As 2019 marked the 20th anniversary of the Columbine High School shooting, it reminded teachers and administrators nationwide of the ever-present possibility of school violence entering their own school’s doors. While the “Indicators of School Crime and Safety” report from the National Center of Education Statistics shows school violence is down, including reduced student suicides and homicides, the overall threat of school violence lurks on the minds of those entering the classroom for their first time.

In addition to learning how to master lesson plan design, curricular alignment, and classroom management, some state and federal proposals want teachers to also master how to use a gun at school. Nineteen states currently allow anyone to have a gun on campus, and the U.S. Department of Education clarifies that federal Title IV block grants from the Every Student Succeeds Act can be used by states to arm teachers on campus, although many refute this claim and no states, to date, have chosen this route.

But if states assert the right to apply funds to new teacher weapons requirements, one would be hard-pressed to find a first-year teacher prepared to assume this responsibility. In fact, if we consider the bigger picture of school safety, colleges have yet to create a teacher preparation program that offers an in-depth study of safe-school concerns and decision-making processes. Preservice programs may contain some safe-school tutorials—as has been required in Illinois—but little is offered beyond periodic units of study. That is a real problem, because data show that preservice teachers, more so than experienced teachers, fear campus violence resulting in harm to self or students. Additionally, preservice teachers feel less confident than experienced teachers in their ability to handle violent situations.

Today’s teachers, including the newest in the ranks, are often called to make quick yet difficult decisions in the face of all sorts of crises, from cafeteria food fights to a potential weapon in a student backpack. Amid increasing teacher burnout rates and administrative turnover—both of which reduce the chance to have consistent “safe schools” professional learning for teachers—and teachers’ fears of making poor decisions in crisis situations, we need to ensure that our newest teachers feel prepared and confident to make sound safety decisions.

The Dilemmas of Decision Making

Teaching is, at its core, a decision-​making process—a highly complex activity that involves frequent decisions on everything from grading scales and instructional methodologies to behavioral interventions for disruptive students. Additionally, the highly relational nature of teaching results in the need for decisions involving situation-​specific and ethically complex needs and behaviors.

Perhaps nowhere else is the need to make strong, situation-specific, and ethically challenging decisions more noticeable than in the realm of safe school practices and policies. New-teacher fidelity to adopted procedures is also key. Decisions about when and how to respond to questionable or threatening student expressions and behaviors are challenging for even the most experienced teacher, meaning the novice teacher enters the classroom with less insight and potentially greater fears. Consider the following classroom scenarios that potentially require an immediate response:

  • A ninth-grade English teacher reads a student essay detailing a school shooting, and the imaginary teacher fits the real-life description of the teacher assessing the essay.
  • An 11th-grade student writes a gory Halloween story describing highly graphic mutilations and decapitations, to the point that the teacher is left shaken and disturbed.
  • A verbal altercation between two seventh-grade boys erupts in the hallway during a class change, resulting in one young man shouting, “You’ll regret this. I have guns at home.”

Each situation drives the teachers to a place of questioning the individual’s threat or risk potential and next steps of response. The potential impact of a wrong response that lets serious threats slide or that overreacts to simple creative writing talents is too overwhelming to brush aside or to let new teachers just “figure it out on their own.” But many schools do leave new teachers alone to decide, so we must determine whether new teachers are prepared to make solid decisions regarding school safety.

Behavioral and educational research would suggest that new teachers are not prepared to make difficult decisions. In “Exploring the Real-World Decision Making of Novice and Experienced Teachers,” Claire Lloyd’s review of more than 30 years of research on novice and experienced teacher decision-making practices reveals that good teacher decisions require, at a minimum, critical reflection, the use of data, and the use of frameworks shaped by prior knowledge and experience. In other words, good teacher decisions require time, experience, and reflection. But time is often the least available, most highly coveted commodity in today’s schools.

It is also known that teachers will often resist the deeper, reflective process in favor of a superficial reflection process that can be influenced largely by personal belief. If you layer that superficiality with the fear of a novice teacher who may be too frightened or embarrassed to ask for guidance with core decisions, schools may find that real threats go untreated, while innocuous behaviors receive excessive punishment. For that reason, new teachers need help in understanding what it means to be on the front line of potential threats and how to make solid decisions at all times.

Supporting New-Teacher Red-Flag Decisions

We do not wish to minimize the significant impact of curricular, instructional, and assessment decisions (decisions that clearly impact learner success); decisions that keep the school safe and secure are just as serious. But teachers are rarely trained threat assessors, and their primary responsibility in the classroom is to teach and build student capacity. Threat assessment training is not a mandated prerequisite for the teaching profession, nor do we believe it should become one.

But teachers—not administrators—are on the front lines of safety in schools, as they have the closest relationships with students and spend the most time with them. They are often the first to see, hear, or notice potential red flags. While new teachers should not be forced to assess a student’s threat level at that moment, they should be tasked with having the discretion to know what to do with identified red flags. If a teacher perceives a remark, behavior, or written expression to be a red flag, then some sort of response is typically needed. At a bare minimum, we can help new teachers understand whether their identified response to immediately call the principal, counselor, or threat assessment team leader is merited. Consequently, we argue that new teachers do not need threat assessment or active-shooter-drill training so much as they need decision-making training that improves competence. To this end, we recommend commonsense decision-making supports that follow the acronym RELAY. Teachers should be able to:

Recognize that student threats arise in a variety of settings and in no predictable modes. While schools are overall safe places to learn, new teachers need to acknowledge that the “it won’t happen in my school” mentality is not a productive—nor safe—working mindset.

Establish a clear pipeline of communication from the teacher’s classroom to school officials and the threat assessment team. All schools need a clearly identified, multidisciplinary threat assessment team to address teacher-​voiced concerns when they emerge.

Listen carefully and critically to what students are saying and not saying, either through written or verbal channels. When violent, aggressive, illegal, or generally uneasy topics emerge in speech or texts, teachers should make note of it and speak with the student to gain a deeper understanding of context.

Acknowledge the importance of voicing individual teacher concerns, fears, or lack of knowledge around specific issues. Also, acknowledge the importance of sharing red-flag information. New teachers must talk to other teachers for increased comfort around sharing concerns and should not worry that reporting a student concern is a reflection of poor teaching or that the report will be used against them in an evaluation process.

Yield true threat assessment practices to the professionals. Novice teachers should be encouraged to make strong decisions about potential red-flag issues or utterances, but in no circumstance should a teacher be forced into making a decision about threat or risk levels unless they are trained in that field and are working closely with a larger team.

Mentoring New Teachers on Decision Making

To further build new-teacher capacity around decision-making processes, schools need to offer mentoring opportunities that involve direct coaching and consultation with each new teacher. General research around strong teacher supports holds that new teachers need strong mentors who can coach and mentor them through common, everyday challenges. Many schools or districts consequently provide their newest recruits with coaches or mentors who help them understand instructional and assessment practices, but to what extent do these coaches and mentors address critical decision making around safety concerns?

Traditional coaching includes modeled instructional or classroom management behaviors that new teachers are expected to replicate, but it is virtually impossible to model and replicate “in your face” scenarios requiring quick responses to mitigate harm or threat. Decision-making mentoring can therefore have a bigger impact than coaching at times.

Even formal, large-group professional development experiences cannot provide novice teachers with the decision-making supports of a mentor. The most dynamic and effective “safe-schools” or “whole-child” presentations offering real-world strategies for keeping everyone healthy and safe cannot teach the novice teacher how to think. Teachers are, after all, independent thinkers who bring myriad philosophies and practices to their classrooms. These prior life experiences impact how they think and respond to intense and escalating situations, and it is virtually impossible to predict what their responses will be.

Mentoring supports for new teachers should therefore include attention to the “what would I do if this happens?” scenarios, and this can occur in one-on-one or small group environments. New teachers are perhaps most ripe for the benefits of a school that adopts a commitment to collective responsibility or a shared responsibility for the success of all students and stakeholders. If you stop and think about it, an effective threat assessment team regularly embraces a shared responsibility, so we should use this approach for critical teacher decisions.

When surrounded by individual and small groups of experienced teacher mentors—mentors who are not afraid to say, “I once faced this decision, and things didn’t go well”—novice teachers can begin to build the confidence to say, “I don’t know what to do,” or “I’m scared to make a decision because I might make the wrong one.” Building teacher confidence to confide in others about red flags and to trust their own decision-making skills requires critically designed mentorship efforts. Applying Shelly Arneson’s research about the need for administrators—and to us, any mentor teacher—to talk with teachers rather than at them in order to promote reflective questioning shifts the mode from conversations of inspection to introspection. Questions as simple as “How can I help?” or “Tell me what you are feeling right now?” can facilitate trust among colleagues to better address some of these difficult issues.

Arneson suggests using “how?” questions rather than “why” questions when coaching teachers, so something as simple as “How did you interpret that student’s statements?” can be answered much differently and honestly—and with much less of a defensive mindset—than “Why didn’t you do something when you heard the student say that?”

Professional learning communities or small teacher work groups that utilize reflective practices within meeting structures can strengthen these interactions at the local level, building confidence in newer teachers to share, confide, and learn with and from those with more time spent in the classroom.

Promoting Shared Responsibility Through Reporting

Building discernment for strong decision-​making skills also requires a teacher to be free of the fear of reporting. New teachers must believe they can share the information about student red flags and their choice of response in a nonpunitive manner with a more experienced educator or administrator. This is very important to the potential legal and ethical implications of nonreporting of behaviors that lead to real violence.

We can remove the new teachers’ self-doubt when we embrace a shared responsibility toward student threats. That is, even when a student makes a threat toward a particular person or situation—in school or not—we must not place the blame on the intended target or on the circumstances in which the threat arose. When we remove the burden of reporting concerns about a student’s well-being or potential threats, we free teachers to be better caretakers of their students. By providing a support system in which new teachers are not constantly on guard or censoring student work for fear that something ugly will emerge and they will have to make an uncomfortable decision, we acknowledge that potential red flags are best handled by all of us, instead of one of us who lacks experience.

Learning Forward, an international association of learning educators, is focused on increasing student achievement through more effective professional development. Executive Director Stephanie Hirsh’s call to action around improved academic capacity correlates strongly with support strategies for improved teacher decisions: “Collective responsibility means we do not allow any single teacher to fail in an attempt to ensure success of any one student. Teachers in our school understand and appreciate the benefits of working collaboratively. … Whenever one teacher has a problem, the team is there for support.”

Schools should aim to create a community of caring educators who look out for each other and for students. In that, we should cultivate trust and a willing environment in which difficult decisions are not placed on the shoulders of our most inexperienced staff members. Instead, we should utilize the wealth of experience present in most schools to build confidence, thoughtful discernment, and safe decision making.

Lori Brown, EdD, is the director of learning solutions for Strivven Media’s and the current president of Dawn Star Consulting LLC in Asheville, NC. Gretchen Oltman is a lawyer, author, and assistant professor at Creighton University in Omaha, NE.

Sidebar: Building Ranks™ Connections

Dimension: Collaborative Leadership

When principals empower other school leaders, teachers, staff members, and students to lead, they increase leadership capacity within their schools. When principals work collaboratively, they enable decision making that is informed by diverse perspectives and implementation that is enabled by buy-in, providing stronger learning opportunities for students. As a school leader, you can cultivate collaborative leadership in several ways by employing the following strategies:

  • Encouraging staff members and students to step into leadership roles
  • Trusting and supporting staff members, students, and parents when they take calculated risks and initiate ideas aligned with the school’s vision, mission, and values
  • Creating structures that allow staff members to work together

Collaborative Leadership is part of the Leading Learning domain of Building Ranks.