School Climate & Safety Opinion

Terror, Stress, and Leadership

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — June 16, 2016 5 min read
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Another mass shooting, the worst terrorist attack since 9/11, has rocked our nation. The result at this writing is 49 victims killed and 53 injured. The shooter was also killed at the site. It seems not to have been a random “soft target” chosen but, specifically, a gay nightclub. No matter the final results of the ongoing investigations, there appear to be confirmed early facts about the assault rifle used in the attack and the shooter was an Isis sympathizer. It is frightening and maddening. We cannot help but think about the victims and their families and share their pain. Our hearts break with theirs. All of us are touched in some way.

Most schools across the country are on summer vacation. But a few northern schools are in their last week. Those educators will be deciding how to approach this tragedy to help children, faculty, and staff make sense of this horror and of the world as it is and can be. Listen to conversations around you. There are growing fears about air travel and heated debates about second amendment rights and privacy and safety. Cautions about movie theaters, sports events the like build concern, fear, and stress. That stress affects our bodies, our behaviors, and our states of mind. In turn, children inherit a world with a constant undercurrent of stress and of wariness. How does this impact our jobs? Today’s children and the adults in whose charge they remain have a diminished sense of safety and less protection from stressors.

More Stress
As educators we remain focused on improving student achievement and teachers’ performance. That demands learning and growing, even these can be stress-producing activities. But we know, certainly, that neither occurs well in environments in which stress lives as the foundation of daily life. We know this from schools in communities where gun violence is part of daily life. Poverty, too, is a stressor. We know this from working with children whose families are economically challenged. We also know that educators themselves face the same stressors as all others when confronted by limited resources, lives in crisis, and external pressures.

And so in this new world, it becomes ever more imperative that schools are safe places. Schools must be places where adults and students are consummate listeners, empathetic, informed, and responsive. Surely we are not responsible for the whole of the raising of children, but we most certainly do work in and lead environments where students are exposed to a variety of beliefs, races, religions, and teachings. We also have 7-8 hours a day to offer all students a safe environment where we, as aware and intentional adults, can help them make sense of our world. But, first, we are responsible for making sense of it ourselves.

Schools as Safe Environments
Why do we need trauma counseling and supportive services when tragedy happens? Perhaps, it is because in past generations danger came from far away, news of danger came once a day in the evening news, our families were closer, our communities were more cohesive and all this served as the solid foundation that made us feel safe. No more. Now danger in in the face of the person next door or seated next to you or infiltrates your phone or laptop. Its existence is perpetually present on social media. Perhaps, danger happens far more frequently than before. Whatever the cause, adults and children are faced with stressors that build up and make the natural challenges of life even harder. Because we have chosen careers in which we serve children, we have a responsibility to them to process and make sense of the world, and manage the stressors, in order to make the world of school a safe place where students will learn and grow, making sense of the world with our help. It is also our job to create the foundation on which they will build a better world.

The Leader’s Role
There is a slow erosion that ongoing stress causes. It is subtle, a little at a time, hardly noticeable to most. It is easier to recognize that stress is being caused by external factors, but the stress truly comes from how we meet those events. Challenges are regular occurrences in our field. How we meet them will always make the difference. Now, in this new world in which we live, stress producers come not only from professional issues like mandates or the daily problems we face. The world intrudes. It enters our workplaces in new and frightening ways. If we do not meet this head-on, it will seep, slowly into our schools through the adults and children within them. Communities will wonder why their children aren’t flourishing. Stress is not always visible and, in the case of schools, its result can be limited achievement.

As with most things affecting school culture, the leader’s ability to identify and address stressors makes a positive difference. Looking inward and honestly evaluating our own responses matters. For example, that an assault weapon, yet once again, was used to perform a mass killing and that a minority community, this time of gay persons, was again targeted. These are two very threatening factors. All of our communities have citizens who hold the right to own and carry guns as essential American right. All our communities have LGBTQ persons who are probably feeling a bit less safe and a bit more angry than they did a few days ago. Assessing the community’s state of mind follows the leader knowing his/her own regarding these issues. Then a plan for what each community needs in order to assuage the factors that feed the stressors can emerge. Then, the leader knows how to manage and process them, while attending to the daily work of growing children’s minds and social behaviors. Acknowledging what is true and present, while at the same time, working to create and maintain a healthy, safe, and nurturing environment calls for a leader who opens minds and hearts. But, first, it is theirs that must open.

It is unthinkable to us that following the tragedy of Sandy Hook, with the little ones, their teachers and principal killed, that the country didn’t stand up to regulate the sale of assault weapons. It is unthinkable to us that after persons are killed in a place of worship while they are praying that we did not unite voices to ask questions about who can obtain these weapons. It is unthinkable to us that our children and teachers who are gay live in a world where they may not, still, be safe.

Yet, it is our responsibility to make sense of what is, and help our school communities to make sense of it as well. It is the children who are in our schools right now who are the next generation of adults who will inherit these issues and change the world in their likeness. It is the job of their educators to prepare them to acknowledge what is true, and take a stand against fear and its concomitant stressors. This look to the future keeps us optimistic. It begins in our schools...and within our schools, it begins with our leaders.

Connect with Ann and Jill on Twitter or by Email.

Photo by Mike Mols courtesy of 123rf

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.