5 Strategies to Create a Safe Space for Staff

Tap into your social-emotional tool chest to meet the psychological needs in your school community.

Topics: Pandemic Leadership

Principals have always been responsible for ensuring student safety. Enter 2020, and principals have the new obligation of ensuring safety during a pandemic. After completing the longest summer break ever (March through September), our students returned to school a little before Labor Day. Both teachers and students were eager to get started. While cautious about safety measures put in place, parents were excited that their children would return to a life of learning in real life, real time.

But I had concerns about safety. I had to acknowledge the pressures we all were under. Some of the staff members have had family members who lost jobs. Some have had housing issues. Unfortunately, some have had family members to be diagnosed with—or even died from—COVID-19.

I had to be different as a principal than I was accustomed to. I needed to tap into my social-emotional tool chest to interact with adults. During observation and feedback sessions, I checked-in with the staff, and I was amazed at their willingness to share.

How do we continue to move our instructional intent forward during this time? How do we change our practices as principals to engage our teachers with a spirit of connection and collaboration? How do I ensure psychological safety for teachers to work with students in the midst of the world-wide crisis?

Psychological safety is a requirement for learning for students. I had to determine how to create an equally psychologically safe space for faculty and staff, too, and that process led to these five strategies that cultivate a safe atmosphere for adults in the school community.

  1. Celebrate successes—of the staff and parents. Teachers need to talk about teaching. During professional learning communities, we (principal, assistant principal, and literacy specialist) highlight strengths. We strategize about how to help our learners grow and develop. Our school leadership team decided to recognize our instructional superheroes for each week. We share favorite quotes of staff members and acknowledge their contributions to the school family publicly, in writing. We announce on the intercom why each person is important to the school family. Acknowledgement of worth is critical for adult learning to occur. We also celebrate the parents. We thank parents often for all of the important work they are doing with their children and for making sure that students wear their masks daily. Parents are closely monitoring student health to keep others well. Parents have always been our partners. The partnership is more important now than ever. Parents know that they are respected when we listen, return their calls in a timely manner, and keep them informed.
  2. Introduce an opportunity for new adult learning (in addition to COVID protocols). Our school leadership team made the decision to explore a full-scale arts integration experience for the students. We engaged in professional development. Adult learners had a hands-on experience. We created our own art. We read important articles. We also developed an arts council. We collectively implemented professional development. The student artwork created an explosion of joy for all.
  3. Create an opportunity for open conversations. Ask questions! In the past, I primarily spent time talking about the work of the day.  Because of COVID-19 in our lives, I have transitioned to spending dedicated time asking about the wellbeing of friends and family. We all need people who take time to listen. I spend more time asking instead of telling. The big question is “What do you think?” The next question is “What do you need?”  School family members need each other for support.
  4. Take care of yourself first and then you can take care of others. Spend quiet time meditating, relaxing, eating your veggies, and exercising. We have all flown and understand when the flight attendant directs us to put on your oxygen mask before putting own someone else’s mask. The idea is that you won’t be able to save anyone unless you protect yourself.
  5. Take time to think and breathe as the leader. As principals, we are flooded with multiple streams of information. We receive information minute by minute from staff, parents, district officials, public health leaders, and the like. Find a quiet space to read, read, read. You will need to take at least an hour a day to process your new learning.

You will always have to apply your learning to new situation.

We’re all grateful to be school principals. Amid all the responsibility and accountability for safety, let’s remember our special calling to lead. Our leadership makes the difference. We can and are doing this.

Capucine Torrey Robinson is principal of East Flora Elementary in the Madison County School District and president of the Mississippi Association of Elementary School Administrators.