Media Questions with Author’s Responses
Possible interview questions and (sort-of) brief answers. For questions only, click here.
Note: All of the questions below reflect complex issues and demand complex answers. I have attempted to condense chapters’ worth of information into a brief, concise, and somewhat general response. I’ve identified the chapters or book sections which provide additional information on each topic for anyone interested in exploring that particular issue in greater detail.
• We’ve seen so much in the news about violence in schools, yet your book does not focus exclusively on violence prevention. Why is that?
I’ve always seen the violence as the tip of the iceberg. Of course, that’s what’s going to generate media attention. But as we’ve seen in every instance of school violence, there are many, many factors involved. The violence is actually a very small, if horrible, piece of a much larger, more complex picture. (Introduction, Part I, Ch. 1)
• What makes a school an emotionally safe place?
This answer will vary from student to student. For some, even a difficult school experience is a welcome relief from a troubled home life. Many times, school offers kids a chance to connect with caring, interested adults and peers. For others, it’s a chance to be successful academically, artistically, athletically, socially, or in some other way. In general, schools are safe to the extent that they don’t present some significant threat to the physical safety or emotional well-being of the students, staff or parents involved there. (Introduction, Part I, Ch. 1)
• Is this different from being physically safe?
Very much so. Kids can be physically safe—that is, not be the recipient of some physical or even environmental threat—and still experience school as emotionally stressful or traumatic. I see a strong connection between the emotional experience, or what school feels like, and many of the more disruptive physical outcomes we’ve witnessed. (Ch. 1)
• Does being physically safe mean that students—and teachers—will be emotionally safe?
Not necessarily. As mentioned above, school can be a pretty scary place for kids who aren’t accepted socially, kids who have a hard time succeeding academically, kids who don’t learn in traditional ways, kids who have a hard time dealing with traditional win-lose discipline policies, or any number of other situations. These kids can get to and from school in one piece physically but still find school to be a particularly unsafe environment.
By the same token, I’ve found the opposite is far more likely to be true. The research, first-person accounts and my personal observations indicate that an emotionally safe environment is much less vulnerable to a range of negative outcomes—physical or otherwise—from school failure to violent or disruptive outbursts. (Ch. 1)
• Why is it emotional safety important?
The human brain is programmed for survival. Any perceived threat can trigger a defensive or survival response, typically a “fight,” “flight” or “freeze” type of behavior. Even if the threat isn’t actually real, if a student thinks that his safety—or even his dignity—is at stake, he’s likely to react in such a way as to preserve whatever he thinks is being threatened. When we’re in survival—or even under severe stress— we don’t tend to exhibit our best thinking or behavior.
There are actual neurological reasons for this. Most simply, our more primitive, emotional, survival responses are governed by different parts of the brain than those parts which handle more analytical or rational responses. In a crisis situation, the survival centers tend to take over and act more quickly than the “thinking” part of the brain. These survival responses can be a real life-saver at times and are available for good reasons. However, operating from the survival centers, which are activated by threat or stress, can have a very negative affect on learning, recall, performance and behavior. (Ch. 3, 4)
• What are some of the things kids do when they don’t feel safe? What is the connection between safety and behavior? Safety and academic performance?
Different individuals compensate for a lack of safety in different ways, often evident in the complaints I hear from teachers and parents sharing some of the more difficult behaviors they encounter. Some kids simply shut down or withdraw. Others rebel, misbehave, break rules, break things. Some deliberately fail or refuse to live up to adults’ expectations. Others comply, achieve compulsively (and perfectionistically) or dedicate themselves to pleasing others, regardless of the cost to themselves. Others become indifferent, or get involved in drugs or alcohol, drop out, lie, steal, hurt others, hurt themselves, alienate people who care about them or just make a joke about everything. The list goes on. However, it’s easy to see that any or all of these behaviors can satisfy kids’ needs to create a sense of safety and/or power in their lives. (Ch. 7)
• Many students come to school from troubled families and violent environments. What is the impact of these influences?
Early or persistent trauma can manifest in any of the behaviors mentioned above, but there are often more serious consequences, including problems with learning or neurological development which can result from elevated levels of stress hormones in the brain. For millions of kids, abuse, neglect or violence in their world actually changes the architecture of the brain. Certainly, these influences can have significant impact on a child’s beliefs, behaviors, social skills, self-control and ability to learn. Although many kids require much more complex or intensive interventions, for some kids, the stability of a safe school environment, a solid sense of community in school or a strong connection with a significant adult can go a long way in combating the negative affects of early trauma or lack of external support elsewhere in their lives. (Ch. 6, 8)
• When you talk about making schools safe, are you talking about making it easy? Do you mean that we should never challenge, correct or restrict kids?
Invitational Education expert William Purkey notes that at some point, a myth developed that schools could either be humane or effective, but not both. Let’s be clear that emotional safety is not about coddling kids. In fact the idea of not challenging or correcting kids is an insult to kids and adults alike. It’s much more about eliminating obstacles to success and achievement, which means getting rid of some of the patterns and policies that actually make it harder for kids to learn, succeed and grow in positive ways in a school environment. (Ch. 9)
• So many kids are so far behind academically and there is so much pressure on teachers to cover academic content. Isn’t it enough for schools to just teach?
I don’t know many teachers who don’t feel a tremendous amount of pressure to “cover content.” But there’s a difference between simply covering content and actually teaching. We’ve know for years that the most effective educators (and, indeed, instructional programs) are those that respond to the actual needs of students, start with what students actually know, and continually challenge and build on students’ strengths. I remember hearing this in my preservice classes thirty years ago, and these ideas had been around for a while back then. The reality is, school success—with academic content, that is—is dependent on so many factors. And whether we want to deal with kids’ emotional, developmental, behavioral, social or learning needs or not, they’re going to be there, and they’re going to have an impact on teaching and learning. (Ch. 9, 11, Part II, Ch. 15, 16)
• How has the role of the school changed in the past, say, 50 years?
When I started school in the 1950s, the economy of the United States was just beginning to transition from an industrial or factory economy to an information economy. The needs of the workplace in the 21st century are very different from the needs of the Industrial era which preceded it. Traditions of uniformity, win-lose authority relationships, competitive goal structures and dozens of other practices which may have served the factory era well are anachronistic in an economy which demands higher levels of, say, independence, initiative, cooperation and networking, people skills, interactive competence and the ability to think outside the box. Unfortunately, even our most high-tech schools, when it comes down to relationships, power dynamics and academic expectations, for example, are still set up to producing factory era behaviors and work skills. (Ch. 9)
• Why is a sense of community important in an academic environment?
Every school has a sense of community—an “energy” you can feel the second you walk in the door. This “feeling” has an impact on how the individuals in the building interact and perform. Whether this community is inclusive, supportive, empowering and respectful or whether it’s negative, discriminatory or toxic in other ways is a function of a combination of factors such as the attitudes, beliefs, values and mission of the school and staff, relationship with the larger community and parents, the discipline policies, or the quality of the building leadership, for example.
Everything a teacher teaches or student learns in a school environment happens in the context of this community. A cohesive, supportive, encouraging community, one that is committed to valuing everyone, one that is committed to success and growth for even the most challenged (or challenging) students, one that pays attention to how students treat one another (and refuses to tolerate mean, disrespectful or hurtful words or actions—from adults or kids) is going to function very differently than those schools whose community does not reflect such policies. Simply put, a positive community lacks many of the negative factors that can get in the way of learning and positive student behaviors and interactions. (Ch. 10)
• You have some concerns about research that suggests that smaller schools is the answer. Why is that?
I’m concerned with the tendency to find a quick fix, one that would suggest that simply cutting the population in any one site will automatically “fix” the problems we see in many schools, small or large. In purely mathematical terms, it certainly makes sense, at least in some regards, but I’ve talked to too many people who had good experiences in schools of all sizes (including extremely large schools) and students who had horrible experiences in schools of all sizes (including small, private, seemingly ideal sites) to have much confidence in simple numbers.
Several people (myself included) experienced both large and small schools at the high school level. Those who had positive experiences, who felt safe and connected, who felt accepted and welcome, who were able to achieve some level of success in at least some, if not most, areas in school, claim it was the people and the policies that made the difference—not the size of the school. (Ch. 10)
• You compare many school environments to dysfunctional families. What are some of the similarities?
This chapter started out almost as a joke but when I started looking at some of the characteristics of dysfunctional families from the old family systems literature, I couldn’t help but notice some glaring similarities to just about every school system I’d visited. (For people who take offense at the notion of schools being like dysfunctional families, it may be some comfort to know that the characteristics I list are also patterns which characterize, to a certain extent, industrial-era thinking.)
I was able to break these patterns into five different categories. These include impression management (including the need to look good), oversimplification (including a tendency toward all-or-nothing thinking), reactivity, scarcity thinking and negativity, and a tendency to focus on product over process. Additionally, I see a disturbing tendency to engage in practices and rely on policies which directly conflict with goals we say we have. This lack of congruence can actually create the very problems we’re trying to avoid. I also list alternatives to these patterns that are far less limiting and far better able to help us achieve our aims. (Ch. 11)
• You define safety in pretty broad terms. Is it realistic to expect schools to concern themselves with social, emotional and physical dimensions of safety in addition to the academic and behavioral issues you mention?
Throughout the entire time during which I was writing this book—in fact, pretty much throughout the three decades during which I’ve been involved in education—I’ve had to fight the urge to focus on one little piece of the puzzle and think that that would be enough. This certainly would have been a much easier project had I done just that!
Yes, it’s a bit overwhelming to look at all of the issues involved in the emotional climate of a school. As far as it being realistic to suggest that schools concern themselves with a broader spectrum than what’s between the pages of the textbooks they adopt, let’s look at the alternative, and how realistic it is to expect to accomplish the goals we say we have and ignore all the other factors that affect how kids learn.
I don’t think it matters where we get into the loop. Schools that attend to social policies and interactions are going to make a positive dent in the school climate. Schools that attempt to accommodate a wider range of intelligences and learning needs are going to see improvements, as are schools that attempt to improve the quality of the power dynamics between kids and adults, for example. My caution is more about keeping the big picture in mind. What is your mission? What are your goals? What do we need to address in order to truly eliminate the problems we’ve witnessed in recent years—not at a surface level that simply reacts to symptoms, but at a preventative level that addresses causes and eliminates obstacles to success. (Ch. 9, Part II, Epilogue)
• How can we make schools safe academically?
The question of academic safety is really about whether or not kids in school can actually succeed there. We have this bell-curve tradition that pretty much guarantees that a number of kids are going to fail in any given class. I think this goes back to the notion of uniformity, of expecting every kid who’s a certain age to be at a certain place academically. I also think that getting past this notion of uniformity is one of the biggest challenges for 21st century educators.
Once again, this question speaks to recognizing that learners come in all kinds of packages. The teachers I’ve met who seem to have the greatest successes (in terms of positive student behavior and achievement) are those who are willing to accommodate a wider range of learning skills, strengths and preferences. They seem to have a greater respect for different ways of paying attention, different ways of demonstrating understanding or mastery and the variety of strengths every kid brings to the classroom. They are more willing to meet a kid “where he’s at,” as they say, and work to catch kids up by teaching what students actually need—as opposed to simply covering content required by curricular mandates. They use these mandates as guideposts, for example, rather than as a tool to punish or dismiss a student who isn’t “there” yet. (Ch. 13, 14)
• What’s the best way to deal with failure?
Well, to start, let’s quit thinking of it as failure. What if my inability to do a certain skill at a certain point in my life, or after a certain amount of instruction doesn’t reflect anything more than my need for some prerequisite knowledge, or a different type of instruction or maybe even a little more practice? If “failure” simply signals to a teacher, “OK, here’s something I need to teach (or teach differently),” or “Maybe I need to back up a bit,” we’re more likely to see kids move forward than we are if we simply drop their grades for not keeping up with our agendas.
This really depends on our goals and what our bottom line objectives are. It reminds me of a high school student I observed giving a report in a World Religions class. There were some obvious gaps in this kid’s understanding of his topic. If our goal is an increase in knowledge and understanding, we can use this “failure” in his presentation as a key to the next step in his instruction: “Go back and find out a little more about this one topic and come back and tell me what you’ve learned.” Of course it will always be easier—particularly the way our schools are currently structured—to simply drop his grade a few points and move on to the next topic. But this doesn’t get us the increased knowledge we say we value. (Ch. 13, 14)
• How can we make schools safe behaviorally? (Discipline policies, power dynamics, etc.)
This is a tough one, and it’s one that’s really loaded for a lot of people. First of all, I want to make it clear that when I talk about shifting from win-lose power dynamics to win-win, I’m still talking about authority relationships. I’ve been doing discipline workshops for nearly 20 years and one of the biggest obstacles I face in presenting alternatives to the win-lose, rules-and-punishments policies so prevalent in nearly all adult-child institutions, a lot of people automatically assume I’m heading toward permissiveness. Nothing could be farther from the truth.
As with anything else, this shift demands a willingness to look beyond the all-or-nothing options which leave us with either a totally authoritarian approach or a weak, indulgent or permissive one. The question for a 21st century authority relationship is this: How can I build cooperation without disempowering the students or giving up my own authority? More simply, in terms of power—a basic human need (for both kids and adults): How can we both (or all) get what we want? There are ways to accommodate students’ needs for both power and limits without either ending up in frustrating, no-win power struggles or giving in, but accomplishing this goal requires some changes in the way we think about power and its role in our relationships with students, and in the way we interact around these issues. (Ch. 17)
• How can we make schools safe socially? (Bully-proofing, social skills development, tolerance and acceptance, etc.)
This was an issue for so many of the kids and adults I interviewed, including those who never had problems with adults, in terms of discipline, or with academic challenges. So even though there weren’t specific safety issues in these areas, the torment many people suffered at the hands of their peers made school an extremely unsafe and stressful experience. The adults and young people who described being the target of peer harassment and abuse frequently mentioned that adults who witnessed these events—and some were pretty horrific, outright physical assaults—did nothing to advocate or intervene. There is research to support their claims, although with so much media attention and liability regarding bullying and harassment, this seems to be changing for the better.
So probably the first thing we can do to make schools socially safe is to become more deliberate about noticing how kids treat one another, and making schools places where meanness or abuse is not a part of the culture. This is more about modeling and, when necessary, teaching, than it is about punishing or suspending violators.
Additionally, many kids come to school with few social or friendship skills, even in the upper grades, and there are ways to help kids learn how to deal with one another, how to stick up for themselves non-aggressively, how to set boundaries and ask for what they want, and how to manage their own anger and reactivity. If we’re talking about building character, emotional intelligence and good solid citizens, we’re certainly going to have to look at “content” beyond the confines of the traditional Three Rs. (Ch. 12, 15, 16)
• Some schools have programs dealing with issues like resiliency, character education, self-esteem, or emotional intelligence. How are these important?
They are important to the degree that the absence of these qualities interferes with learning and behavior. I remember when I first started teaching, when one of the veterans advised a number of us new teachers to insist that our students “leave their feelings at the door.” But, we’re not just teaching to the cognitively-oriented parts of the brain. There are bodies and hearts and all sorts of learned defenses coming into our classrooms—and if kids are emotionally wrapped up with some crisis at home, or if they know they’re going to be attacked on the playground at lunchtime, or if they’re depressed or convinced they’re going to fail no matter what they do, these feelings are eventually going to show up in some way in the classroom.
I see these programs as attempts to deal with the whole child, and as an alternative to the denial that suggests that we can ignore the emotional dimensions of children’s development and expect to accomplish academic goals without any problems. Now some programs are better than others and, quite frankly, if you’ve got a school culture built around these principles, with adults modeling and encouraging the kinds of behaviors these topics suggest as a matter of course—not just when we’re doing a particular lesson or activity during “character education hour,” say—then you don’t necessarily need a “program” per se to build strength in these areas. (In fact, if we don’t regularly practice and encourage these behaviors, even the best program and activities are likely to fall flat for lack of congruence. These issues are all a part of the emotional climate of a school, and of the culture in which teaching and learning take place. (Ch. 2, 15)
• How can educators and other school personnel help kids in crisis?
As with social interactions, we start noticing kids who seem depressed, angry or withdrawn. We make sure we have opportunities and resources to provide help. This doesn’t have to be particularly complicated or involved. Many of the individuals I’ve encountered spoke to the immense value in simply being acknowledged, or knowing that a teacher’s door was open when they needed to talk. (Ch. 10, 15)
• What kinds of physical factors impact the emotional climate of a school? (Light, heat, water/bathroom, design, space, environmental toxins, need for movement or interaction, etc.)
This ended up being a much bigger chapter than I’d initially anticipated. As with many educators, I don’t remember much of my training being devoted to the needs of the body, so I’ve been playing catch-up these past few years, reading and taking classes to learn more about what I considered to be the biggest gap in my understanding of how people learn.
We’ve known for a long time, for example, that architectural and environmental factors can have a huge impact on learning. But I was somewhat unprepared for the degree to which changes in these areas, or simple things like increasing the amount of full-spectrum light in a classroom, or encouraging increased movement or water intake, can improve performance and behavior. Even the kinds of floor covering, cleaning products, ventilation system and school supplies used in the classroom can affect students and staff. I think this is an area that deserves a great deal of attention—certainly more than we’ve given it in the past. (Ch.18)
• What kinds of things compromise the safety of the adults in education?
I wasn’t prepared for the rather explosive reactions I encountered at times when I casually mentioned to some adult in the system that I was writing a book on emotional safety. Clearly schools aren’t going to be emotionally safe until everyone in the schools, kids and adults alike, feel safe. And it’s clear that there are large numbers of adults who simply don’t feel safe in their school environments.
Yes, physical violence was an issue, but it was mentioned only rarely in comparison to the complaints I heard about the toxicity within the system (back-biting, gossiping, favoritism, political posturing, poor communications) and out (negative press, lack of cooperation from the community, pressure from “out-of-touch policy makers,” for example). Many mentioned feelings of antagonism between teaching staff and administration and a lack of respect for professional judgment, regardless of which side of that fence they were on. Even more universally, there was a sense of being measured against artificial criteria or being held accountable for things over which they had very little control (and for which they were rarely given the resources or support they needed to change). Additionally, the recent popularity of attempting to improve teachers’ (or schools’) performance by threatening them, punishing or embarrassing them, or withholding needed resources is not only inconsistent with any desire to create healthy, positive school climates, it also has the potential to seriously hurt this profession in all sorts of ways.
All in all, there were many, many people who were still enthusiastic and passionate about their work with young people, but after a while, the pressures and criticisms take their toll. I believe that simply being acknowledged and appreciated will go a long way in restoring eroded morale. Add in strong and supportive leadership, an opportunity to make decisions or have input in decisions that affect them, and some relief from having to look good all the time (which keeps many people from reaching out for support or ideas that could build their own effectiveness) and I think this situation will improve significantly.
• The picture looks pretty bleak at times, yet you seem optimistic that schools can become places for safety and success. Care to comment?
I think that for the most part, the changes that we hear the most about will still be the surface ones—the quick-fix reactions to crises that will offer some comfort here and there but do little to effect long-term changes. But I also know that despite the headlines, there are good things happening in individual classrooms and schools around the world. And I think that there will always be teachers who will withstand the negative press, disempowerment and mandates that have nothing to do with the reality they face when they walk into their classes, teachers who manage to connect with kids and move each and every one forward academically, emotionally, behaviorally, developmentally.
The fact that most of this growth is not particularly quantifiable matters, in truth, not at all. We may never read about the student whose academic potential—if not her life—is saved by a bit of patience, kindness or encouragement, and in truth, most educators rarely see a great deal of concrete evidence of the impact they have on the minds and souls they touch. But make no mistake about it, it is happening every single day. The true power of education is evident not in a set of test scores or graduation percentages, but in the potential for connections, one heart to another.
Alvin Toffler cautions against falling prey to what he calls the “chic pessimism” of the times. The good news comes in the guise of new research, particularly on things like how the brain works, on how people learn and remember, on the role of the body and emotions, on the impact of early intervention. There is new information and new programs and new validation for things that some teachers have been doing instinctively for years. And because of this, and the potential that this information holds, there may never have been a better time to be, or become a teacher.
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