After each atrocity in our schools, dialogue about “increasing school safety” is heightened. The focus is usually on implementing a variety of new controls and punishments. Do our students feel safer if they have passed through a metal detector? Do they feel safer if there are policies and procedures in place about weapons? Do they feel safer if there are anti-bullying policies in their schools? I don’t believe these measures do much to increase a real feeling of safety.
What we need is a shared understanding of safe school culture and the knowledge of how to create the culture that makes our students feel truly safe and ready to learn.
As principal of a large, inner-city, multicultural school in Ottawa, Canada, I led a team of dedicated teachers and educational support staff in creating a school where everyone felt safe and cared for, where everyone was engaged and empowered to become the best they could be, where bullying was almost non-existent, where students wanted to come to school and behavioral issues were at a minimum. This is not easier said than done. It is being done at many schools across North America. It can be done anywhere. How?
At the risk of reducing something as important as personal safety and mental health to a list of actions, here are 12 suggestions of what we need to know, do and “be” to create safe and caring school cultures.
1. Know that “school culture” is composed of people, processes and programs. For example, people must treat one another with mutual respect and a sense of shared responsibility. Everyone should have an optimistic feeling that they can be successful when empowered and supported to be the best they can be. Anti-bullying policies and procedures must be in place and their effectiveness must be tracked. Student-led programs such as mentoring and conflict resolution should be in place.
2. Know the power of building personal connections within our schools and our communities. Students should be connected to one another through group projects, mentoring younger students and working together to make a difference in their local and global communities. Parents must be fully engaged in their child’s learning.
3. Know that “test scores” will not rise if our students do not feel safe and cared for at school. Commit to moving well beyond teaching strategies and narrowly focused teacher evaluation systems to gaining a full understanding of the impact that feeling safe has on the brain. Much like a hungry child not being able to learn, the brain of a child who does not feel safe is unable to maximize learning.
4. Know that schools must address the safety needs of the whole child — social, emotional, physical and intellectual. Although metal detectors appear to address physical safety needs, they may negatively affect the emotional sense of safety.
5. Define the culture you want in your school. Create a plan to make it happen and implement and monitor the plan. If you don’t actively address culture in your school, you will live within the default culture. This isn’t good enough.
6. Create a culture that encourages engagement and empowerment. Within a shared understanding of purpose and goals, empower your students to engage fully in their own learning through providing choice and addressing individual learning strengths and styles.
7. Implement whatever security procedures are necessary in a particular school community. Base this decision on risk assessment and an understanding that safety will never be guaranteed.
8. Pay particular attention to those students who are slower to engage by maintaining open communication and building connections.
9. Be present. Be visible and engaged in the life of your school. Live and breathe your mission, vision and values.
10. Be positive. Believe that everyone wants to do a good job and make a difference. Support students and colleagues in doing so.
11. Be real. Move well beyond “playing a role.” Feel safe in being yourself. Grow and learn every day.
12. Care. We all care deeply about the students in our care. Unfortunately, politics and bureaucracy often get in the way. Don’t let that happen.
If we focus on creating safe and caring cultures, bullying will diminish, mental health will improve, teen suicides will decrease and we will feel safer in our schools and in our lives. It’s the least we can do.
Carol Hunter is an award-winning, retired elementary-school principal and author of “Real Leadership Real Change”. She is president of Impact Leadership, a consulting company focused on bringing real change to public education.