As a parent, I have to watch environmental factors closely to ensure they don’t affect the at-home learning of my children. Two of my children are gifted with multiple of Dabrowski’s overexcitabilities, and stimuli affect their learning as a result. Kazimierz Dabrowsky, the developer of the Theory of Positive Disintegration, “defined overexcitabilities as ‘higher than average responsiveness to stimuli, manifested by either psychomotor, sensual, emotional, imaginational, or intellectual excitability’” (Bailey, 2010). Both of my gifted children have three of Dabrowsky’s overexcitabilities. Children, who have overexcitabilities, can be taught to use them as learning strengths rather than challenges, but when they are young, their education can be frustrating because of constant environmental distractions:
One could say that one who manifests a given form of overexcitability, and especially one who manifests several forms of overexcitability, sees reality in a different, stronger, and more multisided manner. Reality for such an individual ceases to be indifferent but affects him deeply and leaves long-lasting impressions. Enhanced excitability is a means for more frequent interactions and a wider range of experiencing (Bailey, 2010).
To help my gifted-only learners at home, I require homework to to be done in the dining room because the room is painted a soft color, which allows the walls to fade away, limiting visual distractions for both of them, who have sensual overexcitability. They are not allowed to listen to music or stare at random objects while they work, and they have to eat their snacks before they begin work. If an activity stimulates the five senses, then it’s bound to affect their learning in a negative, distracting way rather than helping them stay on task. As long as they have a calm room with a muted color, limited sensory input, and snacks already taken care of, they are fine to learn independently.
And then there is my third child. He is gifted, autistic, ADHD, OTI, and SLP--with a specific sensory disorder to boot. My third son is NEVER boring. He is my angel, but he is a tornado of activity, no matter what anyone does. He is least affected educationally if he is allowed to move constantly while learning. According to Dr. Lucy Miller, “Movement is crucial for all children! Children are asked to sit for way too long without moving” (2013). When I taught middle school, I noted that most students benefited from engaging, kinesthetic activities for just this reason.
My multi-exceptional son needs freedom of motion, but he also needs intentionally chosen input to focus him and curtail distractions from ANYTHING--one cannot predict on a given day what might distract him. Even plants have distracted him because they “feel so wonderful” and allow him to self-soothe instead of focusing on his work. He needs to work in a different room than his siblings, and it’s the office. He can stand, sit, roll around, talk to himself, choose unique seating, or sit in the office chair (rarely his choice). He may take as long as he wants to get his work done. He needs breaks to stand and hop in the air, to talk to himself, and to talk through his learning. He does not stop moving even when he sleeps. The only thing he has in common with his siblings is that he learns everything independently--by choice. He would rather take more time than have anyone else telling him how “they learned it.” He will find his own way--or no way.
As a teacher, I have seen a variety of student needs over the years, and I usually have a version of most of those needs every year. Some students need music to mute smaller noises. Some students need discussion. Some students need a well-painted room that is warm, welcoming, and calming. I had one specific group of students, who truly benefited from the calming effects of peppermint, so I used it that year and hate it to this day because it does not calm me (Karges-Bone, 2013). Some students need specific colors, which help them process reading material faster than traditional options. Some students need regular snacks, no snacks, or even specific snacks to help them focus and learn.
Working with CLD students taught me that the fastest way to determine what works with a specific student is to ASK. Most of us have enough self-awareness to know when we focus and when we don’t, and taking a student’s knowledge of self into account can help a teacher provide an effective learning environment faster than many profiles (McCarthy, 2014). When self-awareness is not helpful, a learning profile can provide clarification on what other environmental factors might need to be removed or added to aid a students.
As a student, who rarely felt any effects on my education or even considered that environmental factors might be affecting me, I have developed a passion for these factors and how we can limit any negative effects they have on students to ensure higher academic success and growth in our buildings.
Karen A. McCay
Every semester teachers are inundated with lists of initiatives to implement with their students. These lists are often contradictory and come from stakeholders, who do not necessarily trust one another’s agendas. Each state has its own agenda. The federal government has its educational agenda. Private corporations make fortunes in the wake of changing agendas. Local districts have their own agendas, and so does each individual campus.
Individual teachers see unique challenges in their own classrooms (and even for individual students), so finding ways to actually teach students to mastery with high expectations can feel overwhelming. One method of balancing all agencies’ initiatives WHILE meeting the needs of individual students and teaching with high expectations is to use standards-based grading rather than a traditional grading method.
Better Feedback and More Meaningful Grades
Breaking down the standards we need to cover each year and mapping them into manageable units can create a culture of growth toward goals during each unit of study. Instructors still develop lessons and work based on the standards, but when it is time to grade, they discuss the work with students and grade more holistically as they ask students how the work documents their growth and/or mastery of specific learning outcomes. Teachers can also give students chances to re-do work in trouble areas. Stephanie Pinkin (2016) explains, for example, how we have often wasted time in education when a student masters eight skills out of ten by having them re-do all ten. Why? With standards-based grading, students “are able to see a grade report that has all of the skills we have been working on, broken down, and not dependent on each other. This way, they are able to tackle the individual areas they need to improve upon, instead of re-doing all of a test or assignment they may have demonstrated mastery on in some areas.” When students have either shown in writing or in speech how their work documents mastery of a unit standard, the instructor checks that standard off for the student. Students may then continue to work on other areas.
Patricia Scriffiny (2008) has used standards-based grading since 2005 and explains how she determines a letter grade at the end of each unit based on the proficiency of her high school math students:
Differentiation for Growth
Differentiation is also easier under standards-based grading because lessons can be altered, materials can be altered, and even assessments can be altered more quickly because none of them are essential to the unit. Students’ grades are based solely on documentation of mastering standards, so however they accomplish their goals is acceptable as long as it is an educationally appropriately practice. If a struggling learner needs an educational assistant and time and a half, then that accommodation is acceptable. If an accelerated learner wants to do a problem-based learning task with a mentor and creates a product for the Science Fair, that accommodation is also appropriate, as long as both assignments also address the standards in the unit and are acceptable to the classroom instructor. Josh Work (2014) discusses the ease of differentiation when using standards-based grading in the middle school setting: “Students are measured on their proficiency of content standards. Some demonstrate early mastery and are able to move on to more difficult concepts, while others may require reteaching. Teachers are able to easily identify those students who may need some support in order to demonstrate proficiency.” Grouping students and allowing them to pursue their path through the unit ensures everyone grows at a faster pace.
Standards-based grading frees teachers to differentiate with more creativity, allowing students to invent and innovate in the 21st century. They can demonstrate their mastery through Youtube videos, Ted Talks, real-world problem-solving opportunities, competition-based learning, and more traditional methods. Having a menu of 3-5 choices as a starting point at the beginning of a unit may help students get started in this more open model of learning. As they become more comfortable, students will present their own ideas for approval, and all instructors have to do is guide students as they look at standards as their targets and then choose activities as the vehicles to get them to their destinations.
Standards-Based Grading Yields Critical Thinking
Standards-based grading, like any other initiative, takes time. Teachers may need to maintain a lot of control early in the process as they develop comfort with the new system. The grades, however, are more authentic. As Stephanie Pinkin states, “The benefits and progressive thinking behind SBG far outweigh the challenges of implementing the practice. We have gone long enough assigning subjective and arbitrary numbers to student performance, and it is time that our communication of student progress reflects student learning, and student learning only” (2016). As they become more comfortable with the new grading system, itself, and the direct feedback based on the standards, instructors will naturally allow more differentiation in their classrooms on all levels. And as they start thinking more creatively about what might document mastery of a specific standard on a level 3 or 4, their students will start to think critically about what a level 3 or 4 might look like. Students begin to envision what a deep level of mastery might entail, and they begin to create deep connections with their content. They seek out new resources, including experts in fields of study. They ask their parents to help them find resources beyond their communities and bring them into their schools. Then other students engage with those resources, and the entire school is enriched by impassioned thinkers, who were motivated by their own goals to learn.
Standards-based grading is a very effective initiative for assuring that all teachers in an entire school provide consistent, clear feedback based on the standards. It is not, however, the only way administrators can make sure feedback happens. Whatever system we implement, we must ensure that WE provide ample feedback to teachers on their performance as they utilize their new skills. We should provide solid trainings, follow-up sessions, walk-throughs to catch teachers doing things right, timely feedback that can help teachers tweak one or two things at a time, and observations, which help teachers target specific concerns they want to address as they develop comfort with their feedback system. Our staff members, like our students, need meaningful feedback, or they won’t improve.
A Brief Overview of Standards-Based Grading
Rick Wormeli Discussing Standards-Based Grading
The Most Recent Marzano Research on Standards-Based Grading
A Standards-Based Grading Site with Report Card Samples
Dean, C. B., Hubbell, E. R., Pitler, H., & Stone, B. J. (2012). Classroom Instruction that Works: Research-Based Strategies for Increasing Student Achievement, 2nd Edition. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.
Goodwin, B., & Hubbell, E. R. (2013). The 12 Touchstones of Good Teaching: A Checklist for Staying Focused Every Day. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.
Pinkin, S. (2016, February 22). Putting Standards-Based Grading into Action (Education Week). Retrieved January 4, 2019, from http://www.edweek.org/tm/articles/2016/02/22/putting-standards-based-grading-into-action.html
Scriffiny, P. L. (2008, October). Seven Reasons for Standards-Based Grading (Educational Leadership). Retrieved January 2, 2019, from http://www.ascd.org/publications/educational_leadership/oct08/vol66/num02/Seven_Reasons_for_Standards-Based_Grading.aspx
Work, J. (2014, December 04). 3 Peaks and 3 Pits of Standards-Based Grading. Retrieved January 4, 2019, from https://www.edutopia.org/blog/peaks-pits-standards-based-grading-josh-work
Pre-assessing the prior knowledge of students before a cycle of instruction is the best way to plan individualized and successful growth-based units for each class of students instructors teach on a given year. When we ask teachers to provide pretests as part of their units, we're training them to analyze data and make instructional decisions BEFORE they even start teaching. Students will learn more easily during instructional units because teachers can modify lesson plans based on their students’ prior knowledge and fill in the gaps based on the holes in that knowledge for a more efficient instructional plan.
Pre-assessing students’ prior knowledge of academic vocabulary concepts is essential for faster instruction. A QHT chart, which asks students to sort their words into columns for words they could teach to others, words they have heard, and words they do not know (or question completely), could serve as a vocabulary preassessment (Cho, 2015). Instructors could check for prior knowledge of academic vocabulary in English and in primary languages for CLD students, which would provide instructors with essential planning information and allow for differentiation for each student’s needs during the unit of instruction. A simple 6-step vocabulary lesson with differentiated steps for students, who do not need the entire process, would accommodate the entire class, including advanced students.
Instructors should also have students preview challenging content vocabulary in their reading content for upcoming lessons. A simple strategy for pre-assessing content vocabulary is the 3-Read strategy, also called the multi-read strategy, which allows students to engage in one text multiple times and use that familiar content to practice several skills. Each day students read the text again to look for another specific target skill as their focus activity. One day one, they simply read; during that first reading, they circle unfamiliar words--this reading serves as the pre-assessment and allows instructors to visually see how many terms are unfamiliar. According to Reutzel and Cooter (1999), “when a teacher preteaches new words that are associated with a text the students are about to read, better reading comprehension results.” On successive days, students can look for more challenging skills--symbols, metaphors, cause-effect relationships . . . whatever skills instructors have targeted in the lesson. The familiarity with the text has provided the scaffolding to allow all students enough comfort to relax and concentrate on complex skill instead of worrying about the difficulty of navigating through unfamiliar content. “Effective teachers know that instructional decision making should include time for the preassessment" of both content and skills (Herrera & Murry, 2016, p. 26). This strategy also allows faster skill mastery for advanced students, who learn new skills with familiar content faster than they do with unfamiliar content. If we train our staff members to save unfamiliar content for summative assessment of independent reading and of independent skill-demonstration, we can save instructional time by using familiar texts.
Teachers also need to pre-assess students’ knowledge of learning strategies, which are essential to upcoming units: “Learning strategies are the patterns of thinking or goal-driven activities that help the learners attain targeted learning outcomes. The notion of a cognitive approach to learning strategies is grounded in a constructivist perspective on learning as a proactive and dynamic process. According to this view, learning involves selecting information, organizing it, relating it to prior knowledge, using it in appropriate contexts, and reflecting on the process” (Herrera & Murry, 2016, pp. 42-43). Depending upon students’ prior learning experiences, they may have significant mastery of upcoming learning strategies for particular instructional units and even serve as mentors during the unit, helping peers with newer strategies. Many students have particularly strong critical thinking and creativity strategies, which help them analyze text and write original responses in divergent ways.
A creative way to pre-assess upcoming instructional strategies is to provide an Embedded Assessment--a primary writing prompt--along with the rubric or proficiency scale--and ask students to unpack it into a list of skills and knowledge they will need in order to be successful during the unit of instruction. A collaborative group, who have a long list of skills probably don’t need a lot of strategies to be successful during the unit, but a group, who can’t generate a long list, or seem to need instructor's’ attention during the brainstorming activity even to get started, will need instruction in strategies. The pre-assessment has clearly shown they lack the skills to analyze a specific question, break it into parts, understand its global dimensions as well as its personal connections to self, and determine how to answer it along with what skills they need in order to do so along the way. “The most important understanding that teachers can gain from this theoretical framework is that what may appear to a teacher as a relatively simple task may actually be quite demanding in a cognitive sense” for struggling students (Herrera & Murry, 2016, p. 41).
These three skill areas are the most essential to pre-assess for all learners to ensure efficient mastery of new content. Checking for prior knowledge in these areas ensures more effective connection to previously mastered content and processes into which students can synthesize new material and transfer their new learning into other domains: “[T]he elaboration of a student’s prior knowledge is critical to cognitive development and transformative learning" (Herrera & Murry, 2016, p. 37). If we support our teachers in these and other strategies of reassessment, we will focus all building instruction on standards AND on using data to make wise instructional decisions for all students under our care.
Barriers to Communication
School leaders can experience several barriers to communication, but one of the most frustrating is to follow a popular leader. Those shoes are tough to fill. If your predecessor was LOVED, then you may hear crickets more than you hear feedback from your staff during the first few months of school. Especially if you’re also experiencing a year of big district change, then you need to to go extra lengths to ensure than your staff see you as an open communicator.
Open communicators maintain open faces, and then listen before they offer ideas (Bambrick-Santoyo & Peiser, 2012, p. 205). Ensuring that you open your eyes a little more than normal, close your mouth, and truly listen with absolutely no intention of offering your thoughts until the other speaker finishes will help your staff member feel truly respected and heard. You’ll establish a reputation as a listener, which few new administrators have. You’ll also establish trust: “a listening culture built on relational trust can contribute to a positive relational ecology that supports members of a school community as they go through the challenging and sometimes difficult process of changing their school culture” (Brown, 2017). As we redevelop a school culture or school ecology under a new principal, we often need to redevelop new trust, as well.
I have had the pleasure of working for very successful administrators, and one of my favorite principals was
RUN RIGHT OUT OF THE BUILDING after one year. All she did was follow a talented, well-loved principal, and she did it in a year of frustrating change, which was mandated by the district. Her failure was almost guaranteed by district-level administrators, and when she failed to listen instead of talk, she also contributed to her own demise.
High Emotions Preventing Authentic Conversation
Another hot coal administrators should watch for is frustration. Emotions can run high, especially during testing, just before winter break, and right before the end of the school year. School years when change comes “too much too fast” are also going to be particularly emotional. “Great leaders maintain strong staff cultures by remaining continually on the lookout for warning signs” of emotional frustration in their staff (Bambrick-Santoyo & Peiser, 2012, p. 203). Talented administrators address frustration before it gets out of hand by being proactive instead of reactive so powderkegs don’t explode, in other words. My district in Pueblo, Colorado, showed signs of frustration for three years leading up to our strike, and those signs were ignored by district administrators. They paid dearly as a result, and they still paid teachers their raises, which they had hoped to withhold, at the end of the strike. They refused to engage in authentic conversation for years, and their rhetoric eventually led to a stoppage. I hope I never work in such a stalemate again.
Inspiring Better Communication for My Staff
From these two experiences I have learned that maintaining an open line of communication, a listening demeanor, and a truly authentic conversation where the rhetoric is not a power dynamic on either side, is essential for the staff and the administrator. Providing a culture of “listening” ensures a culture of growth where administrators can “look for signs of stress before those signs become larger problems” that affect learning (Bambrick-Santoyo & Peiser, 2012, p. 203). I hope to develop a culture of effective listening and learning for my staff, which will provide a resultant culture of listening and learning for our students.
So much is changing in the world of education; one change administrators need to make quickly is in how they use presentations. Professional presentations still have a place in education, but we need to use them effectively to offer professional development and discussions for our stakeholders, which they actually ask for so the stakeholders in attendance are choosing their professional time based on need instead of sitting in a large meeting, which may not even meet their needs at all.
Presentations should also be used to roll out confusing or important content to staff and/or stakeholders the first time because most of us need visuals to comprehend new information. When we’re sharing the results of an accreditation or building audit, we need to use digital representations in a meaningful presentation as we share the information with staff. They want the information, and they want to see organized representations of their content, which increase their speed of analysis. When we share summative data, we need to do the same.
My favorite method for staff-wide data meetings is to send relevant information a day before the meeting so passionate change leaders can review it prior to the meeting and consider trends they see. Then the entire staff can meet quickly, having had a chance to review data individually. We have to remember as administrators that we should model what we want to see in classrooms: "No one wants to be talked at for any significant long time. Especially not students who are forced to stay seated for hours at a time. Don’t speak straight through your presentation without a little engagement. Use questions, role-playing and small group discussions to get students involved” (Allison, 2018).
If we want teachers to increase student engagement and make lessons, which are student-driven, then we need to provide meetings, which do exactly the same thing. At the staff-wide meeting, principals can discuss primary trends in the data on the exciting side and on the challenging side to balance the message; then they should break the staff into discussion groups, which include at least one change leader, who can provide deeper analysis from shared data; all staff members can contribute their analysis and suggest trends from the data not noted by other staff members.
The changes needed based on our summative data and upon our mandated legislative changes are NOT something principals should share in staff-wide presentations lasting more than 10 minutes. Many teachers passionately want to live change. They analyze data trends without being told to do so and independently strategize about how changes can happen in their unique classrooms; asking them to attend trainings, which teach them how to analyze data, how to make changes, and how to implement those changes is offensively wasteful of their talents . . . and their time. Change plans need input from the entire staff through a survey, but they don’t require that the entire staff be present for each step in the process. Change leaders need to attend meetings to help develop change plans, to develop campus directives based on annual plans, and to develop ongoing modifications to those plans during each new quarter.
Most staff members need smaller meetings designed to meet their needs so they can quickly and efficiently implement changes with support (and do so at their unique comfort/talent level): “the most successful learning events with teachers involved brief periods of direct instruction (5–15 minutes) followed by longer periods of practice and application (20–30 minutes) and debriefing (10–15 minutes)” (Margolis, 2009).. A good analogy for these types of meetings are IEP meetings. I don’t invite a whole class to one student’s meeting—that meeting is only for the one student. But administrators often conduct meetings for the entire staff, which really only help a few in the audience. The most beautiful presentation, when used in this manner, is still unhelpful.
As administrators transition to 21st century models of learning for students, they also need to transition to 21st century models of learning for teachers. Online PLEs are essential to the future of education for both groups. Our current students and our future students engage with their academic passion areas ONLY online. They obtain news, leisure, and almost all communication digitally, and even when they’re in a room of friends or family, they are sharing their digital engagement with that group—even their face-time is digitally driven. Many of our instructors have transitioned to the digital lifestyle, and as a result, their professional development no longer matches their real-world model of learning. If we want to see changes in their practices with students, then we must model the change with our staff.
Savvy principals should begin using PLEs with their staff to share all important information and even to drive group discussions to model the sorts of activities, which they need to see in classrooms. Savvy principals can foster acceptance for this change by sharing leadership, power, and responsibility throughout the building, a leadership style which establishes a climate where change is more likely (Teague & Anfara, 2012, p. 61). Sharing leadership also provides every hallway/team with a change leader nearby. Most teachers build effective collaborations during passing periods and transitions; we don’t have to force them to cooperate with one another in this era; we merely need to provide the content, which should drive collaborations. As a result, PLCs should transition primarily to PLE meetings; busy instructors don’t need to meet face-to-face more than weekly in the digital era. This effective model of digital PLCs saves time for all instructors and is contagious to teachers even though it often requires a change in instructional planning (Bambrick-Santoyo & Peiser, 2012, p. 25).
Principals don’t need to attend team meetings more than weekly, either. These face-time meetings should be driven by digital data displays and ONLY serve two purposes: ensuring that all digital materials are understood and fostering productive relationships between colleagues. We usually bring staff together for large, lecture-based trainings, which prevent relationship-building and which fail to meet most teachers' needs; we should be “bringing staff together regularly to celebrate successes that teachers are experiencing as they implement” the changes we want to see (Hord & Roussin, 2013, p. 17) so we are supporting change, fostering relationships, and wasting little time.
If we want to see effective use of technology in transformative ways, then we need to stop taking teachers’ time for inauthentic cooperation and/or trainings. They can email student programming needs MUCH faster than discussing them in daily meetings, which do not reflect the collaboration models of the new era. Instructors can also review digital materials on change initiatives and seek smaller meetings for clarification MUCH faster than attending large trainings, which do not meet the needs of all teachers; these meetings are often viewed with resentment by most veteran teachers specifically because they do not meet any need.
Veterans abhor time-wasters more than any other aspect of our field, and now that we have the digital environment in which to share MOST information with one another, we should use it. We will always need face-time meetings for observational feedback, for discussing data, and for ensuring clarity on essential changes, but we spend entirely too much time in catch-all meetings where we cant share information mutually, where we can't build stronger relationships with our colleges, and within which we won’t even listen out of resentment when re realize our time is once again wasted. How can we expect our teachers to work harder for a better instructional model when we won’t?
As we plan for this school year, most administrators are revising our observation schedules and developing plans to help teachers set growth goals for the academic year. In order to complete all evaluative requirements in a timely manner—and to help teachers complete their years with effective scores (or higher)—we should provide relevant information to our staff members now.
Most teachers, even when provided with the rubric for their state evaluations, do not understand how the system works, and even when they score effective or higher, they are often frustrated rather than being pleased . . . because they don’t know why they scored well or how to continue scoring well in the future.
Under value added systems, sophisticated formulas are used to make evaluations equitable regardless of student populations. According to Dyarski (2014), “Kids learn from others beside their teacher, including: other kids and teachers, parents and siblings, friends, churches, the local YMCA, and social media, to name a few. And some kids live in less affluent households, or have a problem or disability that affects learning.” Value added systems are designed to normalize these variables (outside factors) and provide equitable scoring for what teachers add to the system (inside factors). Unfortunately, most teachers are never told their system works in such a manner.
Most state licensing sites provide no information on how their evaluation system works, and when asked, most state employees do not know how the system works, either. David Gardner, a New Mexico principal, respects the modern teacher evaluation system and considers that component of teachers’ scoring quite reliable. He worries, however, about using value-added systems to measure teacher success through student test scores: “Value-added does not take [outside] factors out of students’ test scores. We receive NO training on how the formula works—no one in PED in NM can actually answer that question because they don’t know, either, and most of them are honest about it. So teachers have no idea how that 50% of their evaluation happens at all. It’s supposedly based on a PROJECTION of how much students should have grown, not on how much they actually grew from where they entered the room, and the data that comes back is not reflective of the growth of actual students at all—it’s just not, and it’s not fair” (2018).
When we can’t change the system, which is often unfair, we must ensure that teachers have the information (and training) to be successful, regardless of poorly-designed systems. To help our teachers, we should provide the rubric for their formal observations and require them to list specific practices we should see under each area of the rubric if they want to receive an effective or advanced rating. If they must break the rubric down, they will understand it better than if we’re lecturing to them about what it means. Second, we need to provide checklists of research-based practices, which have been proven to raise students’ scores, and we need to require them to implement these practices (Wilson, 2015). A good checklist to begin from is Goodwin and Hubbell’s The 12 Touchstones of Good Teaching(2013). Staff members could implement this checklist and revise it for their unique needs with ease, and they would raise students’ scores in the process. Finally, we need to help teachers understand that using research-based practices is their job, not worrying about what system their state has adopted, and focusing on their practices will ultimately give them the improved scores they need.
If we can help our teachers focus on research-based instruction, better lesson-planning, and using their data to modify their plans for students’ needs, then we will help them raise not only their students’ test scores, but also their own scores on evaluations. In the process, we’ll also teach them how evaluation systems work—and how to replicate their successes.
Recently I developed a professional development presentation to use with staff. It focuses on the primary ways a campus can increase proficiency by including all stakeholders.
I have worked in several districts across three states, and when I saw successful growth, I always saw a culture of collaboration first. Schools without partnerships will not see significant growth--they are islands without support--and we need support in education.
During the next two years, we may see even less financial support for schools, and we need to prepare for meeting the educational needs of our students with less resources. If we have the right PEOPLE as resources, we will still see increased proficiency on our campuses.
Schoolwide systems of support, especially in today’s climate of potential school emergencies, have become an important issue for campus communities. Bullying contributes to episodes of violence on most campuses, regardless of the types of violence, and providing proactive methods of support for all staff and students, which make all stakeholders feel like valued members of the learning community, have been shown to develop campuses where violent episodes are less likely and less life-threatening when they do occur. Less violence of physical and verbal natures allows administrators and teachers to develop strong cultures of learning where “students receive a continual message that nothing is as important--or as engaging--as learning” (Bambrick-Santoyo & Peiser, 2012, p. 164). A school culture focused on learning will already help students proactively keep their focus away from both physical and verbal violence, especially if part of their curriculum approaches historical and fictional nonviolent practices.
My previous district in New Mexico implemented a safe schools program in 2006, over a decade before most Colorado districts changed to safe school programs. Their decision followed the hostage crisis in Bailey, Colorado, which inspired significant discussions across the nation, but changed little policy about actual safety in schools. The incident in Bailey, Colorado, resulted because several people saw a suspicious man, but did not report the man to proper authorities (Alfano, 2006). He overtook a classroom of students, held four female students, assaulted them, and killed two of them before killing himself when police began to break down the door of the classroom (Illescas, 2006). His behavior leading up to the incident was also troubling (gun collecting, ammunition collecting, and indicative of suicide). This incident inspired Northern New Mexico to invite police officers to place SRO staff members in their schools for the first time to ensure a police presence on campuses before incidents began as part of safe schools (Mettler, 2016); when I moved to Farmington, New Mexico, I felt safer because I had an SRO on my campus for the first time. The students agreed that having a police officer on campus, who they could tell their concerns, made them feel safer. Our SRO staff members stopped 623 threats of life in 2014 alone by being informed ahead of time by either staff or students so they could prevent incidents through the safe schools and safe-to-tell program in Farmington, New Mexico (Harris, 2014).
My current campus has just begun the No Bully program under a federal grant to train teachers, students, and administrators about developing a culture of safe schools in Pueblo, Colorado. These trainings have not effectively changed the climate or culture in our schools. I recently witnessed a harassment incident in my classroom during which a male student called a female student an “ugly, Asian boy.” I immediately wrote the boy up for harassment because the female student is a lesbian, a Latina, and because his behavior was legal harassment of a protected group. I also verbally addressed his behavior immediately as harassment, which would not be tolerated or repeated in my presence ever again. What was most upsetting about this incident was that the female student came back to thank me because I “actually did something about it. The other teachers just ignore it.” I doubt ALL the other teachers ignore this type of behavior, but this student’s experience is that for her, they do. Obviously, the trainings are not working, yet.
Any initiative takes time to enact true change. I moved to Farmington, New Mexico in 2009 when that district had undergone three full years of trainings to implement their safe schools program. Hopefully, Pueblo will see effective change by 2021 with their No Bully program so students from all backgrounds and genders will find tolerance in the public schools of our community.
The increasing number of school shootings, which have begun to affect all stakeholders in education, beg the question of educators can work with stakeholders to provide safe and secure schools for our students. Students can only do so much. They can report concerns when they hear or read disturbing information if they are trained to “see something, say something” by their educators, but they can’t change their school’s policies about safety. Parents, like students, can only do so much. They can elect school board members, who are willing to address safety in schools, and they can support professional development for their school’s staff and students; however, they can’t change their school’s safety policies. Teachers can join safe school committees and seek professional development on reacting in an emergency, but they really can’t change campus policy as individuals. While teachers can be responsible for the safety and security of students within their own classrooms (and in the hallways between passing periods), only administrators can change policies to ensure a higher level of safety and security for their staff and students.
Building administrators can only work within their parameters of their district policies when changing their building procedures regarding safety and security. They can bring new concerns and desires for change to district-level administrators when they see a problem, but they cannot change district policy regarding safety and security for their own campuses. District-level administrators bear the highest level of responsibility to ensure their district policies are based on the newest, best professional development available, that their campuses are kept up-to-date in every way possible for safety and security, and that building administrators are well-trained to implement security measures at their campuses. Recent studies have shown that “increased policing of schools, the use of metal detectors, and punitive disciplinary measures” on campuses with “full-time law enforcement” have not “served as an effective deterrent for problematic behaviors” (Kwong & Davis, 2015, p. 69). District-level administrators must, therefore, seek out more effective measures and provide training on these measures to their building staff members.
District Administrators also bear a high level of responsibility to listen to feedback from their building administrators when problems arise so they can address those problems with necessary revisions to district policy. Building administrators must also stay abreast of recent professional trends in safety and security to ensure their buildings are as safe as possible. Most professional development on bullying still trains teachers to stop bullying instead of trying to prevent it, and building administrators can provide better trainings on actual prevention, not only for bullying, but for other safety issues, as well (Side & Johnson, 2014, p. 222). And like district-level administrators, they must seek and listen to feedback from their teachers as problems arise so they can revise their campus policies as needed. If district and building administrators work together to seek meaningful trainings and to revise policies as needed, they will ensure much safer campuses where learning can be the focus. Kwong and Davis (2015) argue that “climate is an important factor in academic achievement and performance,” and if teachers want students to focus on learning, then they must provide safe and secure classrooms when focusing on learning is easy, not challenging.
Teachers bear the highest level of responsibility for implementing safety and security measures for students because they are in direct contact with students. They need to be experts in safety and security policy regarding not only the multiple emergencies, which might occur on a school campus, but also in smaller matters like bullying, depression, and other socioemotional issues that affect students’ safety and security on a daily basis. Between 50-80% of school-aged children are affected by bullying each year, increasing their risk of depression and suicide (Side & Johnson, 2014, p. 217). Teachers are the “front lines” for their students and need to seek their own professional development when it’s not necessarily available from their campus administrators. Providing a culture of learning, safety, and security “makes sure students building the habits of mind and heart that allow their learning to fly” (Bambrick-Santoyo & Peiser, 2012, p. 168). A lack of well-planned trainings does not excuse teachers from educating themselves and trying with all diligence to meet the learning needs or the safety needs of their students. They cannot change building policies, but they can change their own mastery of safety and security issues.
More than anything else, all stakeholders need to work together to improve safety and security for all students. Providing for the safety and security of our students ensures they will focus more effectively on learning, which should be the primary focus of all educators. Parents and students can advocate for their own needs and lobby for better funding and better policies through local and state governmental channels. They can also volunteer at their local campuses to ensure a strong presence of all stakeholders. No one is excused from helping educators find better answers to the growing crisis of unsafe schools, and if all of us work together, we can provide much safer campuses for our learners.