Wise voices on safe and welcoming schools

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From peacemaking to bullying prevention to crisis intervention, AFT leaders and allies gathered for the final general session of TEACH to talk about how to make schools safer and more welcoming.

Fran LawrenceFrancine Lawrence

Introduced by AFT executive vice president Francine Lawrence, Peace First president Eric Dawson began with a description of his organization's work: bestowing awards akin to the Nobel Peace Prize for work spreading the skills of peacemaking.

Peace First, he said, in partnership with the AFT, plans to choose the most outstanding work this fall from among 660 applicants who will show young people "how to be courageous, help people, show compassion and mobilize other people for the greater good."

We don't need another program or curriculum, he added. "What we need to do is change our culture." Dawson invited the crowd to reflect on the power of pronouns: our children, our schools, our teachers.

"School culture matters," he said.

Building on that thought, a panel of experts—experts by choice and by circumstance—reflected on ways to make schools more secure and inviting.

Eric DawsonEric Dawson

Tom Kuroski has had a crash course in figuring out how to educate children after a crisis. Voted unionist of the year by AFT Connecticut, the president of the Newtown Federation of Teachers said he felt a personal responsibility to look after the school staff at Sandy Hook Elementary School after last year's shooting there left 20 children and six teachers dead. When he heard of school officials meeting after the tragedy, Kuroski "snuck" into meetings and persuaded officials to postpone the teachers' crisis training until Monday and to delay the reopening of school.

"You guys are all like I was 222 days ago," he said. We always love our kids. We were there in the classroom the Tuesday after the Friday this happened. We didn't know what we were doing—we had our one day of training."

The one thing Kuroski wants TEACH attendees to do is go back to their schools, organize the staff, talk to their principals, and prepare and drill for emergencies on a regular basis. After the shootings in Newtown, he said, school staff everywhere started to question the security of their entryways. Now he advises forming a safety committee in every school, pulling in stakeholders from across the school and the community, including union members. "Make sure," he added, "that your teachers know the union is behind you."

Closing panelFrom left, Tom Kuroski, Edward Fergus, Lee Hirsch, Roger Weissberg and Marietta English.

Roger Weissberg, president and CEO of CASEL (the Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning), spoke of research showing two things: that social and emotional learning can improve kids' behavior and academic performance, and that when teachers take a social and emotional approach to instruction, it's always more effective.

As deputy director of the Metropolitan Center for Urban Education at New York University, Edward Fergus spends his days working with school districts that have a disproportionate number of minority students in special education or in trouble.

"One thing we can say in this country is that we struggle with diversity," Fergus said. He helps with students' behavioral engagement, or how they "do" school, because kids who know how to "do" school do better in school.

"By the fourth meeting, you're going to looooove us," he said. "We're here to help, to create a loving and supportive environment."

TEACH participants also heard from Lee Hirsch, a documentary filmmaker who created the groundbreaking movie "Bully" and its outgrowth, the Bully Project. Hirsch talked about "relationship mapping," in which educators can better understand the emotional underpinnings of their schools and, at the end of the process, step back and notice "who has nobody." These are the students, he said, most at risk of bullying and most in need of attention and care.

"Every person in this room," Hirsch said, "can single-handedly turn around the culture in a school."

[Annette Licitra/photos by Michael Campbell]