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November 1, 2016
Vol. 74
No. 3

Principal Connection / Protecting Your Team

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Safe schools attend to the emotional well-being of everyone.

School CultureLeadership
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I miss the kids' smiles, the energy in the building, and hearing a great insight while in a classroom or conference room. I even miss those myriad meetings in which we could never quite get to closure. (I led schools for 37 years, so that happened a lot.)
What I don't miss is being the person ultimately responsible for student safety. Each day, when I walked through our school's red front doors, I noted that, really, just about anyone could enter. Sure, we secured entrances and put in cameras and safety measures after the tragedy at Sandy Hook. But with safety, there are no guarantees—and I worried. Every time I returned after being out of the building, I looked for an emergency vehicle at the entrance. Early in my career as principal, a student had displayed a gun at my district's high school, and although no one was injured, the fear spread like powerful ripples across our schools.
Along with worrying, I always wondered where to draw the line on security measures so my school would be welcoming rather than feeling like an institution on the edge of danger. Physical safety isn't the only concern principals have—we also worry about emotional safety.

What Really Protects Kids—and Staff

As a school leader, I worked hard to ensure that every student felt safe and comfortable at my school. That meant embracing all kinds of learning abilities, ethnicities, and races (today we'd also affirm students' sexual and gender orientations), but it also meant knowing that students and teachers felt included as part of a team. Learning takes place when students can take risks and leave their comfort zones, confident that the folks in charge are on their side and working cohesively. Students must realize that we're all on the same team, members of a large family, not just occupants of a physically secure building.
That's true for our staff members as well. Certainly our security measures protect these adults, and they help protect our children. But we cannot stop there. What about the emotional safety of all of our staff members? How included do they feel?
If your school were to have a crisis, your maintenance and office staff would play a crucial role in ensuring everyone's safety. But how included are they when there isn't a crisis? Are nonteaching staff members mentioned in your Welcome Back greeting and invited to beginning-of-the-year festivities? Do you celebrate their birthdays and honor their service? If lunch is provided on professional development days, do they join you? Do they eat with teachers or at separate tables?
We need to be thoughtful about these occasions because they are opportunities to bring different roles together and raise everyone's comfort level. Even small actions can show that you appreciate school staff. Often, after an early morning meeting at the local coffee shop, I'd bring in pastries for the people working in my school's office. They were almost as happy as if I were giving them a vacation day! The pastries were tasty, but what mattered was my obvious appreciation of their efforts and their feeling of being included.

Bringing Teachers Together

It's also important to question whether teachers always feel emotionally safe and comfortable. We probably see the diversity of cultures, ages, and other characteristics we embrace in our students also reflected in our faculty. We need to be sure all teachers—even those who don't share some characteristics—feel included.
Naturally, closer relationships will develop among some of our teachers because they share common interests, teach the same subject, or carpool together. But school leaders need to be sure that normal groupings don't become cliques that aren't welcoming to others. Again, little things help. When the large group divides into smaller ones at faculty meetings, for example, have teachers count off, so that friends aren't always together. During special faculty lunches, assign seating on the basis of birthday months. Anything to create interactions among people who don't normally hang together.
When we help teachers mix who don't naturally mix—and who may have underlying differences—we need to ensure that their interactions are respectful. Of course, heated interactions may occur over differences, particularly political views. During the last presidential election, I wrote about how divided Americans—even teachers—were becoming over politics.
It's become even worse in 2016, and I fear this rancor won't diminish after Election Day. I believe each principal should take steps so that the teachers' lounge is a safe place to discuss politics or just to eat while others discuss politics. Let's remind teachers and staff that we need to respect everyone even if we don't agree with them. It's easy to think that this obligation to respect applies to differences of background, race, or gender, and forget that we need to respect—to listen to and include—people even when we disagree with their beliefs. Why not devote a professional development session to political diversity and ways to structure positive and respectful conversations among everyone? Ensuring that everyone feels respected provides another kind of safety.
As principals, we need to set the tone. Our actions should remind everyone that a safe school is one in which each person feels not only physically safe, but also included.

Thomas R. Hoerr retired after leading the New City School in St. Louis, Missouri, for 34 years and is now the Emeritus Head of School. He teaches in the educational leadership program at the University of Missouri–St. Louis and holds a PhD from Washington University in St. Louis.

Hoerr has written six other books—Becoming a Multiple Intelligences School, The Art of School Leadership, School Leadership for the Future, Fostering Grit, The Formative Five, Taking Social-Emotional Learning Schoolwide—and more than 160 articles, including "The Principal Connection" column in Educational Leadership.

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