinction between “safe spaces” and “anti-oppressive environments,” noting that “for some people being in a safe space means being able to say whatever you want, and that makes it unsafe for other people.” Sensations of discomfort are often a necessary element of engaging with past and present injustices, and the idea of a “safe space” cannot account for the power relations that inform classroom climate. Like Hunt, Perreault and Tsukada articulate the need to create an anti-oppressive learning environment: “a classroom climate that may not always be safe but does not inflict harm on students” (Perreault and Tsukada 14).

Relationship Building and Trust Between Students and Professor

For Indigenous students and students of colour to feel comfortable enough to share their lived experiences or challenge the perspectives of other students, they have to trust the professor to shut down problematic comments, address microaggressions, and support them in speaking up. Dr. Paige Raibmon says that it is only by exemplifying through continuous action and attention to classroom climate that an instructor can gain the students’ trust and hold “the space in a way that’s good for everybody.”

Calling Students into Deeper Learning

While earning this trust often occurs by shutting down certain streams of conversation, it can also be attained by calling students into further learning. Dr. Coll Thrush describes a first-year class where a student made a problematic comment about an Indigenous community—conflating Indigenous protocol with “superstition”—and rather than silencing this student, Thrush drew him in with questions. In a lecture hall full of peers, this student was able to come to a respectful and culturally accurate perspective. Thrush describes this encounter as:

“a really good example where the professor is in charge and needs to act like it, but we can also treat our students with a lot of compassion and not just shut them down but say, ‘okay, let’s work with what you just said and get to some place that’s actually useful and generative for our discussions.’”

Moments of Deepening and Classroom Intervention

Hunt and Thrush’s memorable experiences showcase instructors who transformed “politically and emotionally charged exchange[s] into … teachable moment[s]” (Perreault and Tsukada 6). Intervention through shutting down or calling students into conversation reduces harm for targeted students and also helps to keep students committed to their education on these important topics of justice. By failing to address situations in the moment, instructors place the burden of reporting and resolving problematic incidents onto the affected student and increase the likelihood that peers in the room will avoid the topic due to its associated emotional intensity.

Creating Space for Students and Faculty Too

Creating an anti-oppressive learning environment is both reciprocal and relational, and requires an awareness of the intersectional identities of students and the instructor. Tsukada and Perreault point out that minority female instructors are more likely to be faced with student resistance and hostility, particularly around topics of social justice (11). Hunt reports that a consistent theme throughout her teaching career has been the lack of respect received from non-Indigenous students who question her expertise and authority in a way that her “male colleagues … [and] non-Indigenous faculty member[s]” would not be. Hunt must navigate the tricky waters of holding space for Indigenous students in the room and for herself, all without isolating her non-Indigenous students.

Transcending the Walls of Academia: Carrying our Knowledge Outside of the Classroom

A critical takeaway from the interviews as well as Tsukada and Perreault’s article is the need for all participants in a classroom environment to be accountable for their identities, power relations, and the knowledge they receive. It is the instructor’s responsibility to articulate and maintain expectations of engagement with the ultimate intent that these guidelines will transcend the walls of the classroom to become tools of relationality within our broader communities.

Resources for Further Learning

  • For a breakdown of Microaggressions in the Classroom, check out this guide collaboratively created by the Student Diversity Initiative and Indigenous Initiatives at the Centre for Teaching, Learning and Technology.
  • Read through Robin DiAngelo and Özlem Sensoy’s article, “Calling In: Strategies for Cultivating Humility and Critical Thinking in Antiracism Education,” to access tools to invite students into difficult or tense—yet undoubtedly important—conversations.
  • “Anti-Oppressive Education and the Trap of ‘Good’ Intentions: Lessons From an Interdisciplinary Workshop” analyzes the complexities of hosting a workshop on anti-oppressive education that can be translated to classroom dynamics. This article delves into the critical conversation of vulnerability in the classroom; namely, who is expected to do the work of educating and sharing personal experiences to shine light upon the relationship between “oppressor” and “oppressed.”
  • Check out the UBC Wiki page for resources on anti-racism for educators.

Refining Your Practice

A key takeaway from the original and current What I Learned in Class Today projects is that everybody plays a role in influencing the classroom climate. While students are responsible for their engagement in a course, it is up to the instructor to model and actively facilitate an anti-oppressive learning environment. This self-reflection piece is intended to encourage readers to recognize themselves as agents in the classroom whose actions or non-actions can have a direct impact on those around them. Set aside 15-20 minutes to think or write through the following prompts:

  • What might your role be in a classroom environment when responding to the potential harms of teaching and learning about Indigenous topics?
  • How do we keep ourselves accountable to our “relations in the room” (David Gaertner) and actively practice an ethic of reciprocity and respect?
  • What do you understand the differences between ‘safe spaces’ and ‘anti-oppressive learning environments’ to be?


By Keirra Webb