School & District Management Opinion

Learning and Safety in the Time of School Shootings

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — April 26, 2018 3 min read
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There have been many who have dedicated themselves to changing grading systems. Some even advocate for replacing grades with feedback. Instead of failing grades, some suggest offering a ‘not yet’ as an indicator of where the student is on the trajectory toward success. The basis for much of this is the belief that grades are not encouraging to most students and are limiting to many. Others believe it is part of a secret code, an accountability system that tells students and parents where the students are in relation to a definition of success. The conversations are rich and important. Out of those conversations comes a “why”. Many say the reason for using grades, or only grades, to evaluate the progress of our work and the work of our students is wrong because we teach much more than subjects.

Schools work hard at teaching students about rules, civility, character, how to advocate and how to support, how to contribute to a community, how to speak to power, how to create and how to grow an idea. These are not measurable in our current grading systems nor should they be. However, if the reality of the value of all the behaviors we teach isn’t held at the center of our work, it is unlikely that it will be taught equitably, to all students, with the same standards. In order for a school system to thrive, these behaviors on the part of the faculty and staff and leaders are essential as models for the students. The value and focus on these emotional and social behaviors are central to learning as they contribute to an environment in which learning can flourish.

School Shootings and Safety

It is with that in mind we reflect on school shootings, school safety, and the question of whether educators should be armed. As schools, their communities, boards and the legislatures struggle to find ways to make school shootings a thing of the past, we are teaching something more. There truly is no way to be safe, totally safe. There are ways to make it difficult for someone to enter our buildings, making them safer. But, a goal to lull children and adults into thinking no harm is possible is an unrealistic one. On the other hand, creating fear by keeping people on their toes watching for danger runs counter to a healthy learning environment. What does this circumstance offer educators in the arena of emotional and social learning opportunities? It is more than how to duck and hide or foil an intruder. As with most systemic decision making, the responsibility for thinking this through rests with the school leader.

Humanizing the ‘Other’

It is important to teach children to understand something beyond ‘us and them’ and ‘good or bad’. It is in the opposition of terms that fear, and sometimes hate, can develop. While schools are focusing on teaching ‘if you see something, say something’ and how to run for cover, it is also important to wonder aloud with the children, ‘What brings a person to decide to use a weapon and do harm, in some cases to perfect strangers?’ Rather than demonizing imaginary intruders, it is valuable to humanize them. This is the important work of educators. It is not the work we value with grades, but it is the most important work. Teaching children about being human is central to the work we do in preparing them for ‘college and career’ and life and important.

It isn’t enough to leave people thinking that resource officers, locked doors, and emergency plans protect them from harm and they can forget about the rest. If we think about and teach about the ‘why’ of the danger it can inform how everyone in a school community treats one another. It can affect how misbehavior is handled with discipline and dignity. It can affect how students are guided to interact with each other in academic endeavors as well as in hallways and lunchrooms. And it can affect who the students have become when they cross our graduation stages.

The Ungraded Lasting Impact of Our Work

This is important work for educators. How can we remember to hold it up as central to our work as the creators, facilitators and protectors of a safe learning environment? Part of the lasting impact of our work is contributing to healthy, socially and emotionally informed youngsters who become the next generation of adults. We don’t grade it. We don’t assess it. Maybe we shouldn’t. But, neither we nor our students, parents, or communities should ever forget it.

Ann Myers and Jill Berkowicz are the authors of The STEM Shift (2015, Corwin) a book about leading the shift into 21st century schools. Connect with Ann and Jill on Twitter or Email.

Photo by suju courtesy of Pixabay

The opinions expressed in Leadership 360 are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.