You Belong Here

I have spent the past two days engaging with teachers and staff in preparation for welcoming our students to the 2019-2020 school year.  I have observed great work, and rich conversation about how we will meet the diverse needs of each student in our system, and I am incredibly proud of the purpose and passion our people pour into their work.

In order for this work to achieve full potential, it is critical that we foster an environment where each student knows, without a doubt, that they are valued, respected, and celebrated.  My hope is that every student believes us when we say, YOU BELONG HERE.

As I reflect on how we ensure our students feel a sense of dignity and belonging, I am reminded of one of my favorite TED Talks, The Danger of a Single Story.  In this TED Talk, Nigerian author, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie richly describes the consequences of telling ourselves a single story about other people based on stereotypes and biases.  She calls on us to reject a single story about others in order to claim an empowering and dignity-filled world.

I’m sharing The Danger of a Single Story in hopes that you will watch and listen, and to communicate that this is the type of environment we hope to provide to our students.  Below the TED Talk, I have also included Decorah CSD Board of Directors Policy 500.2.  This is our Equal Education Opportunities, Prohibition of Harassment and Bullying of Students policy.

As a public educator, I am proud of our state, and the specific language all Iowa school districts are required to use in this policy.  We will use this policy to guide our work in providing a high quality learning environment for each student, and we will take action when we see, or become aware of behavior that stands in contrast to our policy.

Ultimately, it is up to each person to choose how he/she will interact with those they come across in their daily lives, and we know our students will face challenging and upsetting experiences with others from time to time.  Therefore, as the adults at school, we will take purposeful action to ensure our students are treated with dignity and respect, and understand that YOU BELONG HERE.

Thanks for taking the time to read, and to listen to Ms. Ngozi Adichie’s message.

The Danger of a Single Story, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

“The consequence of the single story is that it robs people of dignity. It makes our recognition of our equal humanity difficult and it emphasizes that we are different rather than how we are similar.”  Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie


Nondiscrimination.  No student in the Decorah Community School District shall be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination in District programs on the basis of race, color, creed, sex, religion, family status, ethnic background, national origin, disability, sexual orientation, gender identity, political belief or socio-economic background.  The policy of the District shall be to provide educational programs and opportunities for students as needed on the basis of individual needs, interests, abilities and potential.

Harassment and Bullying Prohibited.  The Decorah Community School District is committed to providing all students a safe and civil educational environment in which all are treated with dignity and respect.  The District is also committed to promoting understanding and appreciation of the cultural diversity of our society.  The District shall educate students about our cultural diversity and shall promote tolerance of individual differences.

Harassment and bullying of students is against the policy of the State of Iowa as well as of the Decorah Community School District.  The District shall promote procedures and practices to reduce and eliminate harassment and bullying.   The District prohibits harassment and bullying of students by other students, by employees, and by volunteers while in school, on school property, and at any school function or school-sponsored activity.  This includes harassment or bullying based on the student’s actual or perceived trait or characteristic, including the student’s actual or perceived race, color, creed, sex, age, religion, marital or familial status, ethnic background, national origin, ancestry, physical or mental ability or disability, sexual orientation, gender identity, physical attribute, political party preference, political belief, or socio-economic background.  Acts of harassment or bullying may be treated as grounds for discipline.  Discipline may include suspension or expulsion of a student, termination of an employee’s contract, and/or exclusion of a volunteer from District activities or premises.

Link to the full DCSD Board of Directors Policy 500.2 

A Meaningful Gift

A couple weeks ago, I had a friend who was in Decorah for a few days for work.  He was busy throughout the day, but we were able to get together two evenings for supper.  My friend is a minister, and we often talk about the similarities between the responsibilities and challenges of leading a church congregation and a school system.  We both see ourselves as servant leaders who get to work with people with great passion.  We also both have opportunities to engage with people in highly emotional and stressful circumstances.

As we were having our second supper together in as many nights, our conversation turned to how we each handle moments when others are feeling frustration, anger, or a great sense of urgency about an issue.  I described my belief that it was essential to listen empathetically, to assume good intentions, and to resist the urge to jump immediately to solving the person’s problem for them, or giving advice.

My friend responded, “you mean serve as a non-anxious presence.”  I admitted that I wasn’t familiar with that exact term, but that it sounded about right.  He went on to explain that non-anxious presence was a term he had heard often in seminary, and that his instructors worked diligently to support the development of key skills that would help future ministers provide a non-anxious presence to individuals seeking their counsel.

Since our supper, I have been doing some more reading about non-anxious presence, and I have come to believe the concept can serve as a great gift those who work in a school setting can give to students.

Edwin Friedman, a Jewish Rabbi, and family therapist, coined the term to describe, “an individual who provides a calm, cool, focused and collected environment that empowers others to be relaxed.”  From time to time, teachers, para-professionals, and principals find themselves in situations where students are agitated, frustrated, and/or in crisis.  In certain situations, a child may not have the vocabulary or awareness to talk about what is so upsetting.  In those moments, it can be easy for the adult to experience stress and frustration.  However, as the adult, we have a duty to give the gift of non-anxious presence.

Here are three reminders I am going to share with the adults with whom I work this year to increase the likelihood that when any student in our district is experiencing crisis or frustration, we don’t take actions that make things worse.

  1. Don’t make it about your needs, feelings, or expectations.
  2. Do start with the positive presupposition that the child is doing the best they know how in the given circumstances.
  3. Do ask non-judgmental questions, and spend more time listening.

The ability to present a non-anxious presence to the students we serve is a powerful tool in maintaining dignity and relationships.  I’m confident that the more we model this purposeful behavior to our students, the more capable they will become in regulating their own emotions.


Wheeler, J., (2018). Five pragmatic tools to become a non-anxious presence: Tips and tricks for being a mindful counselor, Counseling Today. Retrieved from: