Safe and Caring Schools Project

"The search for islands of competence"

Mary Beth Wolicky

Turning research on safe and caring issues into something educators "can use Monday morning" was the challenge issued by Deputy Minister of Education Leroy Sloan, in Edmonton, April 2728, as over 300 researchers, teachers, administrators, parents and others gathered for the first Safe and Caring Schools Conference.

The conference, organized by the University of Alberta, was an opportunity for researchers from the Universities of Alberta, Calgary and Lethbridge to share their findings. Conference topics included mentorship programs, stories of teachers and principals, student views on school violence, and programs and resources available to teachers for reducing disruptive behavior.

Students also contributed. Types of violent or disruptive behaviors were presented in a thought-provoking performance by Mirror Theatre, a Theatre in Education (TIE) company from the U of A faculty of education which writes and performs plays and conducts workshops dealing with social issues. There was also a fast-paced presentation from the planning team of the student-run "Get Real—Let's Talk" conference held simultaneously across Alberta through the ACCESS network in January.

Monday morning, Vicki Mather, ATA project director for Safe and Caring Schools, shared the ATA's efforts, in "Toward a Safe and Caring Curriculum." Mather was accompanied by a new friend—Niska, the Safe and Caring Schools mascot.

The highlight for many participants was the keynote speaker, Robert Brooks Ph.D, author of The Self-Esteem Teacher. Widely considered the leading motivational speaker on family relationships in North America, Brooks spoke from the heart as a concerned educator. Candidly sharing his personal struggles as father, psychologist, teacher and principal, he took the audience to a renewed understanding of their potential impact on the lives of children—especially those seen as at-risk or violent. Through witty, touching stories and memories, Brooks explored the potential effect on children of contact with even one positive mentor, which in many cases is a teacher.

For Brooks, one way to promote safe and caring schools is to focus on three key needs of children: to feel welcome and connected to their environment; to feel autonomous and involved in decision-making processes; and to feel competent. To illustrate, he shared a story about a disruptive child who changed when given the responsibility of becoming the school's first-ever "pet monitor"—a role created to showcase this child's interest in animals.

Brooks stressed, "If there is an ocean of inadequacy, there must be islands of competence." It is the role and mandate of teachers and educators to seek these "islands of competence" in children—especially those seen as disruptive or at-risk—and help all children feel special.

Vicki Mather, ATA project director of Safe and Caring Schools, and Robert Brooks, Safe and Caring Schools Conference keynote speaker, give Niska a hug during a conference break.Vicki Mather, ATA project director of Safe and Caring Schools, and Robert Brooks, Safe and Caring Schools Conference keynote speaker, give Niska a hug during a conference break.

When Kevin McMillan and his teacher Dorothy Hinz-Bourassa of Rainbow Lake School sent their submission to the Safe and Caring Schools "Name Our Mascot Contest," they couldn't have guessed the size of the goose egg they had created!

McMillan and Hinz-Bourassa suggested calling the mascot Lacota—a Sioux word meaning "friend." The judges liked the idea of giving the mascot a native name, but discovered that Lacota is not a word used by Alberta's First Nations people. A new list was created and the judges settled on Napi—a legendary Blackfoot character. But, after researching the name, it turned out that in some legends Napi's characteristics did not fit with the program's objectives. The next choice of the committee was Niska, a Cree word for goose. McMillan and Hinz-Bourassa are still the winners for hatching the idea. Ducks Unlimited is sending a class membership in its Greenwing program.