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Empathy as a Path to Safer Schools

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Empathy as a Path to Safer Schools

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On the night of Tuesday, November 13th I boarded a plane bound for Spokane to attend the Washington State School Directors’ Association (WSSDA) Annual Conference. To be transparent, I fully expected to be bored out of my mind as I sat through meeting after meeting, waiting for the following Friday when I could go home. My first session, a so-called “board boot camp”, confirmed these fears. I was in a chair for 3 hours straight, listening to a monotone presenter talk about the nuances of being a new board member. I had gone through one meeting, and a pretty mediocre lunch, and was already ready to leave. That’s when I met John Norlin.

John was the presenter for my next session, an in-depth look at school safety. However his approach not only surprised me, it aligned with my already preexisting beliefs. Norlin started the company CharacterStrong, an organization focused on teaching students the lost art of respect, empathy, and kindness, and enlisted the help of popular speaker Houston Craft. He believes in the fact that violence in schools (shootings, bullying, etc.) can be curbed with simple changes in the way we teach.

Relationships of our students are the simplest change to make. Norlin emphasized the importance of just one quality relationship for every student, whether it be with another student, a teacher, or even a member of the custodial staff. These relationships are the key to student safety, as most kids who commit violent acts are lacking any sort of strong connection to someone. But obviously we can talk all we want about what we’d like to see, the real task is to decide how we execute, which Norlin has figured out. It starts with the staff, and an extra commitment to our students beyond which they already have. The most simple way to create formidable relationships is just learning a name, and moving on from there.

John and CharacterStrong stress teachers not only to learn the name of every student they have, but to look them in the eye as they walk into class. Additionally, having a handshake or high five works wonders, explaining this may be the only unconditional love they have all day. After that, creating a genuine connection is key. Whether it be asking a student how their day is going or what they did over the weekend, every extra step helps. But how does the staff at PHS stack up?

I would genuinely hope that all teachers know all of their students’ names by now, or at least be good about hiding it. Beyond that, do our teachers take the extra step? It brings to mind a challenge put out by Mr. Drake in the past, granting a prize to whichever teacher can create 30 unique handshakes with 30 different students. I remember sitting in APUSH my junior year, watching Mrs. Alway still using the elaborate and extensive handshakes as seniors walked through on to AP Government. Beyond that teachers like Mr. Ziegler are always greeting people in the morning as they walk into first period. And anyone who has had Mr. Schultz can tell you how fun his class is once he gets comfortable enough to unleash the unrelenting wave of sarcasm. So to answer the question simply, yes, teachers at Prairie consistently go the extra mile to create and cultivate relationships among their students.

To any reading this thinking, “hey, my teacher doesn’t do that and they should” I urge you to start a conversation. Many things are only happening the way they are because no one has the courage to ask why. And those viewing as a teacher, take this article to heart, because it could be you who stops the next violent act.

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Empathy as a Path to Safer Schools