Veteran educator Matt Fiteny is the social studies education manager at the non-profit Center for Inspired Teaching in Washington D.C., which trains educators at all stages of their careers to improve their ability to raise student achievement. He worked for 12 years as a teacher, teacher-leader and administrator. This is a short post about an experience he had on the first day of school in Washington D.C.
By Matt Fiteny
What do you picture when you think of the first day of school? Middle school students carrying books, excitedly talking to friends about their summer? A young boy standing on the steps of the school bus with an oversized backpack, waving to mom as he leaves home for the first day of kindergarten? High school students comparing their schedules to see if they have any classes together?
How about a line of sixth graders being told to “Shut your lips, and stand in line.”
As a teacher and an administrator, I always looked forward to the first day of school. This was my chance to set the tone for the school year and to show students that I cared about them. As school staff, it’s our first opportunity to welcome students to school and to show them (and their families) that they are an important, valued part of the school community.
On the first day of school here in the District last Monday, I visited a school where students were not allowed to enter through the newly renovated, brightly colored main entrance. Instead, they were relegated to the side of the building so they could go through the metal detectors and stand in line in a long, grey hallway until there were enough of them to take to the auditorium. As this process was going on, I heard a school employee snap at students waiting together after walking through the metal detector to “Shut your lips, and stand in line.” These students, new sixth-graders excited to see their friends on the first day of school, were already nervous to step into a new school environment and to make the difficult transition from being big fish in their elementary schools to little fish in their middle school. The experience they shared is not unique to this school or to our city; many students, young and old, have grown accustomed to hearing adults give them orders rather than engaging them in conversation.
I understand the responsibility all school employees hold for ensuring safety for students and adults in school. I recognize the reality of metal detectors in many urban schools, including schools in which I’ve taught. I’ve spoken with teachers who shared stories of students bringing guns, knives, and brass knuckles to school, sometimes even getting them past metal detectors. Safety is a serious issue that needs to be a priority for all school staff. The question is: How do we keep schools safe, while treating students and teaching students in a way that will build their self-confidence and sense of agency? How do we send students the message that they are valued and that they are part of the solution, not the problem?
I have always found that students give respect when they feel respected. Treating students as experts goes a long way. When safety concerns arise, why not ask the students to participate in devising a solution? To have a voice in creating and shaping these critical school policies? Incorporating student perspectives would enrich these discussions and likely improve school safety while fostering student leadership and partnership in building strong school communities.
Dealing with the immediate challenges of school safety through metal detectors and other measures is a fact of life. But speaking dismissively to students shouldn’t be. The first day of school is supposed to be joyous. Students are excited to see their peers, their teachers, and their administrators. We should be equally excited and welcoming to them on the first day of school and all year long.