First impressions are often lasting impressions, especially at a time when schools, in order to keep students safe, are required to lock their doors, often leaving families feeling like they are out in the cold. But that was never the intent as indicated by Dalton McGuinty, former premier of Ontario: When parents send their kids off to school they are putting their trust in us, and we have to get it right. That’s why our government is committed to providing safe, welcoming places to learn for all our kids. It’s up to us to take all reasonable steps available to us to protect our kids. Locking school doors is a reasonable step.
A Note to School
I arrived early at school today to pick up my child. As I waited in the cold blizzard-like weather, I reflected on the locked doors. It is a reasonable step. Lock or no lock, I have always felt welcome. Thank you for building a safe, warm, and welcoming environment.
A parent of a safe child
School communities work hard to establish warm and safe environments that are conducive to student learning and well-being; they know that such environments are characterized by positive family-school relationships. When the doors were first locked, there were concerns about short- and long-term implications, but everyone has adjusted, and with that adjustment came the realization that a safe welcome has almost nothing to do with locked doors.
Mid-winter, when we are collectively tired of being out in the cold, is a good time to revisit what it means to feel safe and warm on the landscape of school.
- What can we do to foster safe, warm, and welcoming school communities?
- What does this mean for school staff, school council, students, and families?
- Does it look and sound the same for all?
We can learn a lot from the research on inclusive classroom communities that value and welcome all, provide multiple entry points and exit points, diverse strategies, and ongoing communication. We might be immersed in the deep, dark cold of winter, but there are many ways to build positive and inclusive, warm and inviting, safe and respectful school communities that foster a sense of pride and belonging for all families.
Lead by example – be the first set of footprints in the wide expanse of snow. Whether you are a student, teacher, administrator, school community council member, or family, you can lead by example. Suspend judgment, consider other perspectives, be empathetic, and create safe spaces for people to ask questions and offer thoughts and opinions. Judgment, perceived and real, can keep families out in the cold, regardless of our intent. Every individual family will have a different experience of school and engagement – we must take them from where they are to where they want to be, even if that means strapping on snowshoes.
Create a warm and visually appealing entry space where families feel welcome and can envision themselves as a member of your school community. Keep it organized and manageable, directing families’ gaze to key messages (such as the Board or school’s mission). Ensure that the physical and visual setup of your entry (or your website for that matter), is easily navigable and recognizes the diverse needs of families. Ensure that your school community spaces demonstrate evidence of not only student presence, but families as well.
Facilitate family to family connections by designing a strategy that puts families in touch with each other. This might be done grade by grade or family by family. It might even be structured to support families as children transition from elementary to secondary. Many families feel isolated and are just looking to make connections and find commonalities; communication between and among families might be one goal (among many) of the school community council.
Host a winter warm-up. The winter days are cold and many, they are short and sometimes grey; sometimes, it’s all about perspective and making sure that we have strategies to keep warm physically and emotionally. Invite families to come in out of the cold, and share a cup of hot cocoa before or after school, over their lunch hour, or on a designated drop-in day, for no other reason than just to touch base with other families. Pairing a winter warm-up with a student sponsored event will likely increase participation rates.
Plan a winter challenge, something that builds school community and gets all families involved. Just as each snowflake is unique, so too are families. Design a school-wide event that allows you to learn just a little more about your families. Surveys and getting to know you posters are great, but what about a family collage, coat of arms, flag, poster, page for a school community album? These can then be displayed as a way to highlight and welcome individual families as part of your school community.
Recognize the complexity of raising children and support families in their exploration of resources. Either close at hand in the library or on an organized shelf/rack, highlight references that support families as they raise children in the 21st century. Family-School Ways to Well-Being and My Favourite Family-Parenting Resources both contain lists of books/resources that may be considered based on the needs of families. Ask families for recommendations of a favourite parenting resource… make sure to ask for a short review that allows for a personal connection or two. Make pamphlets for community resources available to families, and create a bulletin board for families by families.
Examine deeply held assumptions. What makes families feel like they are locked out in the cold? Is it the language we use, the language other families use, the expectations and preconceptions that we are sometimes not even aware of? Do we assume that because they don’t show up at school council, they are not engaged? Do we assume that because the book didn’t get returned to school, they are not interested or involved? Dig deep and try to consider multiple perspectives – sometimes we only see the tip of the iceberg. What makes a family feel warm and welcome? And how can we warm those up who only recall the cold, dark days of Winter? How do we help others to feel the promise of Spring?
Your turn… what can you add?