The Importance of Counselors in Cultivating Safe Spaces for Students

This week, the Hindu American Foundation, Sikh Kid 2 Kid, and the Kaur Foundation concluded their second Hindu-Sikh training for the Montgomery County (Md.) Public Schools, which has gained attention and acclaim from area educators and community members.

On Wednesday (the day before Gurpurab, which celebrates the birth of Guru Nanak, the founder of Sikhism), Hindu and Sikh trainers were invited to speak to Montgomery County school counselors to talk about how to create safe spaces for students of diverse faiths. For Hindu and Sikh students in Maryland and other parts of the country, bullying and intolerance continue to be pervasive.

While teachers can help to stem intolerance through inclusive pedagogy and recognizing Hinduism and Sikhism (as well as other faiths such as Islam, Jainism, Buddhism, and Zoroastrianism) as part of the American social fabric, counselors play an even more important role in helping to give students a venue to articulate their identities, share their fears, or just vent. While this is true for any student, Hindu and Sikh students often are reluctant to speak out at perceived intolerance. As my colleagues from Sikh Kid 2 Kid and the Kaur Foundation noted, Sikh children are often told to be proud Sikhs and not complain, making them reluctant to speak out against bullying.

For Hindu students, problems with textbooks, having different sounding names, difficulties explaining some cultural norms, and even educators' well-intentioned tendency to generalize often makes it very difficult to self-identify. The shame of being viewed as an Other within the classroom is something many Hindu American students still deal with, particularly when there is a strong desire to fit in. Hindu American students, particularly the children of immigrants from the Indian subcontinent or other parts of the Hindu Diaspora such as the West Indies, often struggle with the dilemma of being Hindu at home and being seen as American by their peers because they're not taught that one can be both without contradiction.

The counselors we trained at the Montgomery County Public Schools seemed to understand those dynamics, and were forthright in their willingness to help Hindu and Sikh students become more comfortable in their classrooms. As MCPS social studies supervisor Tara Kelly noted, the goal of any district educator is to create and sustain an environment where students of any faith can be comfortable with who they are.

Since holidays such as Diwali -- celebrated by Hindus, Jains, Sikhs, and many Buddhists -- are often not school closings, it's important for counselors to advocate on behalf of their students to make sure teachers provide the right accommodations (allowing the student to make up work if they miss class to observe a religious holiday). More importantly, in the case of Sikh students, understanding the importance of the patka for boys (and in some cases, a chunni for girls) is a significant way to advance acceptance of diverse cultures in the classrooms. Some of my Muslim American colleagues have called for the same sort of sensitivity in understanding the importance of the hijab for Muslim girls.

Beyond bullying and intolerance, just knowing the diverse practices of a school's students can go a long way in empowering counselors, teachers, and administrators alike. For example, a majority of Hindu students aren't vegetarian, but it's still important to be sensitive to their dietary restrictions (most Jains, however, are strict vegetarians and may even abstain from garlic and onions). Having this knowledge to deal with increasingly diverse classrooms is critical to fostering inclusive classrooms and schools.

Schools that promote these environments help us to advance the equality we continue to strive for in our schools and for our children. Thankfully, Montgomery County is serving as a wonderful example in proactive inclusion.