How Can Kids Take Risks in a “Safe” Environment?

I’ve been guilty of telling parents of students in my class that we have a safe classroom environment where we encourage students to take risks. I’ve come to realize that risk and safety are are really oxymorons. What I mean to say when I use the word risk is that kids will try a lot of new things. They will get many of them wrong and fail, but when they succeed, the grit and resilience it took to get them there, will fuel them on to learn more.

In our traditional industrial age world, risk was not seen as something for the general public. Trying something new on an assembly line could mean getting fired. Many of these hierarchical structures exist, and schools are no exception. Because of this, teachers have to be fairly calculated when going out on a limb. Within our values statement at my school, we have the following:

Resourcefulness: We foster resilience and expect all to search and find, to fail and learn, to risk and succeed in a changing world.

It think it’s beautifully written, however, if we hold these values for our students, certainly we must hold these values for our teachers and other community members. Due to structures of schools (remnants of the 19th and 20th centuries), risks can be very costly.

Recently, Seattle teachers were suspended for boycotting a particular test. We teach our children to stand up, not to be bystanders, engage in politics and democracy, yet when teachers model these very things, the consequences can sometimes seem harsh. I guess it wouldn’t be that risky otherwise.

Before the NAIS conference, a colleague in California raised many questions about the NAIS’s boards decision on the new president-elect, John Chubb. While I am sure the board’s intentions are good, the announcement was a surprise. The letter, though written respectfully, asked hard and important questions. Yet, from what I heard at the conference, he was scolded for raising those questions.

Again I ask, don’t we want our students to be inquisitive, challenge the status quo, engage in the process (which can be amplified through social media), and think critically?

One of the reasons for academic tenure is so intellectuals can have debates and build support for those ideas publicly. They may end up being wrong, but at least they won’t be fired for it.

I’ve been known to ‘go rogue’  and ‘fight windmills’ but I’ve also been supported and guided as to how I might balance those things. Still, in a school with no tenure, challenging the status quo with a simple question, “why?” requires risk.

At the NAIS conference, there were calls to be revolutionaries, visionaries, rogues, vanguards, pioneers, mavericks, and change agents. Most of those kinds teachers were already at that conference. We were told to change paradigms and forge ahead.

Most other teachers, however, just want to love their kids and become excellent teachers. And there’s nothing wrong with that.

I met a first grade teacher who was only in her second year of teaching and was overwhelmed with the conference. “They’re asking me to be all those things, be culturally competent, employ project-based learning and design thinking, integrate sustainability in the classroom, use technology in ways I never thought possible, create a global teaching network, and that’s not even including just teaching 1st grade.

My advice to her, was that when I first started teaching almost two decades ago, all these things were foreign to me too. All she needed to do was think of her students first, know where to find support when she needed it, asked questions (lots of them), carry on when things don’t seem to be going well, and always be open to and willing to learn something. If she could do these things, she would find this career an incredibly rewarding one.

I’m not a big fan of words like revolutionary. They bring up different connotations depending on who you ask. George Washington was a revolutionary; so was Hugo Chavez.

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One thought on “How Can Kids Take Risks in a “Safe” Environment?

  1. I’ve been away from the system for many decades, but I hear people talk, in groups we join, and on radio talk shows. The problem seems to be that “they” want to insulate our kids from any input not specially prepared by the administrators. I’ve heard of kids being suspended for self-organizing a touch football game. Stories of kids suspended for even thinking of guns are too numerous to count. (“Zero-tolerance” policies are great ways to keep administrators from having to exercise common sense, or to make decisions they’d have to take responsibility for.)

    We want to insulate our kids in cocoons, and somehow expect them to grow up into self-reliant, productive adults.

    Those two are mutually exclusive.

    C. S. Lewis wrote of the same problem in his day, in “The Abolition of Man”. He sums it up in “We make men without chests and expect of them virtue and enterprise”.

    Briefly, “The head rules the belly through the chest—the seat, as Alanus tells us, of Magnanimity, of emotions organized by trained habit into stable sentiments.”

    We make men – through our school system – who cannot take risks of any kind – physical, mental, or emotional. (There are a few news items about high-school boys who committed suicide because they broke up with their girlfriends – or equally insignificant (in the long run, and at the time of life).)

    In the Seattle case, it looks like the Procrustean test-administers have no need for individualized attention. One size does not fit all. We should try to bring each person as far as he is capable, but to insist on more is damaging to the person. It may even amount to “child abuse”. We might as well expect everyone to run a 4-minute mile, or swim the English Channel.

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