Tuesday / April 23

Making Schools Safer by Closing the Caring Gap

The last recorded fatal airline passenger crash in the United States was in 2009.  When you consider the number of flights taking off and landing every day, that fact is remarkable. As a result we take the safety of airline travel for granted: Near absolute safety is now the expected and assumed norm. Unfortunately our schools have not reached the level of safety that our airlines have.

With every school shooting or act of violence, our collective sense of urgency for schools to achieve that level of safety intensifies. Our schools are safe places but are not safe enough. They must be safer.

The necessity of achieving higher levels of safety has led to the enactment of new laws, regulations, and mandates representing a variety of solutions to the problem of school violence. However, even with the full implementation of laws and mandates, there is no research to suggest any of them will effectively make our schools substantially safer than they are now. Policymakers and educators, however, feel compelled to do something because the status quo is not acceptable: Doing something is viewed as preferable to doing nothing.

Most educators probably agree in the abstract that schools could be safer; however, most would view their own school as being safe enough. Educators are, therefore, understandably uncertain of what they need to do differently to make schools safer. As a result schools are often stuck in a holding pattern, waiting for the solution to school violence to arrive from above, telling them what to do. I however hold a different belief:

Schools right now have the capacity to reach a level of safety comparable to that of our airlines. Educators just need to believe that fact and be willing do what is needed. There is no need to wait.

This belief was not a product of longitudinal research or reasoning. No, it was a revelation that struck me like a lightning bolt one day several years ago when I was asked by a local high school administration to speak to their faculty on the topic “Becoming a Caring Community.”

As I started my remarks, I looked at the faces of the teachers and was overcome with the question, “Who am I to tell them what they need to do?”  Being an educator, I knew the level of devotion that the great majority of these teachers had to their jobs and the students they taught. Pushing my remarks to the side, I said, “Raise your hand if you care about every student in this school.” Every hand was raised.  Then I said, “Raise your hand if you know for certain that every student knows that you care.” No hand went up.

Here is what I saw:

In the raised hands I saw a source of hope for our schools; in the hands that stayed down, I saw the roots of tragedy and violence.

Research has consistently shown that caring and compassion are the qualities that students value and desire the most in their teachers. Students want and need teachers to care for them. Teachers do care but not all students know that fact or “feel” that care.  My hope stemmed from the care already being there.  But I saw the roots of tragedy, in a variety of forms, being traced back to what happens when students don’t feel the care from those who teach them.

Schools would face a far greater challenge if care needed to be generated in the hearts of teachers. Instead the challenge that schools face is closing the caring gap i.e. having every educator’s hand raised in response to both of the questions I presented to that high school faculty.

Closing the caring gap is the best and most sustainable way for our schools to reach the level of safety that parents need for their children.

Here are some recommendations for closing the caring gap:

Redefine safety.

Although physical safety should be our first and foremost concern, educators need to see and understand its connection to psychological safety.  Psychological safety in school means feeling accepted by those around you and feeling like school is a place where you belong—where your membership is not dependent upon your performance. Students who are psychologically safe feel that they can make mistakes and express their thoughts and feelings without fear of being shamed or rejected.

Students who have a history of not feeling psychologically safe are the ones with the greatest potential to act in ways that threaten the physical safety of everyone else.  These students often feel great anger towards schools that they feel have rejected them. They hold resentment for the students who are accepted by those same schools. Therefore, when schools strive to ensure that all students feel psychologically safe, they are keeping everyone physically safer too.

Redefine respect. 

Re-spect means to see again. Instead of making quick judgments about students, educators should stop, reflect, and see them differently. This is not an easy thing to do and educators need to support one other in doing so. The best example of this was when I heard two teachers talking about the same student.  The first teacher commented, “How can I get this student to pass the course when he is absent one to two times per week?” The second teacher said, “Given what this student has to overcome in his life, it is credit to him that he comes to school 3-4 times a week.” The same student, the same data point, but two very different ways of seeing that student and consequently two very different ways of responding to that student. Closing the caring gap requires that educators see students differently, look past the behavior and see the person: see a hero, instead of a deadbeat or troublemaker. The students who act out the most need the most care but too often feel disapproval and rejection.

Reject the idea that kindness and respect are synonymous with “letting them get away with it.”

Students should be treated with respect and kindness even when they break the rules. Educators can calmly and respectfully hold students accountable for their words and actions without shaming them. Showing kindness and respect to students who make mistakes or break the rules teaches all students that people are worthy of respect and that no person ever deserves mistreatment. If some staff members have difficulty disciplining this way, they need support and professional development to learn more respectful ways.

Think of one.

In every school there are certain students who probably don’t feel like they belong. It should be the driving mission of all educators to find those students and communicate to them that they are cared for and valued.  Educators cannot be satisfied with 99.99% of students feeling like they belong. They need to envision every student walking through the door of the school feeling a sense of belonging, with zero exceptions.

Go beyond the golden rule. 

Since bullying and mistreatment are ultimately about power and status, those with more power need to make sure that they respect those with less. “Treat those with less power and status the way you would treat those who had more than you” can be a guiding principle for all members of the school community to follow; it will create caring norms of behavior.

Be a community not just a group. 

This needs to be the key challenge that educators must accept. Bottom line: A community is a group of people committed to caring for each and every member so each person can trust and rely on the other members for support and help when needed. This is not easy thing to achieve, but schools that intentionally strive for this goal are the ones probably already well on their way to achieving it.

Closing the caring gap is an achievable goal, but doing so depends on whether educators believe it is possible. To quote Henry Ford, “If you think you can or think you can’t, you’re right.”

I am confident that schools that commit to closing the caring gap can reach levels of safety comparable to the airlines. These schools will also discover this positive unintended consequence: more optimal levels of learning and academic achievement. Students (and everyone else) learn more when they feel cared for and valued.

Written by

Jim Dillon has been an educator for over 35 years including 20 as a school administrator. He is currently the director of the Center for Leadership and Bullying Prevention. He has written three books, Peaceful School Bus (Hazelden), No Place for Bullying (Corwin) and Reframing Bullying Prevention to Build Stronger School Communities (Corwin). He writes a blog at Schedule an on-site or virtual consultation, seminar, or workshop with Jim Dillon today!

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