Creating Safe and Brave Spaces: Fostering Psychological Safety In Schools

When teachers and staff are psychologically safe, they feel comfortable contributing ideas and feedback without fear of repercussion. Here’s why that matters and how you can cultivate it in your school.
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Blog date
3/16/23
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As education leaders, it’s important to us that our schools be safe spaces. We also want them to be “brave spaces.” 

We know safe—and brave—spaces are important for helping students develop the skills and confidence to be self-directed learners, problem-solvers, and creators. The same is true for adults. At a time when educators continue to contend with high levels of stress and burnout, it’s more important than ever to foster an environment where professional learning, shared responsibility, and a high degree of openness and honesty are predominant. 

We know safe—and brave—spaces are important for helping students develop the skills and confidence to be self-directed learners, problem-solvers, and creators. The same is true for adults. 

A school culture that places a priority on building trust and psychological wellbeing leads to more engagement and empowerment—which is great news for teacher retention. This kind of safety isn’t reserved for specific spaces within your school. It needs to be embedded in its daily pulse. Here’s what you need to know.

What is psychological safety?

In its simplest form, psychological safety is the belief that you won’t be punished when you make a mistake or for speaking up with ideas, questions, or concerns. This belief affords members of a team the opportunity to feel included, learn from their fellow team members, contribute ideas, and challenge the status quo, with the shared expectation that they won’t be rejected or embarrassed if they share an out-of-the-box recommendation or ask for honest feedback. 

In its simplest form, psychological safety is the belief that you won’t be punished when you make a mistake or for speaking up with ideas, questions, or concerns. 

Amy Edmonson, author and professor of leadership and management at Harvard Business School, first identified the concept of psychological safety in work teams in the late 1990s. She says this belief is critical because, “it’s so much better to be in a workplace where you can be yourself, and contribute to the work in a meaningful way.” 

It’s important to remember that “safety” is not synonymous with “niceness.” Teams that are psychologically safe are respectful and inclusive, but that doesn’t mean they shy away from the tough conversations needed to solve problems and create new solutions.

Author and researcher Dr. Timothy Clark has defined four stages of safety individuals progress through before they feel comfortable enough to have these tough conversations and make contributions to their team:

  • Inclusion Safety, which satisfies the basic human need for connection and belonging,
  • Learner Safety, which underscores the need to learn and grow,
  • Contributor Safety, where individuals feel like they can make a difference and contribute something of value, and
  • Challenger Safety, where people have a need to make things better, which means speaking up and challenging the status quo when there’s an opportunity to improve. 

As a school leader, what can you do to move the teachers and staff members in your care through these levels, and ensure they feel truly safe enough to speak up without fear? Here are a few insights that can help: 

Be open about your learning from  your mistakes

One of the best ways to create safety is to model it through your own leadership. Consider taking a “lead learner” approach to this, just as your teachers might do in their own classrooms. 

One of the best ways to create safety is to model it through your own leadership. Consider taking a “lead learner” approach.

Set a tone with your team that immediately acknowledges you also make mistakes—and that there are times you won’t get it right or have the answer. This might look like sharing stories with your teams about the times you’ve been wrong, and what you learned—and make it clear you’re committed to learning from these experiences.  

Flip the script on feedback

Feedback: it’s a word that often has a negative connotation. And yes—when treated as a way to share displeasure, it can quickly turn into something that is feared. And yet, as a principal, feedback is a necessary part of your role. Not only does it help your teachers and staff improve their practice, but when given thoughtfully and intentionally, it can also help deliver positive outcomes for their students. 

One way to shift the thinking around feedback is to consistently ask for honest and open feedback on your own leadership. Asking your teachers and staff where you can improve not only demonstrates your commitment to continued learning, but also shows you respect and value their perspectives. These gestures create a high level of trust and understanding and builds meaningful relationships too. All of which prompts your team to take similar actions. 

Focus on clarity and transparency in team interactions

Ambiguity thrives in psychologically unsafe teams. It’s human nature. People are often afraid to question things they don’t understand. Your teachers and staff might fear that asking for clarity might make them look incompetent. And in an environment where it’s critical for everyone to collaborate in order to move the school’s vision forward, this ambiguity can lead to misalignment. 

Ambiguity thrives in psychologically unsafe teams. It’s human nature—people are often afraid to question things they don’t understand. 

The opposite of ambiguity is clarity—and that’s why it’s important to work alongside your team to develop clear criteria for what working together looks and feels like. Perhaps it’s a commitment to documenting a communication process for staff meetings. Maybe it’s a co-developed list of team expectations or norms that everyone agrees to adhere to. Whatever clarity looks like, it’s critical to arrive at that definition as a group. 

It’s also essential that teachers and staff always have a clear picture of how what they’re doing day-to-day connects with the overall goals for the school. If they know why they’re contributing, and feel a connection to the work, it will be much easier for them to feel confident speaking up and letting their voices be heard. 

Consider the connection between psychological security and professional learning

A great lens to view psychological safety through is professional learning. After all, learning requires a fair amount of vulnerability. In order to truly learn, your teachers need to feel that it’s okay to take risks—and most of all, feel comfortable saying “I don’t know.” 

Jennifer Gonzales, creator of Cult of Pedagogy, talked about her own professional learning experiences, and how it would have been great to establish a feeling of psychological safety as the foundation of these efforts. “Too many of my own PD memories include sitting with people who intimidated me, feeling like I couldn’t ask questions or speak up about concerns I had,” she says.

In order to truly learn, your teachers need to feel that it’s okay to take risks—and most of all, feel comfortable saying “I don’t know.”

Enabling teachers to find opportunities for PD that are psychologically safe, joyful and engaging can result in a big boost to their confidence and a renewed excitement to share what they’ve learned with their students and other teachers. 

Psychological safety takes time and space

You’ve often heard us say that principals can’t do it all on their own, and this is especially true when it comes to developing a psychologically safe education environment for everyone in your school community. Let’s be honest: it’s difficult to create this level of safety. It takes time and space, and requires a high level of vulnerability and trust among everyone on your team—yourself included.

Remember, transformation comes in the form of incremental wins. The goal is to not change your school overnight. A more achievable goal is to build the capacity in your teachers and staff to become a little safer—and become a bit braver—each day.

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