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The Four Pillars of a Culture of Safety

I define "safety" as the confident knowing that one is shielded from harm, whether such harm would be imposed intentionally or by accident. Given this definition, there are four pillars of safety that must be present in our schools and classrooms if learning is to occur and students are to thrive.

As a new school year is underway in virtually every community across the nation, our national focus must embrace school safety. If the past is any indicator of our future, media reports of school violence will soon dominate the headlines with startling regularity as we struggle to assure the physical safety of every student and staff person in our hallways of learning. I can assure my readers that as a school administrator for twenty-one years, there was never a day when I wasn't thinking about issues of safety, devising safeguards and protocols to assure the welfare of my community and uttering a silent prayer, "Please, Lord, not today, not here."

Protecting our learning communities from violent occurrences is a complex endeavor. Solutions are often motivated, or influenced, by political interests and are frequently highly emotional in their controversy. Regardless, we can, and must do better, and it is essential that purposeful and meaningful safeguards are put in place. (While this post is not intended to be political, my experience strongly suggests that arming teachers, as our national administration advocates, is not a solution.)

Physical safety must be a minimum standard of expectation for all occupants of our schoolhouses. This assurance extends beyond the elimination of campus violence. A general feeling of personal well-being must be present if we expect our students to fully engage in their learning. No one can reasonably focus if they are preoccupied with the avoidance of a mishap or calamity. The importance of believing that one is in a safe and secure environment cannot be underestimated or overlooked.

We must look beyond "securing the perimeter" in our efforts to thwart unwanted intrusion into our physical spaces of teaching and learning. We can design secure vestibule entrances, utilize cameras and monitoring devises, and post security personnel in key locations. While these measures might deter the bad guy from getting in, there is an equal concern. We must simultaneously "secure the interior" through deliberate attention and actions directed toward the emotional/psychological safety of students, staff and campus visitors. Sadly, many incidents of campus violence are perpetrated by a member(s) of the school community. Adequate resources and personnel must be allocated to efficiently and effectively address these real and mounting concerns. This is yet another rationale for forging informative relationships with, and within, the student population. (Please refer to my two previous posts" Going Beyond Hello and Getting To Know You.) It is also reason for a robust "If You See Something, Say Something" protocol to be in place. Who's that climbing the fence? Billy doesn't seem right. Tell someone!

Together, physical safety and emotional safety comprise the first two of the four pillars recognized in this post. Working effectively in tandem, they reflect a foundation of safety I call Safety for Instruction. They allow for instruction to occur. Unquestionably, nothing positive can happen in our schools in the absence of these two pillars. However, in the realm of student achievement, our conversation must go beyond these two, though critical, attributes of safety to include two other pillars - cultural safety and creative safety. The absence of either of these will substantially derail a high quality educational experience.

A climate of cultural safety acknowledges that no two members of the school community are identical, and that participants deserve to be treated as individuals. It recognizes differing backgrounds, ethnicities, experiences and personal biographies as assets to the process of learning, and assures that the inclusion of what makes each member unique will be respected, if not celebrated. Cultural safety allows each individual to be true to who they are, while minimizing any deliberate, or unintended, occurrences of embarrassment, harassment or ridicule. "I am safe to be who I am, and I may use this as a spring board to my success" should easily be the mantra in a culturally safe school. Future posts will explore the concepts of cultural competence and culturally responsive instruction in greater depth. It is the objective of this current post to remind readers of the vital importance of embracing cultural diversity and to probe their thinking of how the utilization of uniqueness might play out in classrooms.

In a culture of creative safety, one does not experience a preoccupation with the ramifications of unsuccessful attempts at solving a problem or constructing an innovative approach. It acknowledges that creativity, the byproduct of being creative, is dependent on an assumption of personal risk, the willingness to try. Further, it honors that the attempt is a true vehicle for learning and may hold greater significance than a resulting product. A community of creative safety fosters a climate of inquiry through the satisfaction of individual and/or collective curiosity by assuring each member the confident knowing that humiliation and public shaming will not be the result of one's honest attempts at trying something new or "out of the box." It is divergent thinking, versus conformist expectations, that are a hallmark of a creatively safe school culture. Creativity and creative processes will be discussed in depth in future posts. I believe that the intentional inclusion of creativity is an essential strategy to assure students a relevant educational experience while affording them the opportunity to attain the skills they will need to successfully navigate the demands of the 21st century. It is also a corner stone premise of my book, The Education Kids Deserve, available at my online store and Amazon. Get ready for an avalanche of thinking on creativity! Stay tuned!

To be sure, none of these pillars of safety will manifest themselves by accident. It is also critical to understand that it isn't easy to implement or maintain any of them. They each require the focused, diligent efforts of all stakeholders. The principal, the custodian, the security guard and the cafeteria manager, each with different job descriptions and levels of influence, commonly share in the responsibility of this endeavor. Teaching and support staff must collaborate with students in assuring the attainment of these critical elements of a vibrant and highly functioning school. There can be no "that's his job" thinking in this enterprise. "It's our school, so it's our job" must be the prevailing refrain.

As physical and emotional safety concerns constitute Safety for Instruction, the inclusion of cultural and creative safety allows Safety in Instruction. A strong educational structure, when evaluated through the lens of safety, must rely on the interactive strength of each of these pillars. To ignore one, or diminish another, undermines the confident knowing that one is shielded from harm among American school children. Regrettably, a failure to deliberately tend to each pillar guarantees harm to every child - a diminished educational experience.

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