Equity & Diversity Opinion

Safe Space for Children Is a Holiday Gift

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — December 22, 2016 4 min read
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This is the week every year in which the adults in schools ready themselves for a break from school routines, filled with anticipation of days off, time with family and friends, gifts, food, and holiday celebration. Some wear those crazy ugly Christmas sweaters, many wear red and green, some add black for Kwansa and some, blue in honor of Hanukah. Happiness is in the air and a bit of frenzy, too. In many areas of the country, the snow blanket has come down to cover everything as if it could protect life from the bitter cold. Today, Wednesday, is the first day of winter. The days will gradually get longer now and the sun will begin its journey back north. Many schools have chosen families in need or charities to help, easing this depth of cold and dark and spreading care. It is a week that brings out the best in us.

We have our own children as family and as school. We also look with compassion on the children of the world this season, especially the children of Aleppo, Syria. Their faces and their eyes have been bringing us their pain for months now. Yet, we can turn away or turn it off without knowing what to do and to being able to watch as they and their families and homes have been destroyed. Some things ask for more than we can give or do. The monks say offer a prayer even that will help.

While the children of Aleppo have presented us a big, far away tragedy, little ones happen every day around us. We can turn away, walk away, and in a local sense, still turn it off. We can read and talk about poverty, race, sexual orientation, drug addiction, mental health...and we may. But we choose how we are impacted by it and we choose the degree to which we care and make the issue ours. It can be an academic activity, often as part of a professional development effort. It can be a once a year fund raising activity. The pain associated with suffering is hard to bear. It seems natural to turn away from what makes us uncomfortable. But with the world shrinking the meaning of ‘they are all our children’ takes on a new and larger meaning.

With all the focus on teaching and learning as an academic enterprise, heart opening sensitivity to the lives all children are living may become optional. But whether your situation has you responsible for children who are facing adversity on an obvious level, like poverty, or race, or on in a quieter way, with trouble in the home, or silent mental health issues, suffering is a part of the human existence. It is inside and outside of our schools.

On one hand, we may hope that helping children turn away from their worries and focus on learning might offer respite. But under the surface the troubles percolate and for the most part interfere with quality learning anyway. Once willing to see and hear with compassion the life of a child, one in front of us or one living afar, we are changed. We reach out. Once facing the pain that others face and remaining open hearted, we will be better educators and positive contributors to the overall human condition.

That is how safe space begins. When we shut down our hearts to the reality of others’ pain and suffering, we shut down ourselves as architects of the space they need to feel safe and seen. Most of us don’t mean to do that. We are drawn to work with children. And, it is the children who are the least prepared to maneuver through the difficulties they face.

A recent book published by ASCD, the Formative five... lists five essentials: empathy, self-control, integrity, embracing diversity, and grit. In his introduction, Thomas R. Hoerr writes:

I have high hopes for the difference this book can make. It is designed to be an asset for teachers and principals to use in preparing their students for success beyond school--students who will be kind and caring people, responsible and productive workers, and citizens who make a difference in the world...(p.7).

First, we have to model being kind and caring, responsible and productive, and citizens who make a difference in the world so the children know what it looks like. We tend to over focus on the responsible and productive part of ourselves, don’t we? So this holiday season, we reflect on the power of opening our hearts. It is the time of gift giving and of receiving.

It is art that often is the heart opener. Art can take us on the journey of walking in someone else’s shoes for the length of a movie or a novel or a gallery tour. We both recently saw a movie that had this impact on us. We recommend the movie, Moonlight. Without offering a review, we can say with confidence that it was a child’s story, a painful heart opener, a transformer, and a laudable piece of art. No need to watch the trailer (below) but if you need a teaser, here it is for you. If you can carve out two hours in this season for a movie that will take you into and not away from this is it.

And with heartfelt appreciation for all educators do for students, we wish you a week and a holiday filled with joy and generosity. And we affirm your work and your open hearts. Children need adults in their lives who will see them and who will keep them safe as they grow. It is the most precious gift.


Hoerr, T.R. (2016) the Formative five: Fostering Grit, Empathy, and other success skills every student needs. Alexandria, Virginia: ASCD

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.

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.