“School safety involves, first and foremost, an atmosphere of safety—a climate in which children feel comfortable and happy” – Carol Silverman Saunders.
Casablanca – It was 8 a.m. and students were standing in serpentine rows, facing a wall steps away from the school gate. Two administrators were shouting at them to line up straight and start singing the national anthem, which they could barely recall. The flagpole was a stone’s throw from them, but nobody was looking at it.
Instead, they were looking at the wall where the map of the country was sketched side by side with the national anthem. The students shivered and their voices shook. They sounded like a bunch of foreigners who were trying hard to sing the national anthem of another country.
Finally, administrators herded students to their classrooms with shouts and claps. I was wondering whether the students appreciated this kind of treatment, what feelings they took with them to the classroom, and most importantly, whether they felt safe in this factory-like establishment or not.
It’s not just about physical safety
In general, schools are considered safe, but lately we have heard and read more in the news about violence in schools. A feeling of insecurity is creeping up inside both teachers and students. But setting rules, being rigid, and even creating disciplinary punishments will not make schools safer. Instead, this defensive approach will turn schools into a breeding ground for anxiety.
We always link safety to the absence of violence and, while this is true, it only focuses on one small piece of reality. What we really need is to focus on the emotional meaning of safety.
Elementary school teacher Christina Mattise defines emotional safety as “I have the right to be myself and to have the freedom to learn, work, and play without having my heart, my head or my body hurt.”
Creating safe schools, then, takes more than just preventing violence. Instead, it takes creating an environment in which students can experience a sense of belonging, of being welcomed and valued, free from judgment and discrimination, and being free to express their opinions and feelings without fear.
My own awakening
Educators need to have a broader perspective to create safe schools. Having a defensive mindset will not help anyone. Interestingly, what makes students feel safe at school is similar to what teachers need: Being respected for one’s professional judgment and opinions, being supported by the administration, and being included in any decisions that might affect performance.
As a teacher, up until recently I always used the method of being strict and leaving almost no room for laughter or amusement. Recently, I came to realize that I was wrong and selfish. I thought only about having a silent classroom, but I ended up having a dead classroom.
I never thought about my students’ feelings. A 20-year veteran of teaching once said, “I tell my students they have to check their feelings at the door when they walk into my room. We’re there to learn!”
I never did that before. Now, as I am writing these words, I am recalling the images of some of my students crying in the schoolyard, and others coming to the classroom with plastic sandals the whole year.
Are they emotionally ready to learn? I do not think so. Emotions and learning go hand in hand. The emotional climate in the classroom is crucial. It has a direct impact on students’ learning.
In any given learning situation, most teachers exclusively focus on delivering the lesson, but there are other aspects that can either distract or enhance students’ concentration. Some of these aspects are sight, sound, the emotional state of the teacher, the background, and the foreground.
Students, whether they are high or low achievers, can tell if a teacher has prepared their lesson before coming to school or not. Being unprepared means resorting to improvisation, and for teachers it is fatal.
Taking a student-centered approach
Students need to be “students.” They need to act their age, and most importantly, they need help. Students do not have a clear grasp of the concepts of maturity, time management, and prioritizing tasks. They need to feel safe and comfortable in the classroom, regardless of classroom conditions.
We do not know for sure why some students come to school. Some of them consider school as an asylum from family problems. Some are angry, and school is their only outlet.
The teacher should estimate some wrongdoings every now and then, and they should show tolerance towards this kind of misconduct. Devoting some time to silliness and laughter with students will make them feel at ease and will surely grant us many more minutes of concentration and on-task behavior.
We have developed a “pay-attention” class with a predominantly “chalk and talk” method. Students come to the classroom with a pre-set psyche. They continuously adapt themselves to the school and the classroom rules.
We tend to make the decisions about everything that happens in the classroom. We usually do not ask students about their preferences, and I believe that this is a dictatorial attitude. We presume that students do not know how to learn and listen and that our way is better for them.
In the field of teaching there is no one-size-fits-all approach because there are no exact “same classes” and “same levels.” Every class is unique. Even when we teach the same lesson to different classes, the procedures are not the same or verbatim.
A challenge to teachers
So we teachers should adopt a teach-and-reflect approach. In other words, we should think thoroughly about how we teach and try to constantly self-evaluate, observe, and analyze our own way of teaching.
The world around us is changing quickly. Everything is changing—our country, our social norms, technology, and even workplaces. Why is there an insistence on maintaining one way of educating? This “one way of educating” generates the
same kind of half-hearted students whose ultimate goal is to study in a vocational training center for two years and work in a factory.
Why don’t we change up our teaching philosophy? Instead of advocating a teacher-student model, we should encourage a model that changes the relationship from teacher-student to mentor-mentee and from send-receive to discussion-debate.
Reforming our educational system necessitates a change in climate. I believe that the starting point is having “real” schools. We do not need buildings with classrooms, blackboards, and desks. We need electricity, lamps, televisions, CD players, copy centers, projectors, and any equipment that is involved in creating a healthy atmosphere for teaching and for students to feel comfortable and willing to learn.
The dominant atmosphere in schools today is spiritless. Teachers, administrators, and students lack a sense of belonging. Nothing attaches them to the schools where they work and study. They spend the whole year in a place that they do not appreciate.
In some schools, teachers and administrators are not united and they seem more like rivals. Everyone is striving for their own benefits and comfort. We cannot reform the system if we are not united. We are waiting for reformation to come from air-conditioned offices, fancy cars, and high-priced suits.
Be the change you want to see
The “let sleeping dogs lie” policy that the people in charge are following will not bring about the radical change that the educational system requires. The aftermath of this policy is revealing itself through the mindset of society, growing ignorance, and, of course, new idols and role models.
In the “Shawshank Redemption” movie, Andy Dufresne (played by Tim Robbins) spent an entire night crawling through prison drainpipes to escape his unfair imprisonment.
Reformation comes from within everyone in the educational system. We should portray the reformation that we want to see and bring to school the safety that we want to feel. Regardless of the poor working conditions, crowded classrooms, and the lack of basic equipment, teachers have to crawl through this river in order to succeed in their mission.
Continuous learning is the only way we can break the monotony of the lessons, upgrade our skills, widen our professional knowledge, and, most importantly, provide a welcoming and safe learning environment that is key to the process of teaching and learning.