Opinion: Let’s make students and teachers feel safe and valued this year

Parents walk their children to Kemp Elementary in Powder Springs on the first day of school on Monday, Aug. 1, 2022. (Natrice Miller/natrice.miller@ajc.com)

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com

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Parents walk their children to Kemp Elementary in Powder Springs on the first day of school on Monday, Aug. 1, 2022. (Natrice Miller/natrice.miller@ajc.com)

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com

Charis Granger-Mbugua graduated from Cobb County Schools, where her young children are now students.

In a guest column, Granger-Mbugua, a Spelman College graduate and former high school teacher who earned National Board Certification, addresses the start of the school year and the need to focus on teachers and students feeling safe and valued.

By Charis Granger-Mbugua

As a former classroom teacher, I have a unique perspective and deep appreciation for the month of August and all it represents. New beginnings and clean slates — like the pages of a never before used notebook — August, for teachers and for students, feels like a fresh start. There is so much to hope for as a new school year begins.

And here we are again. It feels like only yesterday that teachers were packing up their classrooms and waving goodbye for the summer. But just like that, the 2022-2023 school year has arrived. During this first week of August, several metro Atlanta school districts will open their doors to throngs of eager and excited students. Teachers and staff will greet them with true enthusiasm and a smile, believing the very best is possible as they embark on the journey of learning and growing together. It is one of the most beautiful and fundamental rights of every child in this country. The right to a quality education.

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Charis Granger-Mbugua

Charis Granger-Mbugua

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Charis Granger-Mbugua

Yet, there is no denying that the last few school years have challenged and, in many cases, destroyed everything we knew about the education system and the process of teaching and learning. Educators have suffered in ways unimaginable, contributing to teacher shortages across the country. According to a recent Fortune article, “More than 44% of K-12 employees feel “always” or “very often” burned out.” Students, too, have struggled. Many have had to reacclimate to the classroom after months or even years of virtual learning. Mental health has become a critical point of concern as children grapple with all that has changed and been lost since COVID-19 shuttered schools in 2020.

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Though time has passed and much has been learned, the handling of the pandemic continues to be divisive and for many worrisome as new, highly transmissible variants continue to surge around the country. Last month, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that a majority of Georgia counties are in the high community spread level. Schools and school districts have taken varying approaches (and in some cases, no approach at all) to mitigation, leaving parents to figure things out for yet another school year.

And the politicization of education has reached new heights. Debates range from what teachers are allowed to say in classrooms regarding history and race to the place of transgendered student-athletes in sports. Inflation and supply chain issues make it difficult to stock schools and classrooms with supplies.

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Many families are struggling to afford what their children need to feel both confident and prepared when they return to a classroom of their peers. No matter how much we want to keep our children and students insulated from the harsh realities of the world, the truth is everything that is happening around us affects the people who enter into school buildings to teach and learn. It is undeniable.

This year, my youngest is starting kindergarten and I feel all the emotions a parent feels during this milestone transition. Yet, my heart aches and my mind reels as I consider her safety and the safety of all students returning to the classroom. In the wake of the tragedy in Uvalde and countless other mass shootings, school districts across the country are being forced to reevaluate their safety protocols. In Cobb, where my children are students, the school board voted in mid-July to allow designated employees to carry weapons in schools. Most recently, the Cobb school board approved the hiring of a new assistant superintendent of school safety operations.

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There is no question that the issue of school safety must remain paramount as we begin the new school year. As communities, we must work together to seek solutions beyond arming staff and bringing more weapons into schools.

Funding for school counselors, social workers, and psychologists in every school building is more important than ever. We should not be considering doing away with social and emotional learning, but rather seeking ways to incorporate it into daily lessons and curricula. One study by a Clemson psychology professor found that “almost half of those who perpetrate K-12 shootings report a history of rejection,” and “School administrators and educators … need to pay attention to the mental-health needs of their students.” Mental health matters should be prioritized. Teachers and staff should be given opportunities for professional development in mindfulness and trauma sensitive education.

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The goal of every educator is to see students become the very best versions of themselves. As a parent, I want the same thing and willingly partner with my children’s teachers to that end. As a society, we all benefit when children learn to set and pursue goals, work well with others, and develop a sense of compassion and empathy for those around them. As we look with anticipation to the new school year, I am reminded of psychologist Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. According to Maslow, human beings cannot access the best versions of ourselves, reach our highest potential, or as Maslow puts it, arrive at self-actualization, until our most basic needs are met. One of those basic needs is the need to feel safe, both physically and emotionally.

Many of us have not truly felt safe for some time now. So perhaps this school year, we can find ways as a community to help each other, help teachers and staff, and help our students feel safe. And safety certainly can happen outside of adding more weapons to school buildings. Safety can look like a smile, sound like encouragement, and feel like being given a chance to be our most authentic selves. Safety should be creating classroom environments where students feel seen and valued and differences are celebrated. Safety happens when teachers feel respected as competent and capable professionals.

To all the teachers and students returning to school over the next few weeks, remember to take care of your most basic needs. You deserve to feel safe every day you go into the school building. And despite what may still feel like chaos all around, may this school year bring joy, growth, and a chance to become your very best self.