A Comprehensive Guide on Promoting Psychological Safety among Educators

When considering your workplace within the school system, how does it make you feel? What people and experiences have shaped that response? Are there certain activities, locations, or colleagues you avoid because of their negative comments or the way they make you feel?

If reading this is causing you anxiety, imagining a threat to your peace of mind when you arrive at your desk tomorrow, you need to remember that you spend a significant amount of time in your workplace and it should feel safe.

What is Psychological Safety?

In a research article titled “Feeling Safe at Work: Development and Validation of the Psychological Safety Inventory,” the authors state that “Psychological safety, defined as perceptions that an individual within a team is supported and feels safe to take interpersonal risks, voice opinions, and share ideas, is vital for organizational effectiveness.” If you have ever experienced a psychologically or emotionally unsafe environment at work, you know that it can have a detrimental impact on your body and mind. Concerns about emotional safety can lead to pain, fear, physical illness, mental health issues, and an overall negative impact on the school workplace.

For those employed in K–12 schools, the pressure is high. Teachers, paraeducators, bus drivers, counselors, administrative assistants, and cafeteria staff all have their own roles and responsibilities in the complex and challenging school environment. Experiencing a lack of psychological safety on a daily basis only adds to the difficulties. So why do so many school employees experience a lack of support and psychological safety, and what can be done about it?

Reading your cues

If, despite your best efforts, your psychological health, safety, or well-being is potentially compromised, remember that you deserve to feel safe and have the right to do so. Look out for physical and emotional signs that indicate you may be experiencing a psychologically unsafe environment:

  • Looking for reasons to escape from your workday, also known as task or situational avoidance
  • Nightmares about people or situations at work replaying themselves in a loop
  • Headaches, stress eating, stomachaches
  • A general or specific sense of fear towards a person or thing
  • Elevated mental health concerns, including anxiety, depression, hypersensitive reactions, freezing up unexpectedly, and difficulty with memory retention

Our well-being impacts our work. According to Alex Shevrin Venet’s book Equity-Centered, Trauma-Informed Education , schools need to change so that both children and adults can bring their whole selves to the learning environment. Schools should be places that enhance personal and community wellness rather than deplete it.

Support strategies

Working in schools is challenging in this era. It is important to pay attention to your own cues and have strategies in place to prioritize your wellness and safety, even if it feels like no one else is doing the same.

Grounding exercise: Stand or sit with your bare feet on the floor, settle your body, and feel the weight of your body through your feet. Inhale for three counts and exhale for three, allowing each set of seven breaths to connect you more deeply with the ground. Let negative feelings and thoughts flow down through your body and out through your feet. By releasing that weight, you will become more grounded and strengthened by the breath and the sensation of your feet against the ground.

Support systems: Whether you work alone in a classroom or as part of a team, you are never alone. It is crucial to find and connect with people who can support you. Consider connecting with a hallway buddy, someone you can check in with between classes. Establish a peer group with colleagues you can connect with both inside and outside of work. You may also request a mentor or coach to debrief with, or reach out to a trusted friend or family member outside of the work environment. You deserve people and opportunities that allow you to share the weight you may be carrying.

Pull the ripcord: Not every situation is an emergency or a climactic movie scene, but it may feel that way sometimes.

Everyone’s experience is unique, and for someone going through an unsafe situation, it may feel all-consuming and have a significant traumatic impact.

If you feel compromised, if you or your ideas have been undermined, it is essential to seek help immediately. Document any incidents and contact your employee assistance program. If you are a member, reach out to a union representative if necessary. Speak with a trusted peer or seek mental health support.

The work you do in serving students, staff, and families is crucial for the future development of our society. You deserve to come to work and leave each day healthy, whole, and without fear.

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