Actively Creating Safe Spaces in Music Classrooms

The following ideas are not a complete list and are only food for thought. They are based on a multitude of such similar suggestions for dealing with trans people in general and my personal experience. The main tenets for the tl/dr crowd: speak carefully and amplify trans voices/stories/art.




I attended a talk at school recently about teaching transgender students in Music Education. This talk was focused on bringing awareness to future K-12 music teachers of some blind spots they might have, and to open a dialogue/start people thinking about some challenges they might face when they encounter transgender students in their classroom. I offered a suggestion during the comment period about creating a safe space more actively (more than just posting a “safe space” sign or the like) and now my brain won’t shut up about elaborating so I’m going to type this out so I can sleep. Many of these ideas will probably also apply to other intersectionally underprivileged groups, but I am fairly privileged, so I cannot speak with personal experience to other types of identity. Additionally, most of my teaching experience is with college students, so there is that bias to my thinking as well. And of course, much of this is also good in non-music settings.



The number one most important thing that you can do as a teacher (or human in general) to make transfolk feel more safe in your environment is to speak carefully. Use correct pronouns and names for everyone you know. If you’re not sure about pronouns or name, ask as quickly and unobtrusively as possible and then move on. Don’t use aggressively gendered terminology as much as possible. Call your students by instrument, collectively as “class” or other non-gendered terms like “scholars” or “students” instead of “boys and girls” or “ladies and gentlemen.” Don’t use or tolerate mysoginistic, homophobic, or transphobic jokes or language. (One example of a way to shut down objectionable and oppressive language: ) Remember that something that’s “just a joke” to one person might be upsetting, personal, and a daily issue for others. If a someone tells you a term or phrase bothers them, stop using it.

Don’t ask trans students about previous identities if they don’t want to talk about it. Don’t ask what medical procedures they’ve had or are planning. Accept and support them whether they are medically transitioning or not. If they come to school wearing a dress and make-up and still want to be called John and use masc pronouns, don’t argue (regardless of gender assigned at birth). Don’t make acceptance contingent on your comfort or understanding. Don’t make pronoun slip-ups all about you (apologize and move on).

On top of speaking carefully, there are other ways that the gender binary can creep into teaching that may be distressing for trans students. Upset the gender binary. Don’t divide up the class by gender for groups. Support language, personal expression, and activities that are outside or against the gender binary. Don’t divide up a dress code for concerts by gender. Don’t let anyone choose an instrument or make instrument stereotypes based on gender. Let them use whatever bathroom/changing room they are most comfortable with. Push for inclusive non-gendered bathrooms.

Model good interpersonal relationships with other teachers, particularly queer ones. Model platonic male friendships that are not abusive or violent. Model male-female relationships that are not based on denied attraction. Destroy the friendzone. (Don’t assume that boys hanging out with girls must have crushes etc.)

Program/perform/listen to/analyze music by queer/PoC/women composers and performers. Living ones. Introduce the composer/performer as much as you would with Mozart or Bach. Ask what sort of life influences might effect the way the music is played/composed. Try to use a variety of genres in a careful, analytical way without tokenizing.

Bring in guest teachers once in awhile if possible. Let the queer artists on your faculty or from around town talk about how their experiences influence their art and their teaching. But that doesn’t even have to be the focus of the teacher/performer coming.

Don’t be afraid to address non-musical topics in class or office hours. If someone has a question about current events, the impact of identity and politics on music or life in general, take a moment to answer. Try to stay balanced and calm, but don’t fall prey to false-equivalences. Feel free to also say “I don’t know” and acknowledge your privilege and biases. Or better “I don’t know, and why don’t we look that up and come back to it.” To get back on track you can always fall back on the “this issue is too long for the scope of this paper/discussion but here’s the clif notes version. Feel free to do more research in your own time.” If you have a underprivileged voice in your class, give them an opportunity to answer if they feel comfortable. (But don’t force them to do the emotional labor of teaching if they aren’t up to it.) Remember that what some people call opinions or politics might be a matter of life and death to an underprivileged student.

Another thing I did when I taught college kids is I did not start with Names and Pronouns on the first day. This is a good idea in small activist groups that have a certain level of awareness of such things, but in a generic class setting might push someone into coming out on accident/before they’re ready. I did say “if you’d like to let me know about another name, nick-name, pronouns, or whatever, please let me know after class or in an email.”


I think that’s enough for now. Let me know if you have questions. Can’t promise I’ll get to it anytime soon (didn’t think I’d have time for blogging this week) but who knows.

One response to “Actively Creating Safe Spaces in Music Classrooms”

  1. I run into the ‘we don’t say that here’ brand of redirecting all the time with my students (middle school). Many of them are PoC and have experienced prejudice themselves, but don’t recognize their own perpetuation of unsafe language etc. Thanks for the suggestions.

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