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Friday, December 28, 2012

Are Schools Psychologically Safe Places?

In Amy Edmondson’s book, Teaming, she states that psychological safety is an absolute prerequisite for optimal learning. Although she writes about business organizations, her research holds true for all organizations.

Educators must have the courage to ask if schools are psychologically safe for students and staff. Since learning is what school is supposed to be about, it would seem that making schools psychologically safe should be the highest priority. In exploring what psychological safety means in practice, one would have to conclude that many schools put order and efficiency above psychological safety.

Edmundson states: “ …In psychologically safe environments, people believe that if they make a mistake others will not penalize or think less of them. They believe that others will not resent or humiliate them when they ask for help or information…Thus psychological safety is a taken for granted belief about how others will respond when you ask a question, seek feedback, admit a mistake, or propose a wacky solution…in psychologically safe environments, people are willing to offer ideas, questions, and concerns. They are even willing to fail, and when they do they learn.”
If we are honest with ourselves, can we truthfully say that schools are places where anyone is willing to fail in order to learn. Failure should be taught as a process of finding out what doesn’t work to eventually discover what does, but this is not the common understanding that students (or teachers) have. Kids who fail at school are at great risk for criticism, derision, and exclusion. Fear of failure is often used to motivate kids to work. Edmundson describes environments that have high expectations and low psychological safety:
“Managers in these organizations have unfortunately confused setting high standards with good management…Following the mistaken, though often well-intentioned belief that intense performance pressure is the best way to ensure excellent results, managers inadvertently create an environment in which employees are afraid to offer ideas, try new processes, or ask for help.”
It sounds to me those who set policies in education are very much like those confused managers. This type of thinking unfortunately permeates most of American education.
What has the greatest influence on the amount of psychological safety in an organization? No surprise, it is leadership: “The most important influence on psychological safety is the nearest manager, supervisor or boss. These authority figures, in subtle and not so subtle ways, shape the tone of interactions in a team or group.”
Edmundson says that people are very sensitive to status and authority. They will by default play it safe to avoid offending the boss or evoking any degree of disapproval. Developing a psychologically safe learning environment requires a deliberate and intentional set of leadership behaviors to overcome this default response. She lists 8 specific ones:
  • Be accessible and approachable
  • Acknowledge limits of current knowledge
  • Be willing to display fallibility
  • Invite participation
  • Highlight failures as learning opportunities
  • Use direct language
  • Set boundaries 
  • Hold people accountable for transgressions
(In future posts, I will try to explore some of these latter ones,  since they at first appear contradictory to the concept of psychological safety.)
The importance of acknowledging limits of current knowledge, displaying fallibility and highlighting failures as learning opportunities, reminded me of an experience I had as principal.
There was fourth grade student who was classified as learning disabled. This classification should not be public knowledge. In this case the student received resource room support but otherwise participated in school lessons and activities as any non-disabled student would. One day he stayed after school for sports intramurals. He happened to be taking a smaller bus home that some other more visibly disabled students were scheduled to take. The physical education teacher without thinking called for the students who were riding the special ed. bus to line up. This student felt that by responding to the teacher and lining up he would be announcing to the world that he was disabled. The teacher should have called the bus by its number or identified it any other way. This student told his parents about how he felt embarrassed by having to line up with the special education bus. His parents called me, the principal, and relayed this information. I thanked them and apologized if we caused any unnecessary stress for the student. I spoke to the physical education teacher about it-not in a critical way but rather in an understanding way. I said that I could see myself making that same mistake. I also mentioned that I was glad the parent had enough trust in us to give us that feedback. The parent wasn’t blaming us but rather pointing something out that could raise our awareness to student sensitivity. Since I wasn’t critical of him, the teacher accepted the feedback and from that day on never made that mistake again.
I felt that I should find that student and thank him for telling his father so that his father could tell us. I went down to the student’s classroom and asked him to speak with me in private. I apologized to him for any type of embarrassment we might have caused him. I told him that I spoke with the teacher who did it and he agreed that it was a mistake but one that he would learn from. I thanked him and his dad for speaking up and telling us, since we didn’t want that to happen again. I added that his speaking up probably would help us avoid making that mistake again. He quietly accepted what I said and returned to his class without saying a word.
Several months later on almost the last day of the school year, that same boy’s father came by school to pick up something his son had left at school. I happened to be out in the main office and after seeing me he said, “Do you know that you are the person my son most admires?” I said no but I was honored and I asked why. He said that coming down to apologize personally to him, communicating to him about the mistake, and showing a willingness to learn from it, had made a huge positive impression on him. I had not just earned his trust but also his admiration.
Although I didn’t have this theory to guide me at the time,  I suppose that what I did made the school psychologically safer for this student. Sometimes I think that those in management positions just need to worry less about controlling things and let themselves be caring, honest and humble people. The surprise is that they will not be diminished in the eyes of those they lead, the opposite will happen they will become more trusted and respected.

Friday, December 21, 2012

It's the Culture! No Surprise

Here is a link to an excellent research article using qualitative research on bystander/witness behavior and thinking entitled:

“Rules of the Culture and Personal Needs: Witnesses’ Decision-Making Processes to Deal with Situations of Bullying in Middle School” by Silvia Diazgranados Ferrans, Robert Selman, and Luba Falk Feigenberg in Harvard Educational Review, Winter 2012 (Vol. 82, #4, p. 445-470),

It is a quite extensive scholarly article worth taking the time to read.

Their findings recommend that students be educated about the influence they have as bystanders and taught a variety of strategies for dealing with bullying when they witness it.  They also recommend focusing on building school cultures where students feel connected to each other and the school.  They emphasize the importance of adults modeling the type of caring and courage they want to see in the students.  Students should actively engaged in developing the rules and shaping the school culture.

In my book I summarized these approaches into three categories A B C:

Autonomy/agency-students need to be actively engaged in creating a caring culture.  They need to be empowered to act based on their moral conscience.  The focus cannot be on just following top/down rules.

Belonging-students need to feel that everyone is part of a community.  They need to know what a community is and how it differs from a group.   School have to know how a community differs from just a group.  This needs to be a topic of conversation.  Schools that typically use suspension as a universal consequence for students who breaks the rules, inadvertently send that message that membership in a community can be jeopardized by behavior.  Students should always be accepted as people and always remain a member of the community.  If they break any rules, it is more a sign they need help and support rather than exclusion.

Competence-students need specific skills, phrases, strategies to use when confronted with bullying situations that often are ambiguous.  Many students know that what is happening is wrong but lack the skills to strategically intervene effectively.  Learning to navigate the social world is not easy and students need our help and support.  Becoming skilled does happen automatically for every student.  Even students who have great empathy will eventually become hardened if they don't learn how to demonstrate it-they will lose it if they don't use it.

To sum of this up into one phrase (by way of James Carville and the 1992 election)when it comes to bullying prevention -"It's the culture, stupid."

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Education Week

My post entitled The other Sandy Hook Story was submitted and accepted by Education Week.  They are posting it on their website tomorrow and hopefully it will also be published in their print edition on January 9.  As part of my agreement with them I temporarily removed that post (it was modified for publication) for three days after it is posted on their site.  I will  post the Education Week version sometime next week.  Thank you for checking it out. Check out tomorrow's Education Week online at

Monday, December 17, 2012

Let's Start with Less Harshness

Back in July there was a video of a bus monitor being put down and insulted by a group of middle school students.  What they did was wrong and hurtful.  We, as educators, should work with their parents to help them learn why it was wrong, how it hurt someone, understand why they did it and help them learn to be more sensitive and caring individuals.  We also need to educate those bystanders who watched and knew it was wrong to speak up to those who were teasing or help the monitor.
That type of response to the incident was not the one that reflected the sentiment of most people.  The media was filled with outrage by commentators who called these students “monsters”.  There were calls for them to be arrested and imprisoned.  Their parents were judged and condemned as incompetent and irresponsible.  They received death threats.  They needed to be severely punished and they were consequently suspended from school for an entire year.  Because of their mistakes, the actions that were wrong, they were condemned and labeled as individuals.  If they had been arrested and sent to prison as many suggested this condemnation and stigma would have followed them for the rest of their lives.
There was another minor news story that came to my attention.  It was about two high school students who had gotten into a fight.  The principal they them a choice of punishment: be suspended or choose to publicly hold hands for a lunch period. They chose to hold hands and subsequently endure ridicule and put downs-many of these put downs. 

  Here is what the blog that reported this said:
What ensued for the boys was about an hour of public humiliation. If you watch the linked news video, you can hear students laughing at them.
Several news reports stated that the boys were being taunted, “Are you gay?” The incident was so humiliating (or effective?) that one of the boys did not go to school for at least 2 days, per news reports.
I felt compelled to comment on this story.  Here is what I said:
.    I am retired elementary school principal and have written two books. One is the Peaceful School Bus and other is No Place for Bullying that I wrote as a resource for school principals on the issue of bullying. I have written quite a bit on issues like this, but I will quickly comment on this particular situation. The key question that a principal should ask when facing a disciplinary decision is what can I do to help the students learn not to do this again? Unfortunately the default response by many principals is to apply a consequence and hope it deters future behavior. This does not work for many reasons. A better option is to help the students understand why what they did is a problem, learn that their way of solving the problem did not work and help them learn a better way. Schools need to shift from a criminal justice mindset and embrace a educational mindset. Most behavior issues tend to be more a lack of skill than faulty motivation. Social skills are harder to learn than academic skills so simply providing a consequence for the behavior is insufficient. I don’t blame the principal-we don’t provide much support for principals on how to make these judgment calls. They need mentoring and coaching by experienced administrators and this is often lacking. I wrote my book in a effort to support principals.

Jim Dillon 8:01 pm on December 12th, 2012

I forgot to add I feel very strongly that public humiliation should never be used. A simple test any educator needs to use is the golden rule: is that something you would want to be done to you. I cannot think of any person who would want to be publicly humiliated. There is never an excuse or justification for treating any person with disrespect. There has to be limits on the options we use with students and public humiliation is off limits. I entitled a chapter of my book “You can’t bully your way to bullying prevention.”
Here is a response I got to my comment:
I’m shaking my head at the comments here. Me, I’d rather learn the consequences of his actions than baby him. And let’s not overstate things here: the boys chose their own punishment.

I did not agree with the principal as you can see, but here is another comment from someone else who didn’t agree with him:
This guy is sick. He needs to be fired. If he did this to one of my babies he would have dealt with a nightmare…ME…Momma Bear. I don’t understand why the boys didn’t take the suspension unless they were afraid of what would happen when they got home. I would have hugged my babies saying, “Good choice.” Then I still would have went after that perv for even suggesting holding hands knowing how cruel kids can be. That option has red flag predator alerts going off.

The harshness is pretty clear right down the line it seems.  This is something that we need to pay attention to-I think it is at the heart of many of our problems.

I decided to write this post in response to the horrific act of violence at Sandy Hook Elementary.  Needless to say, I am greatly trouble and distraught by what happened.  It was a school not unlike the one where I was principal.  The issues of safety were paramount to me, as they were to everyone at our school.  We practiced lockdown and evacuation drills.  We did exercises where we talked about what we would do if an intruder ever entered our school.  When I finally retired as principal, I felt a tremendous relief just because I didn’t even have the remote possibility of having something like this happen resting on my shoulders. It was a school that did everything right but yet was still vulnerable to act of a troubled, deeply disturbed person who committed a horrible, unspeakable act.
We as a country have many things to ask ourselves and I pray we have the courage to look in different places than we typically do. I am glad that we in our country can start to talk about something-anything, we can do to lessen the violence and protect all of us.  One thing however that has been overlooked in the discussions of guns, violence, and mental health, is examining a part of our culture that is harsh and unforgiving.  A culture that feels that people need to suffer pain and punishment in order to learn from mistakes.  A culture that feels that students who break the rules should be castigated and in many cases removed and cast off from the community.  A culture that feels that war, attack or battle is the answer to problems.  I even heard a commentator say that we now need to have a “war against violence”.  This culture unfortunately is present in all of our institutions including our schools.  
It seems like our culture is in many ways is blind towards any other way to respond to a problem.  Any suggestion of an alternative approach is considered soft, weak or ineffective.  Sadly, this harsh culture is now applied to teachers.  It is assumed that their shortcomings are a product of laziness, indifference or a lack of caring so they their “feet must be held to the fire” as some officials have verbalized.  
This harsh part of our culture is reflected in how we treat our children in schools and sadly this becomes what we teach them.  Our schools are often not forgiving and kind towards those students who are viewed as troublemakers-too often they are ostracized and segregated.  Students are separated into the good and bad sadly in the eyes of teachers and students.  Conformity and compliance too often are valued more than speaking up and being different.
This harshness and punitive mindset also shows itself in our violent games and entertainment. It is not so much the violence that damages our culture as much as it is the mindset that people deserve to be violated because they are bad people who need to be punished for the bad things they do to the good people. It is the “us against them” mindset that is the root of violent words and actions.
 Sadly, the person who committed this horrible unspeakable act was perhaps, in his darkly twisted mind and spirit, punishing those he felt were getting what they deserved.  He was issuing the ultimate punishment on those he felt deserved to die; ironically, the same punished he leveled on himself.  We must teach a different lesson that punishment is never an answer to a problem.  We doubt this alternative way we only need to look to the lessons of Christ-who told us not to judge and condemn but to love and forgive everyone without exception.
Our schools must first be places where the Golden Rule applies to everyone, especially those in authority and who have power.   If it did, I do not think we would routinely feel that every mistake or infraction required a consequence. We also would not we feel that every act of kindness and goodness needed to be rewarded. We need to believe that doing good and caring is rewarding in and of itself-if we don’t we will devalue it in the eyes of our students.  We need to believe that students are not a few steps away from being criminals and therefore need to be manipulated into being good.  If we give students a caring community that meets their needs, the only reward needed is the one they will receive from being in that environment, being part of that community. They will learn because learning is what they do as human beings-they won’t need for us to motivate them to learn.  
People are good and want to be good yet they make mistakes.  We are not giving our students that message when our main way of interacting with them is to control what they do. We need to guide and educate them not control and manage them.  Our message should be one of community, acceptance, and reconciliation when anyone forgets to respect that community.  The old saying  “There is no way to peace, peace is the way” applies to community.  We must believe in the power of community, of the human bonds that are already with us, to be the way to stay and grow as a community.  Maybe that is good place to start our necessary conversations and our actions-let’s be a little less harsh, let’s believe in the goodness of people, let’s be a little kinder to each other.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Change when change is hard

Schools are hard places to change.  I was a principal for twenty years so I know from first hand experience how hard it is to change things in school.  There are many reasons for why it is hard.  Not the least of them is the fact that the adults who work in schools are usually the people who succeeded in them, and haven’t experienced education in any other way.  It is hard to think out of the box if all you have ever experienced is the box.

Most of the change initiatives for schools including bullying prevention assume that change can occur within the existing culture and structure of school.  I compare this to home repairs-the house is okay it just needs fixing.  What if the house is not okay and has structural problems like a shaky foundation.  Any repair on top of a unsound foundation is likely to ultimately fail.  What if the thing we want to repair is direct consequence of the faulty foundation.

This is a hard message to get across to people.  It is threatening for people to think that their foundation is not sound.  Telling people that fact is criticizing them and leaving them with no alternatives, which is an intolerable situation for them.  This is the paradox education finds itself in-it needs to change the culture of schools yet telling people that the culture needs changing is message that doesn’t motivate them to change.

We cannot however start our education system from scratch.  We must start where are and try to improve it.  The main question should be: what strategy/approach has the greatest potential for revealing the real source of the problem and beginning the change process in the right direction?  Any strategy that fails to do will just be another case of trying something that sounds good but really is just more of the same that leaves the foundation untouched.

What will not work is creating a program designed to address a problem and then make people follow it.  This doesn’t work because the program is usually designed for changing the students not the people who work in schools.  For change initiative to work effectively, it must not be a blueprint that people just follow, it must be something that changes how people feel and think-changes their hearts and minds.  It must help them to begin see and understand things differently.  (People sometimes need to act differently before they see things differently,  but ultimately they just can’t blindly follow or feel that their main role is to follow a program.)
They need to be empowered to be the planners, creators, implementers and evaluators-they need to move from being passive recipients of plans from above to engaged and active agents of change.  They will ultimately have to understand and articulate why they are doing what they are doing, not just do it.  Michael Fullan says that people need to WALK the TALK and TALK the WALK.  The typical mindset that too many educators have of “just give me something practical” or “tell me what to do” only perpetuates the status quo.  Teaching and learning are not step-by-step, color by numbers types of activities.  The agents of change must be thinkers and doers-learners.  When teachers assume these roles they are more likely to view their students as such.

For this meaningful change to happen in schools, the people in schools especially the leaders in the school, have to know about the change process-what works and what doesn’t work.  This is why a book like Teaming by Amy Edmondson is so valuable. 

I will give just one example from her book of how change is facilitated that seems to be ignored by current practice.  The research is clear that people are more likely to change when the change that is presented to them is “aspirational” rather than “defensive.”  She explains that the “frame” of the change has a very significant influence on whether of not the change will be successful. 

Nowhere is this so clear as in bullying prevention.  The frame of bullying prevention as it is presented to most educators is the following:

Bullying is a problem that needs to be solved so school can continue to operate the way it normally does, therefore:

  • ·      We haven’t been doing a good enough job in stopping bullying
  • ·      We now have to stop bullying because it is now against the law (we are mandated to do it)
  • ·      We have a program or protocol for meeting the mandate
  • ·      Everyone needs to follow this or we will be out of compliance
This defensive frame focuses on the negative, criticizes past performance, emphasizes compliance down the line, and removes those involved from being necessary agents of change.  It is not just research but common sense that tells us that people don’t respond well to this “frame” for change.  Ironically, then people’s (teachers and students) resistance to this “frame” is then interpreted as stubbornness, lack of openness, and self-interest by those in power who want the change to happen.

Here is an alternative frame:
Bullying prevention is not just stopping something bad or fixing a problem, it is an opportunity to reconnect to the basic moral purpose of education, and therefore, we must act on these basic assumptions/beliefs:

  • ·      We are educators because we want to improve the lives of the students we serve
  • ·      We want our students to learn in a safe environment where they are respected and valued
  • ·      We believe our students are capable of great things
  • ·      We believe that students want to learn and want to work as a community
  • ·      This is a challenge for that is essential for everyone and one that requires everyone’s commitment and participation
  • ·      Finding the best way to do this will require everyone to learn more about the problem and the type of changes that will be required
  • ·      We need to learn together and plan and lead together
  • ·      If we do so, change is not just possible it is inevitable
I know that this second “frame” is the one that would motivate me the most.  This is an approach that is designed to change hearts and minds.  When people’s hearts and minds change, then real change happens-it is the only way that real change has ever happened.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

How to find the best teacher in a school

With all the talk and attention given to teacher evaluation, I have a method for quickly determining teacher effectiveness. Here is how to do it:

• Wait until November. This gives teachers time to establish relationships with students and get routines and procedures in place.
• Take a look at the curriculum’s scope and sequence so you will have a good idea of what the class is learning.
• Make sure you have popped into the class even briefly several times just to make sure that the students know see you as a familiar face. This will make sure that they will not be distracted by your presence.
This is the most important step: GO on a day when the teacher is NOT there; when there is a substitute in charge. Observe how the class is acting.
• At random pick out a few students and quietly squat down next to them and ask them the following questions: What are you learning? How are you doing? How do you know how you are doing? How can you improve? Where can you go if you need help?
• Talk to the substitute teacher at end of the day to get her reaction to the class.
I know that this is different from what principals are being told to do which is to watch a teacher every move and “scoring” them for what they say or don’t say. I think that this type of approach is detrimental to professional learning because it creates a gotcha environment that will ultimately suppress risk taking and experimentation. This approach is designed to basically give the administrator what he or she needs to fulfill the mandates. (This will be another great example of people focusing on following procedure and ignoring learning-“the operation was a success but the patient died.”)
My approach focuses on the influence a teacher has on his/her students that goes beyond being physically present. I compare this to the experience we had when our children went off to college. We had no control over when they studied and meet any of their responsibilities. If they acted responsibly it had to come from within them-whatever internal values or beliefs that guided them were hopefully nurtured through their 18 years with my wife and me. Of course they knew they had us as resources but they also knew that asking for help and using resources was a good thing to do. The rules for college life are unwritten and vague at best, so our kids had to figure out how to make it work. I think that if we were too controlling, too rule focused while they were with us, that they would not had done as well as they did. I also think they knew that we trusted them and had confidence in them without having to have a guarantee that they would make no mistakes or be responsible all the time.
The best teachers need to follow the same trajectory as parents whose goal is to raise children who develop the internal compass and guide for owning their learning and working responsibly. The teachers who take this approach “invest time” building community in the classroom in way that the students know why they are there and how their own learning and the learning of their classmates are interconnected. These students are given choices when appropriate, are used to discussing ideas with their peers, and have opportunities to contribute to the common good of the room by having jobs to do in the room. This type of teacher prepares the students to welcome and support the substitute teacher. They have had the opportunity to think about how hard it is to be a substitute teacher and have had input into designing plans for helping the substitute. These students know that learning is not equated with doing what the teacher says but something that the teacher supports them in doing.
Here is chart delineating the control approach evident in behavioral models like PBIS and the influence approach evident in classrooms like I just described;
External: Requires adult presence
 Rule focused: Right is following rules                    

Dependent on rewards and consequences            

Goal is compliance                                               

Adults in policing role                                             

No room for error / consequences for mistakes
Trust not necessary                                                 

Short term, environmental dependent


Internal does not require adult presence

Relationship focused: based on responsibility to others

Dependent on values, relationships with adults and peers

Goal is responsibility

Adults model by example, talking and learning together

Recognizes that kids are works in progress-mistakes are part of learning

Trust emerges from relationships is critical for internalizing values

Has lasting impact beyond the present environment
The best teachers have the most influence on their students not the most control. The best teachers are the ones that make every student feel that he/she as a special relationship with them. The best teachers are remembered for their kindness and caring when kids had trouble or made mistakes. The best teachers model the importance of every student being valuable and contributing to the community. Substitute teachers for these types of teachers will talk about how helpful the students were and how they continued to learn the way they would when their regular teacher was there. I believe that every teacher can be this type of teacher; this type of classroom culture can happen in every classroom.
For education to move in this direction educators will need to reexamine their assumptions about students how they learn and what teaching and learning are really all about. Unfortunately, this direction is not the one that most schools are not heading in. Current policy, regulations and funding are not promoting this direction: they continue to just try to make the status quo work better without real change.