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Psychological Safety

I am one of those people who loves absurd situational comedy. Just mentioning the name Leslie Nielsen makes me giggle, and the show 30Rock makes me laugh out loud which humors my wife Cathy. For those unfamiliar, the 30Rock series revolves around the cast, writers, and crew of a fictitious NBC live sketch comedy show. Recently, I was watching an episode where it was the turn of a particular writer, Lutz, to pick the team’s lunch. It didn’t go well (30 seconds).

This scene is emblematic of the Lutz character, often making choices and suggestions that produce an aggressive response from his coworkers. It’s not that he wants to disappoint others - quite the contrary - but the dynamics of the situations elevate Lutz’s perception of risk. His clarity of thought is compromised. Over and over, the audience witnesses Lutz’s internal struggles, his muddled responses, and, eventually, the group's disapproval.

A few days after watching the aforementioned episode, I was reading a study on psychological safety in the classroom, a condition that is paramount to deep learning. The study offers one definition of psychological safety as “a measure of an individual’s perceived interpersonal risk in a given context. Edmondson (2003) posited four risks individuals face in a group setting: being seen as ignorant, incompetent, negative, or disruptive.” This made me reflect on my imperfect experiences of the classroom as a student, instructor, and observer. While we can all probably remember numerous times when we didn’t feel comfortable sharing, I can recall many other individuals throughout my lifetime whose Lutzian-level anxiety must have been difficult to bear.

In today’s uber-aggressive cancel culture, the stakes are even higher. It feels as though there’s not a lot of room to miss the mark with a random comment. Additionally, I’ve heard of a few recent incidents where, thanks to social media, high school students have had embarrassing comments, pictures, and episodes from as far back as sixth grade reposted by others for no other reason than to harm.

This, of course, is a microcosm of what is playing out in our adult world as well - particularly in politics - where it has become virtually impossible for anyone to have a change of mind or heart for fear of the brutal ramifications. Even the slightest waiver produces blowback. St. Ignatius had one of the biggest conversion stories imaginable. Weighing his options today, I wonder if he would have found the risk worth it, noting that many would question his motives and label him a fraud, exploiter, or worse.

There is a second kind of psychological safety stemming from the topic of my last CrossCurrents post regarding extraordinary experiences. The teen years are a time for risk taking and exploration. Sometimes, however, in our well-intentioned efforts to encourage such growth, youngsters are pushed to do things where the risk feels too great. They simply aren’t ready even though others might be embracing the challenge.

This becomes a delicate dance for schools. On the one hand, we work for excellence which requires students to leave their comfort zones to achieve new heights. When the outcomes are noteworthy we rightfully heap praise. When efforts fall short, they often go unnoticed. Even when substantial gains occur, finishing sixth out of twelve doesn’t feel very satisfying.

Sometimes, there’s failure. Students lose elections. They finish dead last in a cross country race. They forget their lines. Such things aren’t what a person posts on their social media feed…but in our fishbowl world, somebody else might. These are the calculations students make every time a parent or guidance counselor utters the words, “You should try…”

In spite of our best efforts to love and care for our students, risk abounds in our modern day Catholic high schools. More and more often, these risks seem to overwhelm, leading some students to shut down. Sadly, this can lead to self loathing as these students witness others thriving. Our tendency is to compare ourselves to others to see how we stack up. This is particularly true of teens. They look at Jimmy who is a 4.0 student and the captain of the football team and Jane who is class President and editor of the yearbook, and they feel inadequate - even though they don’t like football and have no desire to write or take pictures.

Additionally, we adults sometimes use words like trauma when attempting to help students cope with a disappointment which connotes that what the student is dealing with requires heroic effort to overcome. This too might add to the weight the student is already bearing.

Through our Learner Skills Initiative, AVLI has been collecting student self-assessment data for a number of years. In rooting through the numbers, what might be most compelling is the data on perseverance. Somehow, we need to help students build the skill and will to endure. God bless our counselors, staff psychologists, teachers, and administrators who try to negotiate these realities every day. It’s a Herculean task requiring an empathetic ear, extraordinary patience, and a capacity to, gently but firmly, push students back into the game. A big part of this is helping students recognize that failure and disappointment are a part of everyone’s life journey - and that’s ok. After all, it’s natural to compare oneself to the Jimmys and Janes. The key, however, is to understand that they aren’t ahead of you, they’re simply running a different race.


CONTRIBUTOR: Jeff Hausman, AVLI President

vol 5 issue 3


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