Physical safety is important, but emotional safety has received little attention.
As students trickle back to school after recess or shutdown arrangements, physical safety has become a priority. You cannot pass a school without seeing children wearing protective gear and washing or sanitising their hands and having their temperature taken. The behaviour has been embedded in some societies where respectful distancing and face covering is accepted. Others are arriving from communities where it has been physically impossible to social distance and hygiene is challenging without running water or the necessary ablution facilities.
This variety of experiences merge through the funnel of the school gate into an environment that has been washed with bleach, appropriate spacing marked with lines on the ground and the insistence of face masks. Teachers usher them through the process with patience and kindness, but their faces are covered making emotional connection difficult and the ability to see a smile, almost impossible. The purpose is to keep physically safe so that the children and the teachers are not compromised during a pandemic.
Physical safety is important. But emotionally safety has received little attention.
Emotional safety before physical safety
The adage, “safety first”, often drives us to prioritise physical safety. It is very important during a pandemic, but emotional safety is essential for learning to take place. And if you are not going to learn, why risk your safety during a pandemic? A student can be correctly distanced, their face covered with a three level filter mask, sanitised and sitting in a bleached desk, but totally unsafe emotionally. This week I heard of an educator who arrived at school this week and literally could not get out of her car as a result of a major panic attack – something she ha never experienced before. Later I heard of a Matric student who collapse with a racing heart, palpitations and a sense of utter despair.
Hopelessness, shame, anxiety, despair, fear, worry, fatigue and even depression are all negative emotions being experienced by students. These emotions affect student academic learning. Researchers have divided academic emotions into two groups, PAE’s – positive academic emotions (interest, contentment, relief, calmness, hope, enjoyment and pride, and NAE’s – negative academic emotions. (Dong and Yu, 2007).
The very environment of the classroom, corridors and playground has been adapted to be almost unrecognisable. School is, physically, a different place.
The question that has to be on every school leaders lips is:
How do I make an emotionally safe place for my staff and students where they will be physically safe too?
The emotional safety of teachers is a non-negotiable. In their study, McLean and Connor (2015) showed that the emotional state of teachers directly impacts the positive or negative academic emotions of students.
”Our study is one of the first to reveal that the constellation of symptoms that point to risks for depression hurt not only the teachers who experience these symptoms, but also the development of the teachers’ students–especially students who are struggling academically. The study highlights the need for nationwide mental health support systems for educators, not only for teachers’ benefit, but for the benefit of students.”McLean and Connor (2015)
Look after teacher emotional safety, and they will look after their students both physically and emotionally and the academic results will bear testimony to it.