A Blind Spot in School Safety
"School safety" is a fairly large umbrella. It encompasses the whole school perspective of keeping children safe through practicing fire drills, lockdown drills, and keeping the school in lockout all day long. School safety also includes keeping students safe through the use of anti-bullying programs, school codes of conduct, or school board policies. All of these are important to the school climate. Educators understand that children learn better in a positive and inclusive school climate.
According to the National School Climate Center, school climate can be defined as the following aspects:
- Norms, values, and expectations that support people feeling socially, emotionally, and physically safe.
- People are engaged and respected.
- Students, families, and educators work together to develop, live, and contribute to a shared school vision.
- Educators model and nurture attitudes that emphasize the benefits and satisfaction gained from learning.
- Each person contributes to the operations of the school and the care of the physical environment.
(The definitions of school climate and a positive, sustained school climate were developed in consensus by the National School Climate Council.)
However, there is another safety issue for students that school personnel do not always discuss. It's not as extreme as school violence, but it is just as important. It involves a student feeling unsafe in a classroom because they are afraid of the teacher. If an unsafe school means that students cannot learn, then we must acknowledge that when a student is afraid of a teacher, or a teacher is afraid of a principal, the school climate suffers.
Lauren's teacher Mrs. Naylor created a classroom blog at the beginning of the year as a way to engage her students, and it was a good idea because many students contributed. They felt engaged in the classroom and loved how much more mature they felt in 3rd grade because they were allowed to take risks and comment, using their own opinions and expressing whether they liked or disliked the books that they were reading.
Lauren was quiet and sensitive. Her desire to engage in classroom discussions was contingent on how safe she felt with Mrs. Naylor. It's not that Mrs. Naylor was mean. She was just abrupt sometimes. It wasn't her intention to scare students—she was trying to joke around with them. At her core, she believed in student autonomy, but sometimes she forgot they were kids. Lauren didn't always understand that Mrs. Naylor was joking around.
Lauren would often comment on the classroom blog. She said she couldn't wait for vacation to be over because she was excited to hear the rest of her classroom read aloud The Magic of Finkleton by K.C. Hilton. Many nights and on weekends she would post a comment, and Mrs. Naylor was thrilled that one of her students was so engaged. Unfortunately, Lauren was not telling the truth. She liked class, but only on the good days, which weren't often. When she got home, she would fall apart. Lauren told her mom that she didn't want to go to school. Her parents contacted the principal to request a move to another teacher, which was an extreme request in the middle of the year, especially when it had never come up as a concern before.
All of this came as a surprise to Mrs. Naylor. Lauren did not show signs that she did not like school. Actually, all of the signs showed that she did. After all, she posted the most comments on the classroom blog. Unfortunately, it was all a façade, and it was time for Mrs. Naylor, the principal, and Lauren's parents to figure it all out.
Why Are You in the Hallway?
Susan Manion had taught in the elementary school for over a decade before becoming the principal. Everyone was excited that "one of their own" took the leadership position. Several reached out and said that they would support her as she transitioned into the position. A few were taken aback when she answered by saying "Really? Why?" as if she didn’t need their help.
New rules began with the new school year, which happens with new leadership. Susan began asking for plan books to be handed in on a rotating basis. It came as a surprise to many staff members. However, they took pride in writing good plans, so they figured they had nothing to worry about and began handing their plans in every other Friday. Several times when teachers handed in their plans, Susan instantly handed them back and said, "Don’t worry. I never check yours anyway. You always have them done," but she continued to require all staff to hand them in. When Susan was confronted on why she checked all the plans, she admitted it was because several teachers didn’t do their plans regularly.
Blanket rules didn't stop with lesson plans. When teachers were in the hallway during their prep, Susan would stop them and ask why they were in the hallway. Staff began getting e-mails that said to be on time to pick students up for lunch and specials. The problem was that only a couple of teachers were not on time. The rest of the teachers were. Everyone was getting disciplined for the sins of a few. The school turned from a culture of care to a culture of fear, and the students began to feel the stress that their teachers were feeling.
School Safety Big and Small
"The blind spot concerns that part of our seeing that we usually don't see. It's the inner place or source from which a person or a social system operates. That blind spot is present every day in all systems. But it is hidden."
Both situations involved a blind spot. Mrs. Naylor had no idea how Lauren was feeling until well into the school year. She tried to salvage the situation by apologizing and working it out with the parents. She even took it further and began to look within herself to try to change how she reacted to students. As the adult, she didn't always realize that her students didn't "get" her kidding around and sense of humor. She used the situation as a learning experience.
Susan's blind spot didn't change. She felt that being a leader meant keeping teachers and students on their toes. She used the word collaboration, but didn't foster it in her school. Being a principal, to her, was about making kids learn and having power over teachers. As the years went on, the teachers just told themselves that it wouldn't last forever and at some point she would have to retire.
These two situations may not sound like school safety, because they are not as extreme as most examples we hear these days. However, they are equally dangerous to learning, because they involve students and teachers not feeling safe. When they go undetected or unresolved, such problems become worse and foster an unhealthy and unsafe school climate.
National School Climate Center (n.d.) "How do we define School Climate?" Retrieved from http://www.schoolclimate.org/climate/
Scharmer, Otto (2007). Theory U. Leading from the future as it emerges. Cambridge, MA: Society for Social Learning.
Peter DeWitt, EdD, is an elementary school principal in New York. He writes the Finding Common Ground blog for Education Week and is the author of Dignity for All: Safeguarding LGBT Students (Corwin Press). Connect with DeWitt on his website and on Twitter @PeterMDeWitt.