As educators, we want the answers as to why our students aren't learning. Do they have special education needs such as a learning disability? Are they lacking motivation? Did they get enough sleep the night before? Did they have breakfast? But how many of us ever ask: do my students feel safe? Overwhelming brain based research indicates the importance of students feeling safe in schools in order for them to be able to learn.
“When students are feeling anxious or fearful, they aren’t in the mood to learn. That’s because one part of the brain that processes emotions—the amygdala—responds to perceived threats by blocking information flow to the learning centers of the brain. In layman’s terms, stress scrambles the learning circuits. “ (Edutopia.org, 2011)
January 11, 2013. Friday afternoon. Media were buzzing with the news of a 15 year old boy shot and killed in a stairwell in an apartment building in Regent Park. The reality struck our school community when we realized the boy who was shot was a former student of our school. A number of staff taught him and understandably, they were greatly affected by the tragedy.
What I didn't anticipate was the impact the shooting had on my kids, both directly and indirectly. Some were friends of the young man, some played basketball with him at the community centre, some just knew him as a guy that went to our school; a couple felt that they lost a family member, a big brother.
When you’re in teachers’ college, you’re taught how to teach pedagogical approaches and curriculum. But how does one respond to a 13 year old telling you he wants to stay at school because he doesn't want to go home and get shot? Nobody in teachers’ college teaches you what you do in a situation like this.
I am grateful for having board social workers come in so students had trained professionals to speak with, because in all honesty, I didn’t feel equipped to handle the raw emotions my kids were feeling. To stand in front of my class seeing students with tears in their eyes, crying inconsolably was one of the hardest things I had to do in my career thus far. I was at a loss for words and found myself holding back my own tears, seeing the pain my class was experiencing. We tried to have a community circle to share feelings, but what we were left with was a room filled with an eerie silence. Nobody was ready to talk. For the first time in my career, I felt lost; I didn't know how to help my students. I didn't push. I didn't force anyone to talk, but instead, I invited them to share their feelings when they felt they were ready. Because integrating art is a big part of my teaching practice, I encouraged them to express themselves through the arts.
It didn't happen immediately but eventually a couple students began writing to express their feelings including writing letters addressed to the boy who was killed. And over time, there were also art pieces and spoken word created that expressed feelings of safety in the community. It wasn't easy but because we had created a classroom community that cared, students felt safe to express themselves without the fear of ridicule.
I cannot control what happens outside the school walls. We like to feel that we can be everything for our students, but the reality is, they have lives outside the confines of our classrooms. However, as teachers, we have a moral and professional obligation to not replicate feelings of danger in our classrooms, but rather we create a culture of caring, trust and safety.