If you want to improve school safety, improve school culture

Leslie Hazle Bussey is the executive director of the Georgia Leadership Institute for School Improvement.

GLISI is a nonprofit that works to improve the quality and practice of school leaders in Georgia. In this piece, Bussey writes about what makes a school feel safe to students.

School safety has become a pressing concern for states and districts in the wake of the Parkland, Fl., school shooting last year.  Along with increasing a police presence in their buildings, districts have expanded school safety drills. Two Georgia districts even approved arming teachers. Gov. Brian Kemp added school safety funding to his budget.

But is that enough and is that the right focus?

By Leslie Hazle Bussey

What makes for a safe school? How can school and district leaders create environments in which students not only are safe, but feel safe?

Gov. Brian Kemp’s state budget provides funds for schools to beef up security and provide students with additional, much-needed mental health services.

Discussions about school safety often focus on adding cameras or even allowing educators to carry firearms, but the culture of a school can play the most powerful role in creating a safe environment for students and adults. To understand how, let’s talk about what we mean by safety.

If we understand schools are responsible for teaching students, not just babysitting them, then students need more than physical safety to be able to learn.

They must feel a sense of belonging—that they are known and wanted at the school. This condition makes it OK to express emergent, imperfect ideas, and respond to others’ ideas. School culture directly influences these conditions, and leaders directly influence school culture.

School culture cannot be legislated or bought, but it’s a powerful driver that we often ignore in the wake of school violence and in the national discourse about the mental health crisis of America’s youth. Many schools today often emphasize the importance of social and emotional learning for students to help them learn decision making and communicating effectively, but sometimes ignore the environment where this learning takes place and who has the most direct influence on that environment.

The truth is, adults’ social and emotional skills, especially those of our school and district leaders, have a major impact on healthy school culture: whether teachers work collaboratively to generate new ideas together, adults treat each other and students with respect, and teachers are motivated by the purpose and significance of their work.

In too many schools, interactions among adults are focused narrowly on tight control of student talk, behavior, and test scores. Yet, teachers don’t become teachers only to raise students’ test scores. Teachers want to equip children with choices that, without education, are not otherwise available to them. When school is no longer about this, many of the teachers you would most want for your children decide to leave.

Teachers are too often made—by parents, school leaders, the general public—to feel incompetent for being unable to help all students achieve mastery on state tests and accountability measures. Some principals and district leaders use data as weapons, when they might accomplish more by seeing teacher well-being as a pathway to success for students. They offer lots of critical feedback for others but give little attention to their own shortcomings and opportunities for growth.

Research shows that people will exert tremendous effort and self-sacrifice for work that’s fulfilling, but not when they believe their work is futile and meaningless. Leaders are more likely to create a fulfilling environment for teachers if they possess their own self-awareness, can build good relationships with teachers around the work of school, and can have meaningful conversations, among other social-emotional skills.

How can school leaders—and teachers, parents and community members—nurture school cultures that connect teachers and students to what’s more purposeful and meaningful to them? How can they strengthen their schools’ culture of well-being, student learning, and safety?

Here are some suggestions:

Learn more about the social and emotional practices most important for adults, such as developing self-awareness, cultivating trustworthiness, and building sincere relationships.

Tell others about your quest to practice new ways of thinking and engaging with others to build social-emotional muscle—and encourage others to do the same.

Watch for how adults treat other adults in your school and district, and hold high expectations for them. Do leaders demonstrate genuine curiosity and empathy for colleagues and parents? Are they good listeners? Do they craft questions that seek out others' thinking? Do you feel fearful around them, like you're walking on eggshells? Do they shut down or suppress certain voices or ideas?

Ask which social-emotional competencies are given the highest priority for adults in your school or district. Which ones are strengths, and which ones do leaders at the school, district and board level need to improve on? What kinds of support do leaders and teachers have to strengthen their social-emotional skills (not just training that helps adults grow student social-emotional skills)?

GLISI's recent statewide survey shows that an incredible 98 percent of school leaders in Georgia agree that education leaders need strong social and emotional skills to be effective. And 94 percent want more training and development in this area.

Some education leaders still believe these skills and their development are too “soft” to become a focal point in their work. We contend that the development of educators’ leadership skills and the critical interactions among educators, school staffs, students, and families, may be the most powerful factor in school and student success.