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Safety vs. Safe Learning Environments: We Got This!

Updated: Sep 4, 2020

For centuries, educators have been fostering safe environments and families have trusted educators to nurture the safety of their children. Is the frenzy for ample masks and hand sanitizers causing us to forget or overshadow what we already know about safety, community, and relationship-building? Quite possibly. As we obsess over re-arranging schedules and spaces for physical distancing in preparation for the new school year, let us likewise contemplate the deeply personal and interpersonal tenets of safe, nurturing, loving learning environments. Crises come and go, but the love that a teacher infuses in a child’s heart is the safest and most enduring constant. It’s time to give leaders, teachers, students, and families their power back. It’s time to rekindle what a "safe" environment for learning really means.

Why Safety? Why Now?

The urgency and unpredictability of Covid-19 presents an undeniable demand for caution. Why? The rationale stems from Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, suggesting that basic physical safety is the most fundamental human psychological need. However, more current research in the fields of health and wellness suggest it’s not a hierarchy at all. In fact, without a deeply emotional and personal sense of care and concern, respect, self-worth, value, love and belonging, physical needs are practically irrelevant. Recent studies in neuroscience have revealed the section of the brain that regulates emotion as the “entry point” for all information processing and learning. Even in the field of business and industry, a clear sense of purpose and core values have been identified as the singular key to long-term success and growth.

We read the books and consult with Google and gurus, but we don't know how to heal. We outsource our inner wisdom… How we are loved, how we love each other, and how we love and care for ourselves not only impacts chronic disease, but also resilience, depression and anxiety, sleep issues, and performance… Through accepting the love around you, through practicing the self-love of self-care and self-accountability, you will heal all areas of your life.”

Razi Berry, Love is Medicine

What about the field of education? Likewise, educational research confirms the need for caring, nurturing relationships in the school/classroom learning environment as the prerequisite to academic learning or intellectual capacity-building. But you already know this. And that’s my point. It’s the reason elementary school teachers spend days decorating their classrooms with students' work which parents later post on the refrigerator; middle school teachers meet with teachers of prior grades to understand the trajectory of students’ learning and growth; high school teachers tap into students’ ideas, backgrounds, insecurities, and future aspirations; and college professors nudge slacking students in whom they see the spark, even while they're trying to cultivate independence.

Relationships build trust. Trust builds community. And together, we can learn or do anything.

So here’s the question... If we have enough protective equipment for every student and staff, but not a kind word nor an empathetic gesture, are we safe? If we close the physical space to keep ourselves 6 feet apart, without opening the emotional space to understand what each other is going through at home or secretly in our hearts, are we safe? If we rush to cover the content because we’ve lost so much time on learning, but sacrifice the time to build relationships and really know our students, be there for them, and care about who they are and who they are becoming, are we safe? If we’ve made preparations for access to computers for virtual learning, if we’ve rearranged the schedule, if we’ve accommodated additional health complications, but we’re still frustrated, scared, or annoyed at the system or leaders or politicians, we’ll transfer that attitude to children and families and have greater difficulty modeling calmness in the midst of the storm.

The Broader Context: "Safe" Learning Environments

Let’s return to everything we know and live every day. Below is a brief synthesis, from a vast compendium of educational research, of the critical elements involved in nurturing an environment for learning and readiness to learn (i.e., a “safe” learning environment). This list applies not only to individual classrooms, but also schools & districts as whole systems.

1. Mission, core values, and vision

  • Driven by a long-term vision

  • Celebration of successes, strengths, and progress

  • Culture of continuous improvement

  • Leadership policies designed to support culture and community

2. High expectations

  • Deeply held belief in the value and capacity of students to learn

  • Strong support to meet those expectations

  • Empathy in decision-making, both classroom-level and leadership-level

3. Relationships and community

  • Awareness of and drawing on students’ identities, personalities, and strengths (including interests, passions, backgrounds, cultures, faith, experiences, values and attitudes, aspirations, perspectives, ideas, prior learning, etc.)

  • Sense of respect and trust

  • Sense of belief in ourselves and each other

  • Sense of belonging

4. Family and community engagement

  • Communication

  • Welcoming and onboarding

  • Role modeling and mentoring

5. Curriculum, instruction, and assessment that is coherent, consistent, and accessible

  • Relevance – cultural, societal, personal, etc.

  • Rigor and complexity

  • Progression (or staircase) of learning over time

  • Individualized, personalized, customized, differentiated instruction to meet students’ wide range of strengths and needs

  • Ongoing support and scaffolding

  • Safety nets and alternative pathways to success

  • Student voice, choice, and balance between individual vs. collaborative learning opportunities

6. Routines and structures

  • Rapport and norms

  • Communication

  • Physical setting and arrangement

Sound familiar? Of course! We know how to do this. We know what safety is. The masks, the technology, the content, the grades… they will always be there. But the seeds we plant in a life, the love we instill in a heart, the courage we build in a mind to fulfill all that a student has the potential to become... we only get one chance.

Don't outsource your intuition. Don’t let anything divert you from establishing the loving environments you need in order to nurture students’ readiness to learn. Don't forget you already know what "safe" means.

Fear perpetuates stress. Love eradicates fear. Safety dwells in love. We’re educators. We got this.

~ Ronit Carter, President and Lead Consultant, Learning Lens

© 2020 Learning Lens. All Rights Reserved.

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