3 Distractions to Learning (TrustED™ School Leaders Avoid)

In this article I address three potential distractions to learning, which TrustED school leaders avoid.

1. School Plant Distractions

Trusted school leaders plan and manage the physical elements of the school campus, from heating and ventilating systems to safety features, based on a model of optimum achievement desired and lowest costs possible. This is a major balancing act, that when performed well, is a discipline that protects teachers and students alike from being distracted from learning.

Establishing an optimum-achievement/low-cost model is not as easy as it seems. School systems that would reflect this model are often not representative of the general school community. They are blessed with a homogenous population that puts a high value on education. They offer a basic curriculum that provides students with a good chance of academic success and performance. Schools with significant populations of special needs students — low income, special education, and English as a second language, for example, would be hard pressed to fit in this definition. They often need to provide additional resources to their students. By the very nature of the students they must educate, their costs are higher than average.[1]

As the above illustrates, only general guidance statements can be provided. Every school is unique in makeup of student populations and communities, as well as physical location and surroundings. Prior to providing specific solutions and directions, a detailed analysis must be conducted of each school’s environs. Once those factors are clearly identified and a contextualization is made, plans can be developed that attempt to establish optimum-achievement at the lowest possible costs.

The question that trusted school leaders ask when it comes to heating and ventilation, as well as all other areas of the school plant, is “How does this system impact learning?” For example, research shows that whenever possible, ventilation systems should be controlled separately within each classroom, as the “ability to control classroom temperature [is] central to the performance of teachers and students.”[2]

Another example of how facilities support or detract from learning is lighting. Studies conclude the more natural light entering the classroom the better.

“Students with limited classroom daylight were outperformed by those with the most natural light by 20% in math and 26% on reading tests.”[3]

In sanitation and plumbing, schools typically and rightfully are concerned with toilet facilities that are adequate for the number of students; and that the restroom equipment is sized and positioned appropriately for the age of the students utilizing those facilities. An area that is often overlooked, however, is air sanitation. Research has shown that the poor air quality of schools is the source of numerous problems for students, faculty, and staff.

For example, “asthma is the leading cause of absenteeism, responsible for more than 20 million missed schools days in the U.S. per year.”[4]

Another study has shown that, “after installing an electromagnetic air cleaner in classrooms, absenteeism dropped from 8.3% to 3.7%. After the air purifier was removed, the rate jumped up to 7.9%.”[5] On a broader scale of health concerns, other studies have concluded that in the USA, “the large majority of schools are built not to optimize health and comfort, but rather to achieve a minimum required level of design performance at the lowest cost.”[6]

From the point of view of someone who has personally suffered significant hearing loss; is dependent on hearing aids; and lives with chronic tinnitus, like 5-10% of the American population; the research regarding the poor acoustical quality of schools is deeply disturbing.[7] Not only does excessive and constant noise result in eventual hearing loss and other impairments, it also diminishes learning. “Research indicates that high levels of background noise, much of it from heating and cooling systems, adversely affects learning environments, particularly for young children, who require optimal conditions for hearing and comprehension.”[8] Other studies have shown that, “many classrooms feature a speech intelligibility rating of 75% or less. That means listeners with normal hearing can understand only 75% of the words read from a list.”[9]

2. Technology Distractions

High-tech audiovisual tools in the classroom today are the blackboards of generations past. Data projectors, mimeos, smart boards, document cameras, iPads, and more have all contributed to a very different classroom experience than even a decade earlier; especially as the costs for these tools continues to decrease. However, having the infrastructure to support technology-rich classrooms is another major challenge for school leaders.

As the demand for technology in the classroom grew in the USA, one study identified that, “nearly half of all schools lack the basic electrical wiring to support computers, modems, and other communication technology.”[10] That challenge has not diminished. Now with the demands of high-speed internet and wireless devices, schools face the challenge of providing campus-wide access as well as support – and these challenges will never stop. Schools will always need to keep pace with technological advances. Trusted leaders protect teachers from the many potential distractions, which may be a result of poor planning and poor maintenance of the school plant – including technology.

Protecting teachers from distractions born out of school plant issues is most effective when employed during initial school plant planning and site selection. One of the fundamental and most frequently seen problems during a school design and construction phase is lack of the right people at the design table. Even if they are, they do not necessarily know how to communicate effectively to each other. “A central feature is the necessity, when designing a school, of people with backgrounds in design and architecture talking to people with backgrounds in education. Despite genuine attempts to speak the same language, this is difficult when underlying knowledge and unspoken assumptions are very different.”[11]

3. Safety Distractions

Paramount in the design and planning mode, as well as throughout the life of a school campus, is safety. This includes physical and psychological safety, potential hazards, crime, accidents and medical emergencies, weather and other natural disasters, data protection, and many others – all of which need to be considered, ideally, before the doors of the school open. Trusted school leaders demonstrate Discipline through advance planning in protecting teachers, students, parents, and guests to the greatest extent possible.

A safe campus results in an atmosphere that fosters learning. “Children are ready to learn only when they’re safe and secure, so address those needs before considering any other aspect of a child’s environment.”[12] This basic and fundamental need of a secure environment is essential for learning. Every decision regarding the school plant must be filtered through safety and security, whether it is a major construction project or a hallway-cleaning schedule. Ensuring the well-being of stakeholders must always come first.

Buildings, grounds, and equipment by their nature deteriorate with use as of day one. Therefore, detailed maintenance strategies and protocols must be in place. “The disadvantages of maintenance departments are in the lack of predictive abilities. They never know when or where a pipe will leak, a fire will break out, a window will jam, a hurricane will knock over trees, and so forth.”[13]

School plant management, operation, and maintenance, genuinely grounded in supporting a student-centered environment, embraces the adage, “It is all about the learning.” According to Maria Montessori and her fellow Italian educator Loris Malaguzzi, “Everything that is material affects the child’s temperament and development. In a conducive environment, a child can learn many things without being taught in traditional ways.”[14]

In a non-conducive environment, the school plant inhibits learning rather than allowing it to take place. A quick example from my own experience as a principal, involved helping our facilities manager recognize that his crew mowing lawns while classes were in session did not support learning, but created an audible and visual distraction for students and teachers. Once he understood that his role, and the work of his crew, was just as vital as the teachers to enhance and support learning, not only was he greatly affirmed in his role within the school community, he also made changes that enhanced the overall learning environment of the school. He, too, began to process his decisions by asking first, “How does this affect student learning?”

When leaders at every level process school plant needs through the lens of learning and safety, they realize that nearly every part of the campus is, can, and should be an effective learning environment. There are many learning environments beyond the classroom. For pre-school and elementary programs, perhaps chief among them is the playground. Large amounts of research show the tremendous value of playgrounds in supporting student learning; but those playgrounds must be S.A.F.E. That acronym stands for:

  1. Supervision
  2. Age-appropriate design
  3. Fall-surfacing
  4. Equipment maintenance[15]

Olsen, Hudson, and Thompson, who founded the National Program for Playground Safety, have identified the above four elements as essential indicators to guide school leaders in the operation of playgrounds that genuinely support learning.[16] Trusted school leaders also identify the value of a similar approach to cafeterias, auditoriums, community gathering spaces, libraries, green spaces, athletic facilities, computer and robotics labs, science labs, space dedicated to innovation, etc.

So much of the work of the school leadership revolves around safety and protecting the school community from potential distractions that would keep teachers from keeping the main thing the main thing.

Maintaining and updating aging school facilities, in order to keep them safe, is one of the shared realities of the vast majority of school leaders. For example, while at AAI, we celebrated our 85th year of operation – 70 of which on the same property. Then, when I served at Colegio Menor, I found myself in the very fortunate position of Head of School at a new campus, where our oldest building was 4 years old. Today, at DCS, our PS-8 campus is less than 10 years old, but our High School campus is much closer to the national average of 42 years.[17] Another report showed that “in 2013, spending on construction, renovation, and maintenance of U.S. schools totaled nearly $30 billion.”[18]

Careful and strategic budgeting and planning, focused on facility maintenance and meeting students’ ever-changing needs, is an essential discipline of trusted school leaders which results in protecting teachers from numerous potential distractions, and contributes to a high level of trust.

©2018 Toby A. Travis, Ed.D. All Rights Reserved


[1] Daniel R. Tomal and Craig A. Schilling, Resource Management for School Administrators: Optimizing Fiscal, Facility, and Human Resources (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2013), 199-200, Kindle.

[2] Pigozzi and Mau, The Third Teacher, 46-47, Kindle.

[3] Ibid., 418-419, Kindle. Also see: P. J. C. Sleegers, N. M. Moolenaar, M. Galetzka, A. Pruyn, B.E. Sarroukh, and B. V. D. Zande, “Lighting affects students’ concentration positively: findings from three Dutch studies,” Lighting Research and Technology (2012): 1-17.

[4] Pigozzi and Mau, The Third Teacher, 36-37, Kindle.

[5] Ibid., 56-58, Kindle.

[6] Ibid., 402-403, Kindle.

[7] “What is Tinnitus?” Hearing Health Foundation, accessed 4 June 2016, http://hearinghealthfoundation.org/what_is_tinnitus.

[8] Pigozzi and Mau, The Third Teacher, 404-406, Kindle. Also see: Pamela Woolner and Elaine Hall, “Noise in schools: A holistic approach to the issue,” International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health 7, no. 8 (2010): 3255-3269.

[9] Pigozzi and Mau, The Third Teacher, 420, Kindle.

[10] Ibid., 48-49, Kindle. Also see: John S. Brown, “21st Century Learning Environments,” Partnership for 21st Century Skills (2006): 1-29.

[11] Woolner, The Design of Learning Spaces, 46, Kindle.

[12] Pigozzi and Mau, The Third Teacher, 554-555, Kindle.

[13] Joel D. Levitt, Facilities Management: Managing Maintenance for Buildings and Facilities (New York: Momentum Press, 2013), 84-86, Kindle.

[14] Ibid, 182-184, Kindle.

[15] Heather M. Olsen, Susan D. Hudson, and Donna Thompson, SAFE and Fun Playgrounds: A Handbook (St. Paul, MN: Redleaf Press, 2016), 131-132, Kindle.

[16] National Program for Playground Safety, accessed 23 June 2016, http://www.playgroundsafety.org.

[17] Ibid., 26-27, Kindle.

[18] Ibid., 25-26, Kindle.



  1. The thoughts expressed here are truly global. What bothers me most is the considered way in which leaders allow learning to be disrupted as though it is their prerogative!

    Liked by 1 person

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