Waiting at the fenceFences exist to separate the things inside from the things outside. They provide a boundary to define and separate space, and safety for those inside.

Teachers and administrators put up both literal and metaphorical fences in schools. Rules, firewalls, expectations, codes of conduct. “They are for the protection of the students,” we say, and we believe it. We feel that schools should be safe places for our children, and we want to create an environment in which they can learn.

But what do our language, attitude, and focus say about these fences? Why are they there, and which side of the fence is in? These things matter, and they reveal a great deal about our schools.

Student handbooks, policy manuals, and our daily interactions with students are filled with words like these: don’t, can’t, control, confine, restriction, infraction, escalate, intervention, penalty, enforce, and impose. The chatter in the faculty room revolves around the “good kids” and the “bad kids”.

Think about the frame of reference where you are. Which term below represents the attitude and focus of the adults? What is the central principle around which the system is set up?

  • Compliance or Citizenship?
  • Conformity or Courtesy?
  • Enforce or Encourage?
  • Obedience or Respect?
  • Restrictions or Boundaries?
  • Don’t or Ought?
  • Penalty or Result?

What are we really trying to protect? The students? Or the school?

There are consequences to our choice of vocabulary, our attitude towards kids, and the things we choose to focus on every day. Students pick up on these things, and their own behavior, attitude, and language reflect the environment they experience.

What are you and your school saying to your students? Does the environment communicate safety? The opposite is not, “You aren’t safe here.” It’s worse. It actually says, “You are dangerous.” Which puts them on the outside of the fence looking in. And that’s no place to learn.