You ask, “What conditions do you think are necessary for this safety to exist and become part of the fabric of the school day and classroom culture?”

I think that’s a great question. The discussions you describe at 3FF sound like an important piece of this. “The simple act of intentionality,” as you put it, proclaims a value and a goal that can change people’s expectations. I’m going to head out on a limb here. I think saying no is essential to creating a safe space for young people.


Of course, I mean a different kind of no from what they usually hear: No talking to your classmates. No running. No devices. These are very authoritarian and arbitrary commands that teach students to accept authority without question. Some of them do accept, and keep their heads down. Others do not accept, and head down the disciplinary track. I think there is also a third group that silently tries to undermine the system.

The kind of no that I am talking about is more personal and more courageous. It happens when a teacher insists on kind words and actions. It means being willing to call students out (in a positive and supportive way) when they are not being authentic. I have watched students say “I’m sorry” when they don’t really feel it, and have responded by saying, “No, you’re not. You are just saying words. But if you really try to see the feelings of this other person, then you may start to feel sorry. And that’s good, because you will be making a connection.” This is courageous because I better be pretty sure that I am reading the student well.

We have a rule in our elementary school that You Can’t Say You Can’t Play. This comes from a book by Vivian Paley, a really dedicated and thoughtful kindergarten teacher. She discovered that children become happier when you curb their independence a little to ensure that everyone is cared for. Why? I think it’s because the fear of rejection drives a lot of unkind behavior, and when the possibility of rejection is removed, people begin to feel safer and express more kindness.

I remember learning about a South American tribal culture in which every person, at every age, had a job to do for the welfare of the group. Their lives were interwoven. This is in contrast to an industrial culture where our “employability” does not start for many years (a quarter century for the most skilled professions), and it ends long before death. When people do not feel included, when they are cut off from the concerns and business of life, what purpose do they have?

Telling our students that we insist on holding community prepares them for a life that acknowledges how much we depend on each other, and treats that connection as a strength, not a weakness. Have you seen that strength in your work?

– Theodore

Theodore TimpsonComment