Have we Prepared Teachers to Ensure Students are Safe in School?

pexels-photo-355000.jpegClassroom teachers and assistants have frequent interactions with students and play an important part in helping to ensure that students are safe and healthy at school. It is important that they know the school’s policies and procedures for disciplining students in order to properly and appropriately implement them. Between 2003-04, 2009-10, and again in 2015-16, the School Survey on Crime and Safety[SSOCS] asked Principals whether their schools provided training for classroom teachers or assistants/aides and collected the data.

During the 2015-16 school year, about 93 percent of public schools reported they conducted training on safety procedures, like how to handle emergencies. 84% of schools reported providing training on classroom management.

  • 67% reported training on schoolwide discipline policies and practices related to cyberbullying
  • 79% training on bullying other than cyberbullying
  • 69% training on violence
  • and 42%  on alcohol and/or substance abuse to classroom teachers and aides.

Recognizing signs of potential discipline or safety problems for students is a sure way to lessen the impact on students who may be struggling with them. 76 percent of public schools reported providing training on recognizing physical, social and verbal bullying behaviors, and 48% on recognizing the warning signs of student violent behavior. 30% reported  training on alcohol/substance abuse in 2015/16. What about going beyond this recognition and provide training to teaching staff on intervention strategies to utilize and ways to intervene in different possible scenarios involving students? Safety related interventions and the ability to appropriately de-escalate in potentially harm producing instances is a key skill necessary for teachers in many school communities.

Training beyond a one-day workshop where a few chosen ‘volunteers’ receive more experiential and hands-on instruction is inadvisable professional development or teacher training. Traditionally, school districts provide and mandate teacher trainings in areas like violence prevention and bullying prior to and as a condition for obtaining state certification. A six hour training is insufficient exposure for teachers to acquire the skills, theoretical framework and confidence to implement the necessary techniques in a real classroom situation. On the job training is the ‘sink or swim’ mentality which guided so many teachers in the past, including myself. This is an irresponsible form of teacher training.

Virtual Reality, Augmented Reality and Mixed Reality-based training is possible today due to technological advancements. We need to take advantage of them to equip teachers who are often considered being ‘on the front lines’ with children. A debatable term, the point remains that though schools report providing training on various topics surrounding health and safety of students in that environment, they aren’t enough.

Schools report training staff on identifying ‘potential’ problems among student populations and instruction on policy and procedure. Are they reporting their methodology? What, within specific topics, are sessions pointing to and highlighting? Are they discussing and examining cultural influences, cultural differences, and the impact of school culture on student behavior?Are schools indicating strong parent partnerships in order that identification of warning signs of problems are more responsive and mindful of multiple factors which may contribute to behavior problems?

What about training on the actions driven by both policy and compassion in the absence of bias? These policies driving procedures are the exact factors which contribute to discipline disparities. Last query, who is involved in determining policy, procedures, practices and protocol in all unsafe and unhealthy situations? Policy, regarding school procedures and responses to student behavior should not be left to the school staff alone. Within the legal parameters, and in consideration of student and staff safety and the continuity of the learning process at school, the determination of disciplinary procedures and policy should be a collaborative process. ALL stakeholders must be a part of these decisions.

Discipline and decisions related to discipline are and should be responsive to culture and school culture must recognize the cultures of the students in such ways that they do not dismiss, disrespect or unfairly discipline students when cultural difference is the underlying cause for actions. Schools establish their own cultures, teachers within each school establishes his or her own classroom culture. Encompassing all, there is the societal culture. Students can effectively become acculturated to the larger society, without evidence that there is a general dismissal of their own individual backgrounds.

The recent collection of data related to crime and safety in our schools provides room for more nuanced questions now that answers have been provided.  It is the responses to these more specific questions that we may ensure safety in our schools, rid the disparities, and recognize, identify and address real not perceived ‘warning signs’ and indicators of problematic  behaviors exhibited by children. We aren’t done yet, but far from delivering quality educational experiences in our schools to ALL students, individually and collectively.

With the evidence of a ‘broken’ school system, the unfortunate string of mass shootings in schools around the country, we can see the areas in which we must effect changes. Teacher training, if provided as reported, has been insufficient in equipping teachers with the skills, tools and avenues for reporting potential signs students present with, that indicate the need for conference, consultation, and appropriate counseling services for students. Fragmented systems have no protocol for parent partnerships or explicit guidelines for contacting and collaboration with adult caregivers in the home. It is nuanced training that teachers need and a clear line to the next resource and student support personnel, whether on campus or in the community. This is missing in the chain of comprehensive services that schools place in their ‘rolodex’.

Instead of being proactive, preventive and supportive of the ‘whole child’, we offer immediate reactive services called a ‘School Resource Officer’-a police officer. We are fully prepared to arrest a student at school, a learning setting in which what is to be understood is that the children in attendance are learning and growing, as opposed to fully matured adults. Before we identify concerns, causes and correlated precipitators of behaviors, or co-occurring behavioral health concerns, we punish. Is that healthy? A whole child approach?

Punishment, different from discipline, is not a teaching tool. It is a tool used by professionals or individuals who lack the mastery of appropriate interventions and strategies. After all, our schools house children, young people with developing minds and the professionals are the adults. Adults have obtained degrees, licenses and certifications to prepare them for interacting with children who know and understand less than half that they do. When things go awry and students act out in unsafe ways, it is understood that the adults[caregivers of a different sort] should be equipped to recognize, identify, intervene before any increase in intensity.

School-based staff should possess the skills, the capacity, insight and empathy necessary to respond immediately should there be any real [not perceived presumption]hints of threatened safety in a classroom. There should be clear procedures to guide their responsiveness.The data informs us that teachers and school staff need more intense targeted training in these areas. Real warning signs of unsafe climate in the classroom [or any setting] should take into account specific knowledge and insights into student personality, culture and any antecedent factors which may provoke a response resembling any threatening behaviors. Know your audience;know your students. Never assume anything. Always seek to develop relationships with students, and be mindful of not only learning style, but physiological and mental/behavioral health concerns. Home-school alliances are critical in the 21st Century. Whole-child, whole-family approaches!

The role of schools and teachers in the 21st Century have shifted. A new set of competencies must be cultivated and mastered in the preparation process and ongoing. We aren’t to be responsive to schools but schools are to be responsive to students, families and communities. In-service AND pre-service training must be more nuanced and experiential. Administrators, responsible for aligning all staff to a bigger mission, must be fully cognizant of their role in that they are given full responsibility for outcomes of the families and the children in attendance.  There must be a clear understanding that Principals aren’t in any community to exist as an island. The role is to embrace the culture, build upon their strengths with sensitivity to their needs and concerns, and  involve their communities as critically vital stakeholders.

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