A school’s first obligation is to provide a safe and effective environment for student learning and growing. Unfortunately, we are reminded all too often that this is a difficult commitment to keep. Now, more than ever, everyone who cares about our schools and the people who populate them needs to participate in the national dialog about school safety and to understand that the issues involved relate not just to physical safety, but equally so to social and emotional safety. Students in our schools should be able to feel safe as well as be safe.
Wise and experienced school leaders strive to ensure that schools are places where students are known and respected for who they are even as they are encouraged in the process of growing and changing. Such school leaders also understand that safe does not mean soft and that students need to be challenged as well as nurtured. Effective schooling is about helping students make connections, see relationships, and sustain a spirit of inquiry as much as it is about imparting knowledge. Schools need to provide safe environments for students to build such relationships and connections, with peers and teachers as well as with knowledge and information. School professionals need to be proactive when such connections and relationships, socially as well as cognitively, are not being built effectively and to take steps as necessary to help young people in need.
Guns & Schools
For schools to be physically safe places for students, schools need to commit to enhancing safety measures. All schools in the U.S., independent as well as public, conduct regular fire drills. As a Montgomery County school, we are required to hold fire drills once a month throughout the school year. Although not required to do so, for years Norwood has conducted emergency preparedness drills, typically once or twice a year. At this point, responding to an emergency drill is not second nature as responding to a fire alarm is. While school fires occur every year in our country, according to U.S. Fire Administration data, no student or adult has been killed in a school fire in over a decade. The measures we have taken as a society – tougher building codes, fire department response training, and school fire drills –in response to tragic school fires (and in particular the 1958 school fire in which 92 children lost their lives) have made a difference. Now is the time we need to take similarly serious and thoughtful measures to reduce the likelihood of student loss of life due to gun violence.
Many schools such as Norwood bring in experts annually to train their faculty and staff in basic First Aid and CPR. We know it is our job to do the best we can to keep an injured person alive and protected from more serious harm until trained medical personnel arrive. Over the years, that training has become more simple and straightforward, acknowledging that under conditions of extreme emergency and stress, people are less likely to remember complex tasks that they do not routinely perform. The same approach should be taken in response to threatening intruders.
Norwood will be expanding training from security experts in the future on how best to respond to threats on campus. We will be conducting more frequent emergency preparedness drills. As we have in the past, we will work with Montgomery County police to conduct active shooter drills during professional days, when students are not on campus. We want to do all we can to ensure effective communication during a crisis and to shorten the response time necessary to get trained professionals on campus in response to a perceived or real threat to the safety and security of our school population.
It is one thing to argue that we need more and better training for faculty and staff in emergency response measures; it is quite another to claim that teachers, administrators or (has been suggested in some parts of the country) school janitors should routinely carry firearms. In my view, such suggestions are beyond misguided and irresponsible; they are symptomatic of the gun problem in our culture, not solutions for it. Encouraging or requiring teachers and/or other school personnel to carry guns would only exacerbate the already serious problem we have in this country with accidental or impulsive gun use that so often results in tragedy, all the while undermining the kind of relationships we try to build in school communities between educators and learners. There are certainly times that schools, whether public or independent, may need an armed police presence. Otherwise schools are not places for firearms.
Social & Emotional Safety
Even as we continue to address these serious external threats to school safety, we need to continue to work to make schools safe from within, providing safe and inclusive communities for all students. If we let some of our students be treated like second-class citizens or even outcasts, we rob our communities of their potential, and as we have seen time and again, such outcasts can turn to violence against themselves and others. Too often we have seen schools attacked by people who were themselves shamed and frequently humiliated as students. This is not an apology for such heinous crimes, but an effort to understand and address them.
Last September, I had the privilege to travel to Australia to participate in the IPSHA (The Independent Primary School Heads Association of Australia) Conference on behalf of ESHA (The Elementary School Heads Association). Not surprisingly, our colleagues in Australia are dealing with many of the same issues that we are, including how best to advance the social and emotional development of children while promoting 21st century learning skills. Professor Donna Cross, a Columbia University trained psychologist who has done extensive research on the social and emotional development of children and adolescents in Australian schools, was among the keynote speakers. Dr. Cross spoke eloquently and persuasively about how levels of school connectedness are associated with lower levels of emotional disturbance, lower truancy, lower rates of violence, less suicidal ideation and behavior, less substance abuse, later involvement in sexual activity, and less bullying.
School-aged children need lots of face-to-face connections. And yet research indicates that in this age of social media, the amount of time young people spend alone is increasing. Our schools need to pay attention to the social architecture that each of our children is building: the types of interactions they have with peers and the number, reciprocal nature, and quality of their friendships. Parents and educators need to make early interventions when we see issues of bullying and social isolation. Not everyone is or should be expected to be an extrovert, but children and adolescents who exhibit signs of social withdrawal need attention and appropriate care. And students who bully need to be held accountable for their behavior. Students need to be taught to respect the rights and feelings of others and to value the worth and dignity of each person. We must continue to do all we can to ensure that schools are safe places, socially and emotionally, for all students.
Character Education & Grit
While it is our job as school leaders is to provide safe environments for learning, we would be failing our students if we were to provide places safe from failure and from the realities of life. Instead, it is our obligation to provide safe places for young people to extend themselves and to know that it is OK to have to struggle at times and to experience failure, not because we seek failure, but because we value it as an opportunity to learn. Robust educational environments provide safe places for students to explore, to take risks, and to learn how to raise themselves up when they fall. Such environments teach students not only to learn from adversity but also to learn to manage it, and thus help and encourage children to be self- reliant and bold in their exploration of the world.
Paul Tough’s recent book, How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character, supports what good independent school leaders and teachers have long known: qualities of character starting with resilience and persistence (which together he calls “grit”), and including curiosity, resourcefulness, optimism, integrity, courage, and also gratitude can and should be developed as part of the education of a young person. Encouraging such character development, intentionally and over time, makes a powerful difference.
Many years ago, a legendary Head of St. Albans School, Canon Charles Martin, cautioned parents that “life is not easy.” Paul Tough’s study focused in part on teaching character skills to students from less privileged backgrounds. Canon Martin, on the other hand, knew he was speaking to parents at the opposite end of the spectrum, the Washington elite of the early 1960s. Their messages are the same. Canon Martin acknowledged to his parent body of that day that, “We can give our children more, spare them more, protect them more. For that very reason we must be forever on guard against sparing them too much and failing to give them the strength they need to meet the realities [of life] that are hard, demanding, even tragic at times.”
More recently, Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck noted in her important book Mindset that the best gifts we can give to young people are to teach them to love challenges, to be intrigued by mistakes, to enjoy effort, and to keep on learning. She argues that we should avoid praising children for their natural talents or abilities, but instead praise them for demonstrating a growth-oriented mindset – that is, an outlook that seeks always to learn new things, to improve skills, and to accomplish goals through practice, study, persistence, and thoughtful strategies.
At Norwood we want our students to experience the joy of discovery and the satisfaction and self- confidence that comes from mastery. We also want our school to be a safe place for students to manage challenges and overcome adversity, and through such experiences develop persistence, resilience, courage, and firm conviction, or, as we like to say at Norwood, to learn that “How you lead your life matters.” Part of what we continue to emphasize with our students is that it matters how they treat others and how they treat themselves, and it matters that they develop strong qualities of character. It matters to us, and we believe it matters to their future success and happiness. That is the hidden secret of success that people like Paul Tough are writing about now.
A Call to Action
We know how important it is for schools to provide safe environments for children and adolescents, safe socially and emotionally as well as physically. We also know that successful schools are dynamic places of learning with strong cultures that foster meaningful and powerful relationships between students and educators. It is also true, given the state of our world, that some schools in some areas and/or at some times need armed guards. Unless there is such a clear need, however, schools are better off with unarmed but well-trained security. Our society and culture cannot be sustained if our schools become fearful enclaves within armed fortresses.
Those who care about schools, those who care about the youth we are raising, those who care about the future of our country, need to take a stand on issues of school safety and security and in particular to be active in discussions and debates on gun control. We are faced with a gun and violence pandemic. We are not bystanders when a flu pandemic strikes. We should not be bystanders in this pandemic as well. We must also acknowledge that schools can be places that some young people with severe social emotional problems and mental illness associate with their pain. People concerned about gun control – as we all should be – should be focused on keeping guns out of the hands of people with such illnesses. People involved with schools should also be focused on ensuring that any such students (or adults) in their schools get the help they need.
I urge you to work in concert with teachers and administrators at your schools to continue to work to make our schools safe places for learning and growing. We know from research and experience that there are significant long-term benefits for those fortunate students who go to schools that successfully build character, resilience, and grit, and that there are equally long-term and potentially devastating effects for young people who experience ongoing shame and humiliation in their schools. We do not need more research studies or tragedies to let us know the importance of this work. We cannot protect our students from all forms of bullying or challenging behavior, nor can we protect our educational institutions from all threats of gun violence. That is no reason not to act on both fronts with the urgency and shared concern these issues demand.