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July 11, 2022
Vol. 79
No. 9

How to Make Your School Psychologically Safe

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Four critical steps for nurturing the seeds of inclusivity in school communities.

School Culture
How to Make Your School Psychologically Safe
Credit: MIGHTYISLAND / iSTOCK
This past year has been hard for many educators—some say as hard as the first year of the pandemic. There have been staff shortages due to teachers being sick or dealing with well-being and emotional struggles. This, in turn, has required other teachers to cover classes, lunch duties, and other needs, adding to already heavy caseloads. There has also been the high-stress job of combating the instructional gaps and social-emotional issues that many students experienced during remote learning.
But while this past year—and teaching in the midst of a pandemic in general—has been challenging for everyone, educators in communities that are inclusive and psychologically safe have been able to weather the storm a bit easier. These educators have been able to not just survive but thrive. Why is that? Because being in an inclusive school community—one in which members feel accepted, safe, respected, and celebrated, and know that their voice matters—increases the overall well-being of all members of that community and makes facing challenges easier.
What exactly do we mean by an "inclusive community"? According to the Community Toolbox created by The Center for Community Health and Development:
An inclusive community does everything it can to respect all its citizens, gives them full access to resources, and promotes equal treatment and opportunity. It works to eliminate all forms of discrimination. It engages all its citizens in decision-making processes that affect their lives. It values diversity and responds quickly to racist and other discriminating incidents.
In an inclusive community, psychological safety is first priority. This means acts of exclusion and injustice based on identity or other factors are not tolerated. As educators of color, we have both been in spaces where our voices have been muffled, not heard, or devalued in conversations around transformation of the schools in which we worked. Not feeling like you are "held" and valued at the tables at which you sit can prompt a person rethinking whether the space in which they work is where they want to be—especially for educators from marginalized communities.

Inclusion Takes Work—From Everyone

Creating a culture of inclusivity takes ongoing, intentional work from every community member. A recent report on creating inclusive school cultures, from the Community Inclusion Project in Ontario, notes that efforts to that end must be based on the philosophy that the whole school shares in the responsibility for inclusion. A real culture of inclusion cannot come about unless everyone embraces it. This philosophy and commitment begins at the top—with the school leaders—and permeates throughout the entire community. Leaders in the building must set the overall tone of honoring and including everyone, and from that soil, seeds of acceptance and belonging, trust, communication, and learning can grow. Here are some places to start.

Planting Seeds of Acceptance and Belonging

First and foremost, acceptance and belonging must be a core element of your school community. Establishing this begins with creating a vision, mission, and goals that include all the members within the community. Whatever process you use for this, your vision, mission, and goals should be shaped by all stakeholders, not just the most vocal or privileged. At the start of this process, it's important to create ways for people to talk openly about whether they feel accepted and that they "belong" in the school—and if not, what might help. Invite people, in safe spaces, to share answers to questions like:
  • Do you feel accepted in this space?
  • If you do, what makes you feel accepted?
  • If not, what makes you not feel accepted in this space?
  • Do you feel like you belong in the community? Why or why not?
  • How can we create a school culture of greater acceptance and belonging?
These questions seem simple, but the conversations and information gathered through them can be transformational. Beginning each school year with this kind of discussion, facilitated by leadership team members, teachers or department heads, and even students, can provide a model that enables these discussions to happen throughout the school in ongoing ways. This can allow a ripple effect of acceptance and belonging to spread through your school.

Educators in communities that are inclusive and psychologically safe weathered the storm of the pandemic a bit easier.

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Having such conversations often releases a heavy weight from some members of your community. It helps people feel valued and validated. Taking the time to have these conversations allows people in your school community to be their authentic selves—which is liberating and feeds into everyone's overall sense of well-being. The foundational thing is to center educators whose voices are lacking or not being heard. Uncomfortableness in these conversations is bound to happen—but only through feeling some discomfort, through open and honest communication with respect and trust, will true transformation occur. Leaders should be open and transparent about the why behind the discussions.
A school's vision, mission, and goals are living documents. Revisit them often and discuss them in ways that bring in everyone's perspectives. Leaders might also create a way to check in individually with teachers and staff members to see how they're feeling about the mission and goals. School leaders should build an inclusive team that, throughout the school year, thinks about and takes action on ways to create a more accepting culture and increase everyone's sense of belonging.

Planting Seeds of Trust

Trust takes intentionality to build—and can be so easily broken. But trust is essential to an inclusive school community. Trust helps to create that psychologically safe environment where members feel "held." When people in the school community trust one another, they know that people in their community are going to do what they say they will do and that they mean what they say. They know everyone will do their job the best they can and make the best interests of the school their priority.
Without this sense of trust, members of the school community will have higher stress levels. Their overall desire to come to work will lessen. When some educators or staff don't want to come to work, when they do not feel comfortable or safe there, colleagues pick up on it. This affects the well-being of the whole community. Planting and cultivating seeds of trust—so that members of the community trust others will do their part and "have their back" if necessary—is essential.
A key way for leaders to plant seeds of trust is to collectively identify and communicate clear roles and expectations for all the members of the community, so everyone knows what they're expected to do in their role and what's expected of others. This helps people feel they can count on one another and decreases confusion and conflict. Creating realistic expectations of all community members involves identifying people's strengths and interests or passions. Teams and departments might hold meetings (along with school leaders) early in the year to discuss team members' strengths and areas of growth, and agree on roles and responsibilities.
Other ways a leader can strengthen trust include:
  • Always doing what you say you're going to do, to model accountability.
  • Creating time and space for team building, including activities that help members of the team get to know each other better.
  • Making space for self-care in the school community and modeling taking care of yourself.
Building trust is not a "check-the-box," activity only done at the beginning of the year. It must be ongoing work that sets the stage for strong relationship building and maintenance.

Planting Seeds of Compassionate Communication

Most educators know the value of communication among members of the school community—especially when the communication is open and clear and allows all voices to be heard. The keys to communication that helps build an inclusive school community are transparency and compassion. And the times when it is not so easy to communicate something within the community (like when a leader is communicating about something the staff may not take well, even though it seems "not a big deal" to the leader) are usually when clear, compassionate communication is most crucial. It could be as simple as announcing a change in schedule for the day. The transparency and compassion piece is crucial because change of routine can alter a person's entire frame of mind—we are human first, right?
Compassionate communication means giving and receiving messages in a way that's empathetic and thoughtful. It allows for honest communication even of hard messages because it grounds that communication in a context of care. For instance, in the example just mentioned, the principal can be transparent by communicating the big idea behind the schedule-changing decisions being made that are beyond teachers' control.
There are many ways leaders, teachers, and staff can encourage compassionate communication:
  • Bring people together frequently in different configurations to check in on how things are going, making sure the space feels safe and encourages honesty.
  • Create an "open door" policy—and be truly open when someone in the school comes to you to talk about their needs, problems, or successes.
  • Find ways for everyone involved to collaborate on big topics or changes that affect the community, using a process that ensures all voices will be heard.
  • Be transparent about districtwide mandates and what is expected.
  • Teachers can use compassionate communication with students and parents, such as during parent/teacher conferences.

Planting Seeds of Learning—About Diversity and Equity

In a space that's defined by learning, it may seem odd to emphasize learning as one of the seeds we need to grow to build an inclusive community. But to create an inclusive community, everyone within that community needs to learn ways to be a better human, often by developing a more open mind and heart toward diversity and being more attentive to issues of equity, inclusion, and acceptance. A key element of an inclusive school community is knowing how to identify and respond quickly to racism and other forms of discrimination that may take place within the school. Getting there often takes learning—and unlearning—on the part of all members.

The keys to communication that helps build an inclusive school community are transparency and compassion.

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Ways to plant seeds of such learning include:
  • To help community members become more aware of issues of equity and racism, and equity-related problems in the school, bring in trainers who've done extensive work in the areas of diversity, equity, and inclusion in schools.
  • Continue to do the work of learning through frequent schoolwide book studies and discussions. Help community members dig into structural and personal biases through structured reflection and self-exploration.
  • Incorporate non-mainstream perspectives into professional development, meetings, and collaborative work teachers participate in. Consider whose voices aren't being heard.
  • Help teachers ensure their classroom lessons are culturally responsive, inclusive, and relevant to their students. The seed of learning should thread into classroom spaces.
This kind of learning should be embedded throughout the school year. It's important to remember that since we are all human, mistakes will happen, and we won't always get it right. But we can always learn and grow.

Repairing Frayed Relationships

One result of the many shifts made in K–12 education over the past two-and-a half years has been that relationships in schools have frayed and differences in viewpoints and values have grown, at times pitting members of the school community against each other—parents against teachers, teachers against administrators, and so on. This has likely contributed to many educators leaving their school or the profession. However, by ensuring that all members of the community feel included, accepted, and heard, we can make each school a place where differences are worked out respectfully—and a place where we all feel welcomed and celebrated.
End Notes

1 The Community Toolbox: Cultural Competence and Spirituality in Community Building. (2022). "Building Inclusive Communities."

2 Ontario Community Inclusion Project of Community Living Ontario. "An Inclusive School Culture."

Nita (E’Manita) Creekmore is an Instructional Coach and a presenter for Bright Morning Consulting. She taught in grades 1, 2 and 5 for 13 years before becoming an Elementary School Instructional Coach. Nita obtained her Bachelor's Degree in English in 2001 and Master’s Degree in Elementary Education in 2002 from the University of South Carolina. She also received her Educational Specialist Degree in Educational Leadership in 2013 from the University of Virginia. In the 18 years she has been in education, she truly believes that in all aspects of the field, relationships must always come first. It is the foundation. Nita is passionate about being an advocate, support and thought partner for teachers in order to give students what they need.

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