Safety is a foundational aspect of a student’s wellbeing and acts as an important precursor to academic engagement and success. In today’s learning environments, a student’s safety spans both the real world and the online world. Students experience safety when they are physically safe, emotionally safe and feel they have the space to freely express their identity and be accepted for who they are. When students don’t have to worry about their safety, they are more likely to want to come to school and engage in their learning.
In the latest episode of the Student Voices Podcast we talked to Daisy Utber, Assistant Principal for Wellbeing and Inclusion at Greater Shepparton SecondaryCollege in Victoria, and Dyonne Anderson, Principal of Cabbage Tree Island School in New South Wales, to learn more about what makes a safe school environment and how safe environments can be established for students.
Establishing a safe school environment
With Greater Shepparton Secondary College nearing the end of a two year merger of four local government schools into a single school of over 2000 students, it was interesting to start the conversation with Daisy by exploring what a safe school environment looks like.
For Daisy’s students, a safe school environment is one where they feel respected and heard, and where they can move around campus freely without fear of intimidation or bullying. Daisy also spoke about the role of teachers as trusted adults and the importance of teachers fostering an environment where all students feel respected for who they are and help students with whatever problems they may be facing. At Greater Shepparton, it is recognised that establishing a safe environment in these ways, lays a powerful foundation for teaching and learning.
For Dyonne Anderson at Cabbage Tree Island, creating a safe school environment is her priority. She has achieved this over a number of years, by actively promoting routines, fair and clear behaviour expectations and culturally relevant and responsive teaching and learning. Together, these elements have helped to create a school where students feel safe and welcome every day.
Creating a safe school through the power of community
With so many students on site at Greater Shepparton Secondary College, Daisy spoke about how a sense of safety has been carefully established through the structure of the school. Using a mini-school framework, students are divided into neighbourhoods, houses and homegroups, meaning that although students are part of a large school but on a day-to-day basis they learn within smaller groups where meaningful relationships can be made with their teachers and peers. This helps students to create a real sense of community within their learning environment, where they are more likely to feel comfortable expressing themselves and creating deep connections with those around them.
Dyonne also recognised the importance of community in supporting students to feel safe at school. She spoke about this particularly in relation to the teaching staff at Cabbage Tree Island Primary School. Many staff at the school are drawn from the local community, but those who aren’t are chosen carefully to ensure that they are culturally capable and culturally responsive so that all students can be supported to feel great about who they are. Creating a strong community for students through school staff helps everyone come together to benefit students in having strong connections with their community and feeling safe in their identities.
Supporting students to feel safe
In supporting students to feel safe at school, Daisy recognised the importance of working closely with parents. Parents can have a significant impact on how students feel about school and so Daisy and her colleagues actively work with students and their families to ensure the language used about school is positive. Parents are encouraged to send their children to school with a positive message like ‘have a good day’, rather than negatively framing the day before it has even started with ‘I hope nothing goes wrong’.
Equally important for Daisy, is Greater Shepparton Secondary College’s innovative curriculum which has been designed to engage students and cater for the variety of pathways which students may choose to take in life. By working with an innovative curriculum, Daisy hopes that students will feel engaged, valued and active in their learning and so feel that school is a safe and positive place to be.
For Dyonne, supporting students to feel safe starts with listening to the students themselves. She recognises that although feedback from students can be brutal, listening to what students need and want allows the school to improve and become a safer environment for everyone.
Dyonne also spoke about the importance of routines in helping sure students feel safe. When students have routine and the consistency and familiarity this brings, they are more likely to feel safe and secure in their environment. When this happens, students are more likely to trust those around them and feel safe to express themselves. Dyonne explained that once students feel safe at school, they are also more likely to attend school everyday, with school attendance acting as a key indicator of students feeling safe at school.
Advice for leaders
In speaking about how other school leaders can foster safe environments for their students, Dyonne shared three key tips:
- Communication is key – talk to the community and let everyone in the community have a voice. When people feel heard they are more likely to feel that school is a safe place.
- Don’t allow ambiguity – be explicit in expectations, stick to routines and consistently model the behaviours expected of others
- Lead with integrity – when the community sees that you are real and authentic, they are more likely to trust you and feel that school is a safe environment
It was fantastic and so insightful to hear the ways safety is being valued and implemented at Greater Shepparton and Cabbage Tree.
To hear the entire episode, and more of our discussion on creating inclusive school environments, check out https://pivotpl.com/student-voices-podcast/.