The Circle of Safety
I went the whole month of July without writing a blog post! I have found it hard to pinpoint exactly what I wanted to write, with so much happening in the world right now. As well, I prefer to write in a coffee shop or local watering hole and with COVID-19 risks, I have not been back to my favourite places. So today, I decided to escape the heat for a few hours and head to school to write - NERD ALERT!!
Of course like everyone, I have been reading the news and following along closely to all of the COVID stories and government announcements. In particular, I have been following the education re-entry plans across Canada and particularly here in Alberta. As a high school principal, I recognize that we face enormous challenges in September as we begin in person classes. Based on the latest announcement from Alberta Education, we will be following a variety of protocols to do our best to minimize the risks of COVID. Although in person school will resume this fall, it will look very different from the last time students were in our buildings, as we seek direction and guidance from the experts and our leaders to help us return to school as safely as possible. This got me thinking about a presentation I watched on YouTube a while ago by a well know author, Simon Sinek. (see it here - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g1hBh20ABpM)
In his presentation, Simon Sinek discusses the intersection of anthropology and psychology, and how they relate to leadership. He describes how humans existed 50,000 years ago in groups of around 100 or so and in those communities they developed relationships and expectations to help the community survive and thrive. In these communities the focus was on Maslow’s bottom two rungs of the Pyramid of Human Needs - 1) basic needs of food, clothing, shelter and then 2) safety. (This past year I taught Psychology 20 at my high school and my grade 11s argued that “wifi” should be added to the Maslow’s Pyramid!!) As human beings, in order for these tribes to thrive where the basic needs and safety are provided for all members who are meeting their responsibilities, a high level of trust must exist. Additionally, if a member of the tribe is going to get a good night sleep, they must trust the people assigned to stay up and keep an eye out for danger that may pose a threat to the community - a sabre tooth tiger for example. In these communities, trust is crucial, especially between the members and the leadership. The members of the community expect their leaders to help them meet their basic needs and they expect the leaders to help keep their community safe - this is the crux of the relationship. And as Simon Sinek argues, this relationship between members of an organization and their leadership is still just as important today as it was for our hunter and gatherer ancestors.
As a classroom teacher, I quickly learned that it is my role to help meet those first two needs on the pyramid, because I know that learning cannot happen without having them satisfied. I have provided my students over the years with food, clothes, shoes, gift cards to help them and their families make ends meet and to help provide them with some of those basic needs. And as a teacher, I did everything possible to help ensure my students were safe in my classrooms, physically and emotionally, because feeling safe is critical for students to maximize their learning. As a principal, I often explain to students while I am investigating an incident, that it is my number one job to ensure that students are safe and feel safe at school - ALL Students! I truly take this responsibility very seriously - safety is paramount.
Simon Sinek explains that leaders of organizations need to do the same thing with their staff. He shares that in his research, the highest performing organizations and the most resilient to challenges are those staff teams that believe their leaders have their best interests at heart and will do what they can to protect them. They do this by establishing high levels of trust in their organization. Great leaders establish a relationship with staff based on trust and they develop a culture of service for others in their organization. When the leader makes sacrifices to make the safety and wellbeing of the members of their tribe a priority, they establish a culture, where the members of of the tribe will be willing to do the same thing for those that they lead on their team. It becomes part of the way the members of the teams interact - it creates a mentality of “I will sacrifice when needed because I know they will do the same thing for me.” This establishes a culture of service - a willingness to give to others to help them be successful and thrive. This type of social contract helps organizations accomplish great things because the members inside feel safe and trust their leaders, and they also trust each other. In organizations where this is not the case, the members spend their day protecting themselves from the toxicity of the work environment instead of working together to achieve their goals. The “Circle of Safety” is critical to the success of any organization and it starts with leadership. “Great leaders would never sacrifice the people to save the numbers, they would sooner sacrifice the numbers to save the people.” - Simon Sinek
As a school leader over the past seven years, I have tried to put my staff best interests first and foremost in my decisions and in how I serve my school. I have done my best to be a principal who gets involved and works along side my staff - I will teach classes, coach sports teams, and attend as many of the special events put on by students and staff as much as possible each year. This comes at a price to my own family and pursuing my own interests much of the time, but I recognize that it is part of the role. I view leadership as an opportunity to serve others, which means that I am required to give of myself to promote the success and growth of others. This has been my mindset as a leader because that is what I appreciate in the leaders that I have worked for. I also greatly appreciate the staff in my school and I know they are eager to work with students and get back to teaching classes in person. They are an amazing team who sacrifice so much for their students and to support one another year over year. But as I think about this coming school year, the term sacrifice will take on a new meaning in a school setting for all staff.
In a few shorts weeks I will be back at school and I have the responsibility of leading our community with 1400 students and around 100 staff. I have been tasked with ensuring students can be successful in their learning and complete their courses to graduate in order to pursue their post secondary dreams and career ambitions. I have also been tasked with doing everything possible to make sure that while students are successful in their academics, that all students and staff are as safe as possible. I am prepared to make sacrifices to protect my students and my staff; I want them to know that I will do everything I possibly can to ensure their safety and to support them to be successful in their role. I know I need to lead by example, and to help continue our school’s culture of trust and service, so that safety is understood to be everyone’s responsibility among all members of our school. I also hope that our government leaders understand their role is to serve others, and that they are prepared to make sacrifices to protect Albertans, to make decisions to promote the safety for all, and most importantly that they do everything they can to protect our students and our schools as we head back this September. That may mean sacrificing some numbers to build up our education sector’s trust and keep us all in the “Circle of Safety”.
By Joseph Dumont