HOS Blog: Better Safe

Better Safe…

Before you even finished reading this short post’s even shorter title, you may already have found yourself muttering, “...than sorry.”  But my topic here is not risk aversion. Indeed, a more fitting title may have come from simply replacing the ellipsis with a period.  “Better Safe.”  When it comes to a school or classroom that optimizes growth and learning, safe is better—full stop.  

What I am suggesting is, of course, far from radical.  Organizations no less authoritative than the U.S. Department of Education (Too Scared to Learn? The Academic Consequences of Feeling Unsafe in the Classroom) and the National Institutes of Health (Feeling Unsafe at School and Associated Mental Health Difficulties among Children and Adolescents: A Systematic Review) have conducted studies testifying to this intuitive premise.  

In their article “What We’ve Learned About Creating Safe, Equitable, and Engaging Schools,” David Osher and Mary Katherine Ricker rank safety as the first condition for learning.  “Physical safety involves freedom from physical harm and threats of harm; emotional safety refers to freedom from bullying, harassment, and humiliation. When students don’t experience safety in school, they’re less able to focus in class and less likely to take academic risks.” 

In recent years, what we think of as school safety has, perhaps sadly, become a bit more literal, to include concerns, even preoccupations, with campus and building security, as well as health and hygiene protocols that emerged during the worst of the pandemic.  

These concerns are not unfounded and certainly deserve our continued attention, but for most students on most days, feeling safe at school has much more to do with a sense of belonging than a locked door or the nearest hand sanitizer dispenser.  A safe school environment is consistent and predictable, inclusive and accepting, joyful and positive.  For an adolescent, school is safe when it creates the conditions for “me to be me.”  

With this definition in mind, I was of course gratified to learn that on the nationally normed Student Experience Survey I and II, students rated Falmouth Academy highest in the following areas:

  • The school is a safe place to be smart
  • The school provides a safe environment for me (socially and physically)
  • I feel like I belong and am an important part of the community
  • I know exactly what to expect from my teachers, every day; I know just how they will react to anything we say or do
  • Adults show respect for students
  • The faculty and staff know me as an individual
  • Teachers are responsive to my individual needs

What our students intuitively recognize about our school is that it is safe, in all kinds of ways.  

Yesterday, I spent the morning at the town of Falmouth’s annual celebration of the birthday of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. sponsored by an organization fittingly called, “No Place for Hate.”  In addition to a pretty great breakfast buffet, the topic of belonging was very much on the menu. The event’s theme called to mind an art installation that I happened upon a few years back at the RISD Museum in Providence.  In its simplicity, it seemed to sum up the kind of school community I want us to be and who, on most days, we are.  (It also happened to be in FA blue!) I snapped a picture of it, and it remains one of the few I still keep on my phone.  Take a look.

Three words.  Yes, there are lots and lots of studies consisting of lots and lots of words, but I am pretty sure these are the only three that kids have in mind when they say, “My school is safe.” 

You may have seen that the Emmys were (finally) on last night.  One of the highlights for me was a reunion of the cast of one of my favorite old programs, “Cheers.”  It occurred to me that the writers of that show’s theme song had it right, and you have my permission to sing: “Sometimes (most times?) you want to go… where everybody knows your name ... .and they’re always glad you came.”  This may be the only time I would welcome Falmouth Academy being favorably compared to a bar!  Because when a school feels like that to a student, they learn and grow; and when it doesn’t?  Well, they don’t.  

So, better safe.  Full stop.
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