Safety is Looking Out for One Another

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by Jeremy LaCasse, Executive Director, gcLi, Teacher of History, Taft School (Watertown, CT)

A student walks into my office. For the sake of argument, let’s say it happens to be a 10th-grade student who attends a boarding school in Connecticut. This student has noticed something about our esteemed institution but isn’t sure both how to articulate it and what to do about it. I am here, at my desk, as a foil for this student to do the work necessary to address this unstated and somewhat confusing aspect of our shared community.

This really could be any day and the topic could be anything from “why do the ninth graders all sequester themselves in that one dining room” to far more complex topics that reflect long histories and deep socio-cultural issues. As this is a beginning-of-the-school-year blog, let’s focus on the question about the ninth graders who are just beginning their journey with our school community.

Each school, each year, welcomes new students and, for that matter, new families and new teachers. The rebirth of the school each year is both daunting and freeing, affording the community an opportunity to right the mistakes of the past and guarantees a new set of challenges and limitations. Perfection, as in an “issue-free school,” is both impossible and an enemy of the learning we desire. Ultimately, we want to eliminate the issues that inhibit learning and cause damage and promote those issues – i.e. challenges – that enhance learning.

So, what is our issue with the new ninth graders? Namely, it is how to help them each feel valued for who they are, which is always a challenge when we, the longer-standing members of the community, don’t really know them yet and, in the case of ninth graders, they are still in the midst of figuring themselves out. The other part of the issue is to help each member of the community, regardless of tenure, to feel part of something greater than themselves and to help them see how they can contribute to that greater cause.

As I am thinking about how to talk about this, my brain plays a trick on me that I am sure Dr. Steiner-Adair or Dr. Deak could explain. I am also writing this on my 50th birthday . . . Anyway, what comes to mind is the movie “Backdraft,” which I have not seen in more than 30 years. This movie, released in 1991, is about firefighters and, to quote IMDB, “A rookie firefighter tries to earn the respect of his older brother and other firefighters while taking part in an investigation of a string of arson/murders. This detailed look into the duties and private lives of firemen naturally features widespread pyrotechnics and special effects.” Enough said about the storyline.

Firefighting is an obviously dangerous undertaking and, as a result, training, teamwork, and culture all become central to the ability to solve the problem – putting out the fire – while keeping everyone safe. Some might argue it is a bit like teaching students with the temperature being driven by the white-hot-heat of emotion.

Circling back to the building of culture, at the end of the movie, Brian McCaffery, who has the sage perspective of having learned it all in the previous 70 minutes of the film, is riding in a rig to a fire. Across from him in the truck is a new firefighter, clearly nervous and unsure of how to prepare for what is to come. The new firefighter fiddles with his jacket and helmet. Brian, as we would hope any number of our older students and teachers would act, reaches across, calms the nervous firefighter, and helps him adjust his gear to ensure he is in the best position to be safe and successful. An older firefighter looks on approvingly.

That moment resonates with me as we prepare to begin our own journeys into the fire of the school year. Sure, the 10th grader sitting in my office has to prepare themselves for what is to come. As important, that student needs to help whichever new student needs it. That returning student’s care, if it is delivered in a manner that helps the new student know that they are cared for and about will largely allow the first part – feeling that they are known and valued – to happen in good time.

That is a long-winded story, and one that the 10th grader in my office may have heard, if not some other inane and, at this point, distant past reference, to describe how they might go about doing the work of leading in our community. The goal in this interaction and so many others is to make intentional what has almost always been the unintentional way leadership and culture are developed in our schools. Certainly, an overt program can do great things; however, the most powerful teaching tool available to us is to be prepared to make the most of these moments that will manifest in all that we do.

Be ready, like firefighter Brain McCaffery, to make the most of the moments that present themselves and good luck with the re-creation of your school community. Your students and the world benefit from your great work. Best of luck and thank you.

Jeremy LaCasse, Executive Director of The Gardner Carney Leadership Institute, is currently Assistant Head of School at the Taft School. LaCasse held the Shotwell Chair for Leadership and Character Development at Berkshire School. He also directed the Ritt Kellogg Mountain Program; served as Dean of the sixth and fourth forms; taught European history and Medieval history; and coached the ski and crew programs. Following his time at Berkshire, he served as the Dean of Students at Fountain Valley School of Colorado, and following FVS, he was the Head of senior school at Shady Side Academy in Pittsburgh, PA; the Head of Kents Hill School in Kents Hill, ME; and the Assistant Head of School at Cheshire Academy, in Cheshire, CT. He graduated with a B.A. in History from Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine and earned an M.A. in private school leadership from the Klingenstein Center, Teachers College at Columbia University.