Saturday, March 31, 2018

Psychologically safe schools

I'm at the NESA Conference in Athens and today I decided to do a workshop on leadership and relationships, led by Fran Prolman and Gail Seay.  This workshop started by looking at healthy cultures where people don't talk about mistakes as screwing up, because in healthy organisations people make mistakes all the time.  In contrast psychologically unsafe schools are ones where colleagues do not offer up ideas - they spend their time protecting themselves, which may even involve throwing other colleagues under the bus.  They withhold their thinking, which robs everyone of learning opportunities.  Such schools have shut down opportunities for innovation and creativity - and subverting collaboration and teamwork not only harms us as teachers, we know that it also impacts student achievement.  In psychologically unsafe environments your sympathetic nervous system kicks in to a "flight or fight" mode, and chronic activation of this survival mechanism is hazardous to your health.  The World Health Organization predicts that depression will become the second most debilitating condition on the planet by 2020.

However, what if schools are psychologically safe? What if school communities are ones where you are expected to voice your concerns, questions and ideas?  Such schools are true learning environments where challenges are reframed as learning problems to be approached through inquiry, where teachers learn from each other and support each other.  When considered from a leadership perspective, BrenĂ© Brown's research shows that strong leaders embrace their own imperfections as courage and strength.  They model curiosity which in turn leads to learning and growth.  Seeking answers to questions leads to schools becoming true learning organisations.

The Psychological Safety and Accountability Matrix

This matrix looks at the situation where there is high or low accountability combined with high or low safety. 
  • Apathy - there is high safety and low accountability - there are no demands and in such a situation we stop studying results and reflecting on our situation and teachers can become demotivated, lack commitment and check out mentally.
  • Comfort - in this situation things are just too comfortable.  Where there is high safety and low accountability people do not take risks.
  • Anxiety - here there is high accountability combined with low safety.  In such a situation teachers can become fearful, overwhelmed and paralyzed with anxiety - they live their days in fear.
  • Learning - Here there is the right balance between high safety and accountability.  Teachers feel supported, safe to question and take risks, but also know what the expectations are and that they are accountable.
Where is your school on this matrix?  I was with a colleague in this session and we talked about how with an R&D department in school were were definitely a learning school.  It will be interesting to see how we move forward from here.  Without a safety net where failure is welcomed as a learning opportunity, will we become apathetic, too comfortable or anxious?  Or (hopefully) will we be able to maintain the balance between risk taking, accountability and learning?

Photo Credit: Joseph D'Mello Flickr via Compfight cc

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