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Log in to Witsby: ASCD’s Next-Generation Professional Learning and Credentialing Platform
September 1, 1998
Vol. 56
No. 1

You Will Be Safe Here

From threats of violence to emotional insecurity, many students enter our schools with the burden of fear. By addressing these concerns directly, educators can cultivate peace in the classroom.

After three years of failing to realize a positive learning environment, a 6th grade language arts teacher in an inner-city school began the new year by replacing her formal discipline rules with a handwritten sign that said, "You will be safe here." Instead of ignoring the gang influence in her neighborhood, she recognized its power over her students. Their fears of being accosted by rival gang members or shot in their crossfire were real. The simple statement on their classroom wall implied not only physical safety, but respect.
Along with the lone class rule, she developed a literature unit on survival that included the books Number the Stars (Lowry, 1989), Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes (Coerr, 1977), and The Island on Bird Street (Orlev, 1984), which feature children overcoming the atrocities of World War II. The unit proved to be a powerful experience. The promise of a safe, peaceful community had transformed her teaching and her students' learning. Like the main characters in the works they studied, they saw themselves as mutual survivors, dependent on one another to live and learn as a community.
Glasser (1990) identifies survival and belonging as the primary genetic needs of all human beings. The 6th grade teacher fostered survival and belonging by creating a peaceful community. Within her classroom, students felt free from harm, secure in the established structure, and connected to one another. And the curriculum addressed their struggles for existence by linking their own experiences to those of fictional characters who also faced great challenges.

Defining Peace

As a child reared in the sixties, I often saw news footage of flower children flashing peace symbols juxtaposed with clips of Vietnam battle scenes. Through these images, I defined peace as simply the absence of war. I had never connected the concept of peace with the classroom. My years as an urban public school teacher, a graduate student, and a teacher educator have revealed the shortsightedness of this former perspective. The more encompassing opposite of peace is not war, but fear. Although war may not exist in the educational community, fear does. In fact, it exists in every classroom. And unfortunately, in some classrooms it runs rampant.
Too many preservice teachers anticipate entering schools in the management role of peacekeeper. This role is inadequate in that it implies that peace already exists in the lives of the students who attend each day. It assumes that young people experience a sense of well-being in their lives. Within this framework, a teacher upholds the peace in the same way we envision a justice of the peace carrying out his or her duties. But few students enter our classrooms without worries about matters ranging from unfinished homework to domestic violence. Far from being carefree, childhood brings fears that are experienced intensely because children cannot fully understand or control the circumstances (Erikson, 1987). Educators instead must be prepared to take on the role of peacemaker. This requires the creation, rather than the assumption, of a peaceful environment.

A Matter of Trust

Erikson (1987) addresses the primacy of fear in the lives of children who are in the first stage of life, known as "basic trust versus basic mistrust." For infants to develop a sense of hope, they must be nurtured with care and consistency. Tragically for many children, the very adults who should provide security are instead a source of fear and mistrust. These adults may include law enforcement officers and educators. In Always Running (1993), Luis Rodriguez writes eloquently of the fear he experienced as a young Mexican boy growing up in Watts. He recalls when he and a friend ran from playing basketball at a vacant school playground in a white neighborhood after police arrived:It never stopped, this running. We were constant prey, and the hunters soon became big blurs: the police, the gangs, the junkies, the dudes on Garvey Boulevard who took our money, all smudged into one. Sometimes they were teachers who jumped on us Mexicans as if we were born with a hideous stain. We were always afraid. Always running. (p. 36)
Creating peaceful communities is not just the challenge of urban educators. Students from middle-class, suburban neighborhoods also carry their share of concerns, ranging from the effects of divorce on life at home to failing to comprehend the hidden curriculum of schools. In the video Learning Disabilities and Social Skills (1994), Richard Lavoie describes how two high school students lived in fear of being exposed for their inability to master social situations. One student, a senior, had never had a hot lunch during four years of high school because he was absent the day freshmen learned how to gain access to the cafeteria line, and he was too embarrassed to ask for help later. Another student was about to be suspended for cutting school when the faculty realized that his truancy pattern coincided with modified block scheduling—a concept he was too flustered to seek help to understand. For these students, school was the antithesis of a peaceful community. Every day brought potential opportunities for humiliation.

Clear Expectations, and Just Actions

Teachers not only may fail to recognize classroom fears, but may inadvertently create them. Two situations I observed in classes taught by new student teachers demonstrate the relationship between fear and classroom management. In the first case, a student teacher working with 3rd graders assigned one part of a lesson as a required activity and several other parts as optional. Her instructions, however, were not clear to the students. As soon as independent work time began, so did student conversations. Even after the student teacher reminded her class that they were to work quietly and independently, the chatter continued. Finally, the students asked about the assignment, and she repeated the directions more clearly.
After the lesson, I asked the student teacher why she thought her students were so talkative. She attributed it to their adjustment to a new teacher's style. I believed students were chattering because they did not understand the assignment. Only after they realized that most students were unclear about the directions did they feel it was safe to ask for more help. Being expected to do something you do not understand creates fear. Peaceful communities require clear expectations.
The second example comes from a 5th grade classroom where a student teacher had introduced a place-value estimation game. The class had been quite attentive during the instructions. However, during one round, a student noticed that he had made a mistake. The student teacher allowed this student to correct his error. She did not realize that this change affected the outcome of the game. When students became upset and began talking, she said, "I guess you just can't handle a game for review; we'll have to stop."
Later, I asked the student teacher why she ended the game. When she said that she thought the class was getting out of control, I asked her to pinpoint when their off-task conversation started. She accurately identified the point after the student had self-corrected. Upon reflection, she realized her actions had been unfair to the rest of the class. It wasn't the game her students couldn't handle; it was the injustice. Injustice is a violation in a peaceful community. The perception of unfair treatment creates fear.
Creating a peaceful community requires clear expectations for students and consistent treatment. These elements communicate respect. In To Know As We Are Known (1993), Parker Palmer describes an environment that focuses on the importance of learners as well as on the content to be learned:Education . . . means more than teaching the facts and learning the reasons so we can manipulate life toward our ends. It means being drawn into personal responsiveness and accountability toward each other and the world of which we are a part. (Pp. 14-15)
Palmer defines a learning community as a group of individuals who provide "mutual encouragement and mutual testing" (p. 18), additional elements that indicate caring through support and accountability. He views teachers as moderators between the knower and the known, as sources of connection and facilitators of relationships. By providing openness, establishing boundaries, and creating an air of hospitality, teachers create a space in which these connections can take place. Palmer defines openness as removing barriers to learning, including misconceptions, fear of being found ignorant, and prejudice. At the same time, teachers must provide the boundaries that structure learning.

Engaging Curriculums

Although a peaceful community requires structure and clear expectations, I do not mean to imply that curriculum should be similarly "safe" and predictable. Curriculums that are ambiguous or open-ended can be more inviting to explore and more accurate representations of the world. The more trust that has been established within the learning community, the more ambiguous or complex the learning task that can be accomplished. When teachers, as peacemakers, have established a community of mutual encouragement and mutual testing, then students know it is safe to engage in research with uncertain outcomes. The 6th grade teacher's students could deal with the concept of death—death of a parent in Nazi-occupied Poland (Orlev, 1984), fear of death as a member of the Danish resistance (Lowry, 1989), and the death of a child in Hiroshima (Coerr, 1977)—because mutual trust had been established.

Seeing the Whole Child

How do teachers create peaceful communities? First, we must view our students holistically. When we catagorize students as slow learners, hyperactive, or gifted, we fail to see the whole child—abilities as well as weaknesses. We also fail to see that our students hold great potential for change, despite their circumstances. William Ayers (1997) writes, "I learned long ago in my own classroom that if I treat kids like hoodlums and thugs they will rarely disappoint, but if I treat them as scholars and ethicists, valued and valuable, they can just as easily stretch and grow into people of values" (p. 51).
Second, we must recognize that our knowledge of each student is partial. Despite detailed observation, formal and informal assessments, parent conferences, and cumulative records, the perspective we develop is limited. As educators, we make decisions about student learning on the basis of fragmentary information at best. This incomplete understanding often calls us to extend grace to our students in order to build redemptive relationships with them.
When a 9-year-old student turned down a request to deliver a note to the school office, her teacher asked what could possibly make her so tired by 9:30 A.M. Expecting to hear that the student had stayed up too late the night before, the teacher instead learned that the girl had been up at 6:00 A.M. to take her family's clothes to a laundromat so that her siblings would have clean clothes for school that morning. After finishing the laundry, she had returned home to provide breakfast and supervise her brother and sister until they left for school. Her mother, who worked the night shift, was unable to see them off.
After hearing this explanation, the teacher complimented her on her helpfulness. Too often, as educators, we are unaware of the difficult burdens some of our students carry or of the abilities they must possess to shoulder them.
This leads to the third component: acknowledging that negotiating peaceful communities is a complex and challenging enterprise. Understanding a student's fears without allowing them to become an excuse for inadequate performance is difficult. We must be careful not to become so overwhelmed by the circumstances in our students' lives that we deprive them of gaining the skills to overcome them. When an assignment is incomplete, the decision of whether to offer justice or mercy is made in the educational context of helping the student's future moral behavior. Offering justice, by giving a failing grade, may result in the student's acting more responsibly in the future. Offering mercy, by granting an extension, may result in the student's acting more compassionately in the future.
Creating a peaceful community brings students hope in an environment where they can develop their academic talents, their ability to solve social conflicts amicably, and their belief that the future can be brighter than the present. No young person is beyond such hope. It is our responsibility as peacemakers to reflect this hope in our daily instructional interactions with students.

Ayers, W. (1997). I walk with delinquents. Educational Leadership, 55(2), 48-51.

Coerr, E. (1977). Sadako and the thousand paper cranes. New York: Putnam.

Erikson, E. (1987). The human life cycle. In S. Schlein (Ed.), A way of looking at things: Selected papers of Erik Erikson 1930-1980. New York: Norton.

Glasser, W. (1990). The quality school: Managing students without coercion. New York: Harper & Row.

Lavoie, R. (1994) [Video]. Learning disabilities and social skills with Richard Lavoie: Last one picked . . . first one picked on. Washington, DC: WETA. (Distributed by PBS Video).

Lowry, L. (1989). Number the stars. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Orlev, U. (1984). The island on Bird Street. (Hillel Halkin, Trans.). Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Palmer, P. (1993). To know as we are known: Education as a spiritual journey. San Francisco: Harper.

Rodriguez, L. (1993). Always running: Gang days in L.A. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Jillian N. Lederhouse has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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