The Oxford dictionary defines a shelter as “a place giving temporary protection from bad weather or danger.”
In my inaugural year as an Assistant Principal, I had the unique experience of helping operate my school as a shelter because for a few days Hurricane Dorian was predicted to make landfall somewhere along the South Florida coast. We were safe and did not feel the wrath of Dorian, but operating a school as a shelter for our clients made me think about what it means to have a school as a “shelter.”
1) As a shelter, we prepped the school as much as possible to receive our temporary residents or clients and their pets. The days of preparation as a shelter were more than the days we housed our clients.
We made sure showers were working, signs were posted indicating sleeping areas, where to eat and shower, inventoried foods, checked for building issues that needed to be fixed before we opened, etc..
As schools, I wonder do we put in the effort to prepare the building well for our students? Are administrators and teachers preparing for all the students that will walk through their doors? Does that preparation account for all the various needs that students will have, or are cookie cutter lessons deemed as good enough? Is our pre-school preparation time more than the time students spend at school? It should be. If not, it will be hard to meet the needs of all students.
2) We did not choose who our shelter residents would be. They came if they needed shelter and they came with what they had. Some came with a lot and some came with just the clothes on their back. Some brought more than basic shelter items including TVs and game systems. For others, we had to provide basic necessities such as soap, towels, and bedding. And what we didn’t have on campus, we were able to call on our families and loved ones to make last minute stops at Walmart or bring items from home to meet the needs of those we were sheltering. No, we didn’t post these stories on Facebook or other social media sites. People aren’t opportunities for bragging rights; they deserve dignity.
Again I wonder, does this happen at our schools? Our students do not always choose the schools they attend. They come to us because it is where they are assigned. Some come with a lot and others with a little. Some have enough to share and others need us to share with them. Do we share and give to them in a way that leaves them still feeling dignified? Or is giving the student an opportunity for us to brag and publish feel good stories at the expense of those we are helping? Are we prepared to go and find the resources that our students need? Do we invite our families, their families, and our communities to help us give our students what they need? Or do we not ask for and welcome the help that we so desperately need?
3) Families were at our shelter and I believe every single head of household made the decision to come to the shelter to protect their families, especially their children. Many of them put aside their pride to come. Some came with what seemed like more than enough, but that more than enough may have been their all. Some came bringing only their most precious treasures, their children.
No matter the family, they came because they wanted their family protected, but many had expectations that they were going to be treated as “less than.” I can’t tell you how many families made time to tell me “thank you” because they were treated as equals with the shelter staff. They were surprised at the level of care we showed and how fast we responded to their needs. We gave them our best. They were never referred to as “others.” They became apart of the community that was the school shelter.
Do the parents of our students feel this way? Do the communities our students come from feel this way? Do they even feel like they can enter our schools without being treated as an “other,” as someone that is not apart of the school community. Because they are apart of our school community. The very extensions of themselves attend our schools and they trust us to treat them well. I’ll be honest, some parents would like “better” schools for their children, but that is not always a possibility. Their children are with us because there is no other choice. The question is…do we still treat them as a member of our school community even if we are not their first choice? Do we allow families and communities to bring themselves and the untapped resources they have into our schools?
4) We couldn’t prepare for everything. It’s an honest statement. Some issues did not arise until the shelter started receiving people. We had an area for families, single males, and single females to stay in, but what about families with newborns? Did we want them to still be with families or did we need to provide them with a separate space so they could breastfeed in private? How were we going to help clients with special needs that chose to come to our shelter and not the special needs shelter because they didn’t want to leave their pets at home?
You know what we did? We adapted and made on the spot decisions. We dedicated space for families with newborns. We checked on clients with special needs around the clock. We made site based decisions so we could serve our clients they best way they needed to be served. We wrote down the adaptations we made and added them to our hurricane shelter plan so we could be even more prepared in the future. We now know better so we can better prepare.
I know I keep asking this question, but do we do this? Do we make accommodations for the things we didn’t know we needed to plan for? What about the student that does not speak English or has a specific learning disability? What happens if you have to deal with an issue in your classroom that you’ve never had to deal with before? Do you try to find resources to support the student in your class and not dump them on someone else because it makes your job “harder”? Do you write down the strategies or tools you used so you know what to do in the future or do you throw it all away at the end of the year hoping it doesn’t happen again? Are you willing to take on new learning opportunities that present themselves as problems in your classroom and find solutions? We are constantly learning so we can do better.
Schools are more than your classrooms and buildings. They are shelters and refuges for some. For others schools can be a place of opposition, a place that causes distress. Which of the previous would you like for your school to be? If you aim to make it a shelter, are you prepared to do the work necessary to make it a shelter that is welcoming for students and their families? It is hard work, but it is a necessary work.