The Psychologcial Safety Imperative
If you’re not safe, you can’t learn. Students can’t, teachers can’t, and entire systems cannot engage in the learning that is at the heart of our mission as educators. Psychological safety, and the resilience that accompanies it, are prerequisites for learning (Edmondson, 2018). The need for physical safety is obvious, and schools spend an extraordinary amount of resources on security systems and personnel. But there is no scanner that detects the fear that stalks too many students, teachers, and administrators. That is the fear of humiliation, shame, and embarrassment associated with making mistakes in an environment that tolerates nothing less than perfection. The most important job of the teacher—more important than mastering curriculum, assessment, pedagogy, and technology—is to have a fearless classroom in which students can learn without fear. Thanks to the masterful work of John Hattie and colleagues (Hattie, 2013) (Donahoo et al., 2018), we have a treasure trove of research that will allow us to make continued improvements in professional practices and our impact on student learning. But those practices will have little effect if students are too scared to make mistakes and engage in the active learning that mistakes, feedback, and response to feedback provide. Leaders and policymakers also have the obligation to create psychologically safe environments for teachers and administrators. When board of education meetings feature and televise the most vicious attacks on staff members and their families, we should not be surprised that a growing number of teachers and administrators are leaving the profession. This book shows you how to turn that tide, restoring respect and psychological safety to our educational system.
The research foundation of this book is broadly based, including quantitative studies, qualitative studies, meta-analyses, and syntheses of meta-analyses. In addition, my own field studies in fifty states and more than forty countries inform the ideas presented in these pages. While I recognize that each school and classroom has unique characteristics, our professional practices are best served by the “preponderance of the evidence” standard (Reeves, 2020). There is no perfect study, and certainly no perfect researchers. Therefore, teachers, leaders, and policymakers are best served when they find conclusions that are supported by researchers who use different methods, operating independently without any commercial influence, to come to similar conclusions. Despite what I hope the reader will find is a comprehensive list of references at the end of the book, I want to encourage you—the teacher and leader reading this book—to conduct your own action research. This is especially valuable on issues pertaining to equity, where the national data associating high-poverty schools with low performance, mask outstanding student performance and professional practices in high-poverty schools. I specifically encourage the “science fair” approach in which a teacher or team of teachers identifies a specific challenge, engages in a professional practice related to that challenge, and then displays results. These simple three-panel displays are extremely effective, especially when skeptical colleagues say, “that research was interesting, but it doesn’t apply to us.” If you engage in the systematic comparison of your students—comparing the same students to the same students—with the only intervention being a professional practice that the teacher provided, then you have clear evidence of the impact you had on student results. It wasn’t the socioeconomic status of the students, their skin color, or their home language. Those results were caused by the classroom teacher. An essential part of rebuilding psychological safety in schools is letting teachers know that—as a matter of evidence, not inspirational rhetoric—they made the difference for their students.
Through 2020 and much of 2021, schools remained shuttered, with attempts at distance learning having widely variable levels of effectiveness. As students returned to school for the 2021–2022 school year, teachers reported significant levels of learning loss and substantial regression in student behavior. A Harvard study (Anderson, 2022) estimated that student reading levels had dropped to the point that between eleven and twenty-two additional weeks of reading instruction would be required to catch up with the learning losses related to school closures. In my direct work with schools during and after the school closures, this could be a substantial underestimate, especially in high-poverty school districts. Learning loss, however is not the biggest problem that students and staff are facing. Anxiety and depression, already high among teenagers before the pandemic, soared as students faced unremitting isolation and fear (Morford, 2021). Moreover, at the very time when students needed mental health support from schools, the ratio of school psychologists to students was less than half the number recommended by the American Association of School Psychologists. This left them dealing with crises, but not able to treat chronic conditions such as anxiety and depression that can blow up into crises when untreated. Federal funds flowed into schools during the pandemic, and billions of dollars were invested in technology, programs, and in some cases, staff members. Much of that was devoted to Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) programs. But no intervention, no program, no curriculum, and no teaching strategy will be effective without an environment of psychological safety. The proliferation of programs, however, often led to a lack of focus and the failure of schools to implement deeply even the most promising programs (Hamilton et al., 2022). It grieves me to see schools that require training in social and emotional learning confident that they have found the magic bullet to aid in student distress, only to have them continue to pursue toxic feedback practices that render the rhetoric of social and emotional learning at best inconsistent, and at worst, a cynical farce. To put a fine point on it, if you value SEL programs that seek to build resilience and perseverance among students, and then you tolerate a computerized grading system that uses the average to determine final grades, you might as well say, “Remember all that stuff we said about resilience? Forget about it. Because our grading system will punish you at the end of the semester for the mistakes you made four months ago.” The challenge for emotional security cannot rest on teachers and psychologists alone. The daily decisions of leaders on how time and resources are allocated can either support or undermine student results. I have respectfully asked this pointed question to educational leaders around the world: Is your schedule and time allocation the same today as it was in 2019? If so, you are pretending that the pandemic and associated learning loss never happened. That illusion will perhaps work for affluent families with students born with an electronic device in their hands. But it ill-serves the cause of equity on which the future prosperity of our society depends.
There is an answer to this enormous challenge. In the pages that follow, you will see how teachers and school leaders are creating psychologically safe classrooms in which 100% of students are engaged (Reeves et al., 2022). You will see how leaders create environments in which teachers can engage in pilot programs to learn how best to improve student learning. You will see how the high-trust environment on which psychological safety depends can be built—and how it can be destroyed. You will, in sum, learn to have fearless schools.