Everyone needs a “safe person.” You know, the person who will listen to you no matter what? The person who you feel safe to share your thoughts and feelings with because you know they won’t tear you down but will instead build you up. For most of us this is a close friend or family member; a significant other, or a spouse. These people are essential to our confidence, well being and self-esteem.
Students, also need a safe person but they don’t always have them. Some students are just a little different from their peers. They may struggle socially, emotionally and/or academically; and often seem to be getting into trouble. They desperately need a safe person. As a teacher and now a Principal I have always tried to watch out for students like this. I remember a student that I taught in grade 7 who was just like that. I managed to establish a positive rapport with her and she could tell that I saw her as an important part of our class. Academically, her year was average but she was happy. The next year was rougher for her. She more frequently got into trouble with staff and other students. She didn’t have quite the same rapport with her grade 8 teacher and I could tell her self-esteem was suffering. As a result I made a point of touching base with her at recesses and would take time to exchange a few words with her if I saw her in the hallways. I tried to make those interactions positive asking about how she was doing and giving her encouragement. Rarely did she see me on recess duty without coming up and talking to me even if only for a few seconds. In an environment where she seemed to be getting into trouble with everyone, I was her safe person. She knew that somebody was there to listen and care about her.
There are many students like this in every school. We seem them walking with the teacher, talking to their coach, being library helpers, helping out at recesses with teachers who continue to be their safe persons, sometimes long after they taught them.
I often think about another student that I knew. He was never in my class and I didn’t interact with him very much. He was one of those kids who always seemed to be getting in trouble and usually presented a hard façade to the world. I went by his grade 5 class one day at recess and he was in there with his teacher. His teacher called out to me that it was his birthday. Jokingly I said to him that he should come and get his birthday hug. To my shock he came right over to get the hug. I don’t typically hug students but having said it I could not turn him away. At that moment I realized that this supposedly hard kid with whom I rarely interacted, with must be desperate for positive attention. I became a VP that same year and never saw this boy again but three years later his grade 8 teacher told me that over time he gradually got pulled into a gang. The summer he left elementary he was killed in some sort of gang confrontation. I often wonder if things could have been different for him if he had found a safe person. Maybe he wouldn’t have taken refuge in the false safety of a gang. Most of the students in our classes and schools don’t need us to be their safe person because they are good at making friends, handle academic demands well and have emotional supports from friends and family. However, for many, school may be their only safe place and the staff their only safe people. So the next time you see that kid who is always getting into trouble don’t frown or look away. Stop, ask him or her how sh/e is doing, express an interest in his/her life, find something to compliment – be a safe person for them.
I recently read an article by Dr. Lori Desautels who had some excellent insights into making our classrooms a safe place. Please click on the link to view this article. Rick