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How to Help Schools Become Welcoming Environments

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Introduced by Art Kleiner and Peter Senge

When the New York City school system introduced its version of the “framework for great schools” in 2015, one of the six main components was trust. This is the idea that all stakeholders in a school – the administrators, educators, students, and families of students – need to feel that they share common interests and will truly act on each others’ behalf. The six years since then have included two mayoral elections and the Covid-19 pandemic, which struck New York early and intensively. Trust has proven to be even more critical than many people realized. And it has also proven very difficult to achieve. Tyee Chin is a senior administrator in Staten Island, one of New York’s five boroughs. Just as the Covid-19 pandemic began, he initiated a project to foster trust in the borough’s school system, by encouraging a reflective, mindful environment where administrators, teachers, and students can talk about the challenges that they have in common. Staten Island is a dense and intensely divided community. It has liberal and conservative neighborhoods and wealthy and poor residents. Its public schools serve people from a wide variety of ethnic backgrounds. It is considered the most racially divided borough in New York City. The data shows that the minority student population has a disproportionally high likelihood of being suspended or identified as having a disability.  In the last few years, some of Staten Island’s educators have increasingly sought to bring a higher level of equity into the school system. Tyee Chin is one of them. He joined the school system in 2000 as a math teacher in Brooklyn, then became an instructional coach, assistant principal and then school principal. He is now director of student services in Staten Island. He supports all 70 schools in Staten Island (Pre-K to 12) around issues such as attendance, crisis, guidance, health, suspensions, school culture and climate. He and his team are thus responsible for social-emotional learning (SEL) opportunities for about 55,000 students and school staff people. He is also a parent of two children, one in college and one in middle school, who both experienced the remote-learning restrictions of the Covid-19 lockdowns.  The project to develop schools as welcoming environments began as part of his work in the year-long Center for Systems Awareness master practitioner certification program. (He was part of a Staten Island cohort of participants, including three principals and another district administrator, in 2020.) Chin’s project has had three phases: a series of weekly gatherings for administrators focused on self-care during the pandemic, a second gathering focused on changing the school culture, and a third gathering, just starting in Fall 2021, in which teachers and students will be included. In this essay, you’ll see how Tyee developed his view of a welcoming school, how he initiated the gatherings, and what he has learned along the way.

The Welcoming Environment

Imagine asking a stranger to pick up your children from your home, carry them away for a day on a train, and bring them back to you at night. The hope is that, while away with them, this stranger will increase your child’s knowledge about things you are not able to teach them.  You probably would have a hard time trusting this arrangement. You would not expect that it would make your child a better person. 

Yet every day parents and guardians do something similar with our school system. We trust that these strangers in the school will make our children better. However, when schools function like a machine, and it makes our children miserable, we tend to feel they have betrayed that trust and our children are not better. 

Over the past few years, as an administrator in the New York public school system, I have come to see schools as institutions that must change. The overall educational institution is best described as being like the Tin Man from the Wizard of Oz. Perhaps it had a heart once, but it gradually became mechanical, with initiatives and programs. Now it is standing still, like a rusted machine. 

Classrooms are organized like an assembly line, in rows and columns. The schools reinforce this mechanical system with standardized testing, and by implementing rules that keep people working individually, and feeling unwelcome. Even factories are more fun to work in, especially now that most of their staff work in groups. And like the Tin Man, the education bureaucracy needs to be brought to life. It needs compassion to become human again. 

There are many people in the system who know what changes are necessary.  But like the Cowardly Lion, they lack the courage to make the changes.  They are always searching for some man behind the curtain to change the system.  

The purpose of schools is not just to provide knowledge. It is to be a welcoming environment: a place where children are invited and encouraged to reach their greatest potential. Education professionals also call this type of school a “supportive environment.” Either way, in this type of school, adults naturally look out for the social, emotional and developmental needs of the students, the families, and each other. 

The idea of schools as welcoming environments is relatively new. Traditionally, schools were expected to be places to take courses and then go back home. But we now know, through SEL research, that giving young people stronger emotional support is linked to their success in life. In a welcoming school, if students are upset, there are staff members they feel comfortable talking to about it. When children are absent for three days without explanation, the school doesn’t just send an impersonal note. Someone calls the family to find out if everything is OK, and to offer help if the child is sick or the family is stressed out. In a welcoming school, social and emotional learning is ingrained in the way people think and interact, all through the day.  

It takes inner work and generative conversation to help a school make the transition to a welcoming environment. During the past three years, since early 2019, I have been directly involved in helping the 70 schools in Staten Island accomplish this. I have had many surprises along the way, and learned a great deal. And I now believe that this transition can take place, and it could have a dramatic effect for the next generation. 

How My Understanding Changed

As a young man growing up in New York, I was not interested in becoming an educator. But I was offered a full scholarship for a Masters’ in Education, where the only commitment was three years of teaching in public schools. At the time, it seemed like a good deal. There was a shortage of math teachers and the job had a good starting salary with benefits. I figured I could manage three years. 

21 years later, I am still an educator. I rose from teacher to assistant principal to school building leader (principal). I was always keenly aware of the shortcomings of the system. I saw it when I was a teacher. We would hear that the district was promoting a particular teaching method or education reform, like “student-centered learning.” It was clear we had to “check the box.” That meant demonstrating some form of it during the classroom supervision. So during the one class where an observer was present, we’d stop our usual lecture method and hold a class discussion. The observer would check the box. We’d go back to the old way the next day. Everybody would be happy. But the value of the change would never be realized for any of the kids. 

I gradually came to realize that no reform could take place in a mechanical and distant culture. Even if students did well academically, neither they nor their families would be happy about the school. And why would you want to put a child in a building for eight hours a day when it makes them unhappy? I also noticed an “in-group” in each school. Most parents and staff had no connection to it, and that gave them no connection to the school community. This amplified their distrust, which raised the level of inequity in the school. 

When the New York City framework for great schools was introduced, many people responded with the typical “check the box” approach. But it didn’t work for trust. I took part in one workshop with district leaders where they could not agree on a definition of trust. Instead, they decided to ignore it and stop trying to achieve it. I was flabbergasted. I wondered, if they can’t develop a working definition of trust, how can they expect other people to trust them.  If you can’t define it, how will you be able to identify it or create opportunities to grow it! 

I had always prided myself on my ability to be fair and open minded.  But being fair is not the same as creating a trusting environment.  As a school leader, whenever I had a break in my schedule, I would walk the halls and drop into classrooms. I carried a notepad so I could write down what people told me, and maybe do something about it later. I remember overhearing a student arguing with a dean one day, and the student said, “I’m going to go see Mr. Chin because I know he won’t pick sides.” One day an entire classroom of kids marched down to my office to tell me their opinion about an aspect of the school building that was changing. I was away from my office at that moment, and so the next day, I visited the class. “I heard you came to see me and I wasn’t there,” I said. “So I’m here to see you.” I believe that these practices fairness, and accessibility earned me the trust of the school community. However, there were still individuals in the school community that did not trust me or the institution.  

But now, as a district-level administrator, I was no longer walking halls. Instead, I wanted to build trust at my current level. Around that time, I took the three-day compassionate systems course. One of Mette’s comments at the Compassionate Systems course stayed with me. “The system is not broken,” she said. “It’s doing exactly what it was designed to do: create stress, anxiety, and disconnect.” This meant managing my own inner self was part of the role I was taking on. I started focusing more on breathing, mindfulness and self-care.

The First Session: Educator Self-Care

I also signed up for the year-long master practitioner course. For the course project, I chose to set up and lead an intensive workshop that would “grow compassion while developing a trusting generative space across the entire Staten Island school district.” I would bring together a few people with influence over a few schools and together we would model what it takes to make schools into a supportive environment. 

Rather than recruit through the same hierarchical group that had not been able to define trust, I reached out to principals, administrators and teachers who I knew through my current work with SEL. They were interested in creating a welcoming environment, but they didn’t just want rhetoric; they wanted tangible practices. 

I designed a series of four full-day offsite sessions for a group of 47 administrators and teachers, including yoga and mindfulness training – for which I had completed the hours to be certified – as well as systems leadership tools. It was all set to begin in Spring 2020.

Then the pandemic struck. We would have to conduct the sessions virtually, but there was all the more reason for them. “This Covid-19 crisis,” I wrote in my vision statement, “has elevated our anxiety, emotional response to stress, our worries for our loved ones, our way of life and the future. All [the school] community will need a safe-compassionate space to address the stress and trauma being experienced at this time.”  One explicit goal was to establish a “circle of trust” that would extend beyond the virtual space, so that schools could eventually returned to their buildings with improved relationships and connections. 

We started in May. Many New Yorkers were still in shock at the severity and intensity of the pandemic. Every Friday afternoon, we held a 90-minute Zoom self-care workshop for teachers managing through the lockdown. The sessions started with a half hour of yoga practice. Then we had a half hour of mindfulness, emphasizing self-care and recovery from trauma. We spent the last half hour learning about compassionate systems tools, such as the ladder of connectedness and the systems iceberg. We also talked about meeting social and emotional needs now that people were all quarantined or locked inside. 

This pandemic had exposed the lack of trust among students and teachers. For instance, when schools went remote, they required students to keep their camera on. But many students did not feel comfortable exposing their current living conditions. They did not have a quiet place to do lessons, or they lived in a shelter or other non-traditional setting. As we talked about this from an SEL perspective, it became clearer why we needed to allow some students to keep their video off. 

I set norms at the start of the meetings to help us model a welcoming space. This was a challenge, especially in the early days of using Zoom. We agreed to these norms: 

  • Assume good intention
  • Whenever possible, please turn on your camera
  • Participation is by invitation, not demand
  • Everyone is allowed to speak their truth, without others judging them. 

We recognized that we wouldn’t always agree on what was happening, but our feelings were still valid as our feelings. 

We started with one question: If the system is not fully broken, and yet we’re facing tremendous challenges and have to change, how do we create better connections and shift our mental models? We used the iceberg model: looking at events and the systems and attitudes that shaped them. 

The sessions were slow and painful at the beginning. We were still in the early days of the pandemic, and the attendees were stretched thin, adjusting to remote learning. They complained about giving up their Friday afternoons for this. But by the fourth session, nearly everyone was attending regularly. It became a cherished part of their school week. And when the sessions ended after the eighth week, attendees wondered what they would do now with their Friday nights.

 

The Second Series

In the second series, which began in January 2021, we were more strategic. Though our workshop had gathered a following during the pandemic, it had not filtered back to building trust and a welcoming culture in our schools. I did not want to create one more program that merely checked the box. 

So I changed the sessions to two hours every three weeks. Each session had four half-hour modules. I dropped the yoga portion and recruited a group of facilitators to lead the modules, which always followed the same order. First, personal mindfulness practice; second, discussion of issues facing schools, such as multi-language learners or cultural responsiveness; third, in-depth training in a compassionate systems leadership tool or technique; and fourth, breakout discussions about how to apply our skills. These discussions turned out to be the most popular feature. They helped participants see that they were not alone in facing unprecedented challenges. 

This time, there were 39 participants. Only 5 kept their camera off. We started talking about very emotionally charged issues. Since we started each session with a check-in, people felt like they had a space to speak together, even about difficult situations and emotions. One participant, a black female social worker, said that she was never sure she was safe in any space. But she felt safe here, at least enough to talk openly. Another participant, a white female teacher, said she had felt unwelcome when she taught at a mostly-minority school; she wasn’t sure if students and other teachers valued her being there. 

Many participants were school leaders, and they wanted different things. One elementary school principal was struggling with keeping working relationships alive, while following Center for Disease Control social distancing guidelines. Another wanted to work on the biases inherent in the curriculum. Another felt that her staff lacked empathy, and weren’t willing to meet the students and families “as they are.” A district leader was focused on equity. The one thing they all had in common was recognizing the link between their own awareness and the impact they had with other people. 

At the end of this second series, I surveyed and interviewed participants. I learned that not all my assumptions had been correct. For instance, I had assumed that when people turned their camera off, it was a sign of disinterest or distraction. But the participants included administrators, social workers and guidance counselors, who were sometimes interrupted by emergencies they couldn’t avoid. Turning off the camera often signalled nothing more than a need to turn away to a school matter that required privacy. 

I had also assumed that adult educators would naturally take what they learned about self-care and compassion back to students and their families. This desperately needed transfer tended to happen only when we explicitly talked about applying the tools at schools. For instance, leaders at one high school used the systems thinking iceberg model to uncover issues with standardized tests (like the state Regents exam) for minority students. The iceberg model invites people to look beneath visible, seemingly isolated events – like poor test scores – to find less obvious patterns that connect them. One such pattern had to do with social and emotional learning, or the lack of it. It turned out that when teachers explicitly brought in SEL practices, students felt more welcome and were more likely to show up and do well. 

Teachers at an elementary school also used the iceberg to explore what happens when students in class get into an emotional crisis. The staff is not equipped to address the situation, so they send the students to the school counselor. This makes the child feel singled out as not fitting “normal behavior.” There is now a school-wide initiative to train staff to approach students in “neutral presence awareness,” instead of empathetic distress.  

Finally, I had assumed that the tools and approaches would ripple out around the schools where leaders attended. This did not happen as much as I had hoped. In many schools, the new practices are confined to pockets, and the schools are struggling more than they need to. Most schools in Staten Island are still not welcoming environments – not nearly as much as they could be.

Planning the Third Series 

So we’re starting a third series. This one will have administrators, teachers, other school workers – and students, from high school, middle school and down to third grade. Since there are more people involved, we’ve planned or started several series, including one underway in the summer, led by educators who have been through the first two series. In this way we hope to meet the growing demand in the schools. Originally, I was not going to include elementary school students, but the teachers in some schools convinced me that some 3rd-grade students really want to participate.

The sessions let people be heard in ways that stay with them for a long time. And they have done the same for me. I had assumed, when I started, that I basically had my own inner life together. I was aware of my emotions and how I showed up. I have learned that I can also appear to be in crisis. I am not as compassionate as I could be toward myself or others. I don’t always lead from a space of trust. I even find myself rushing through activities as if I’m trying to check the box.  

At the same time, the surveys have come back with very positive results. People really like an environment that encourages them to treat each other with compassion, where adults and students are dedicated to taking care of one another. The ladder of connectedness speaks to them. It helps them see the implications of different aspects of human connection, such as neutral present awareness (where you see a person as an equal, rather than as someone who is broken or needs help), empathic distress (where you are caught up in feelings about another person’s difficulties) or in-group empathy (where you feel connection only with people close to you). This desire for better interaction has probably been there all along, but COVID-19 brought it out into the open. 

All the participants agreed that the sessions demonstrated a genuine respect for the dignity of every person. We created a generative space of trust that is transparent, genuine, open and authentic. We all recognize that trust is a two-way street. For my part, I have to trust that people will care enough to continue practicing the tools and working toward school-wide implementation. I can’t force trust, and I can’t ignore the need for it either. We all have to live by our principles: that we are not here to fix each other, that no session is a “share or die” event, and that participation is by invitation, not demand. These ways of relating to each other may feel strange in a mechanical environment. But as the Tin Man all around us becomes more human, life in the education system starts to feel more natural.

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