Blog Post

Q&A with Teachers Who Use Safety First: Thomas and Drew

Sasha Simon

The COVID-19 pandemic reveals the intricate layers between health education, public health and the resulting transmission and morbidity rates of communicable diseases – especially among BIPOC communities – that occur due to their absence or their thoughtful integration into school education.

I asked Safety First pilot teachers Drew Miller and Thomas Fulwiler to discuss the value and importance they see in teaching harm reduction-based drug education during the global pandemic. 

Drew Miller (left) and Thomas Fulwiler (right)

“They … feel respected and trusted, because they are being empowered with facts rather than manipulated or scared into making choices,” shared New York City-based Health teacher Drew Miller when we asked him how students responded to learning about harm reduction in his class. 

I first spoke with Miller after the initial pilot of Safety First in 2018 on our Drugs & Stuff Podcast to get his initial impressions teaching Safety First in the classroom. 

Yet there’s much more to say about the urgent need for harm reduction-based drug education, and it’s also why we have made our Safety First: Real Drug Education for Teens curriculum available for online, remote learning.

It was an incredible feat of organization and collaboration to condense a comprehensive fifteen-lesson curriculum with lesson plans, student worksheets and extension activities into two simple Google Docs: A Safety First Distance Learning Master Hyperdoc and a Teacher Readme that outlines how and why it was updated and includes teaching modifications for online learning. 

I worked in tandem with educators, youth development specialists and community health advocates to adapt Safety First for remote learning and teaching needs, making sure Safety First could meet the needs and concerns illuminated in the Spring 2020 semester and the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.

As a result, our distance learning version of Safety First:

  • Easily integrates into Google Classroom and other Google-compatible learning management systems
  • Allows for asynchronous student learning
  • Contains learning activities that can be completed collaboratively as a class, at home individually, or with a family member, parent or household member. 
  • Encourages media and health literacy skills, relying on vetted techniques such as the CRAAP Test
  • Maintains a trauma-informed approach

Read more from Miller and San Francisco-based Biology and Health teacher, Thomas Fulwiler, in our Q&A interview below.


Q: Would you recommend Safety First to other teachers?

Thomas Fulwiler: I highly recommend Safety First to all teachers who are teaching health education. It's one of the best, new curriculums that I have come across. It is very adaptable and the activities are engaging to students.  

Drew Miller: 100% yes. Whether you are an experienced health education teacher or newbie, the curriculum is full of up to date content and teaching methods that would benefit any curriculum.

Q: What do you think are the benefits of teaching harm reduction during the COVID-19 pandemic?

Fulwiler: I believe there are benefits in teaching harm reduction all the time! It is an approach without judgement and I feel that I cannot judge anyone for the choices they make, as an educator I can only provide information that will allow my students to make their own choices and provide them with information that may keep them safer. During the pandemic, students are still going to make choices and I can provide them information that may keep them safer. 

Miller: Harm reduction shows students that there are many reasons why individuals choose to use drugs. The curriculum digs into self-medication, which could not be more relevant during this time. Students themselves may be self-medicating, or they may witness their friends/family members self-medicating, so it’s crucial to being [in] the conversation.

Q: What are your greatest concerns for the upcoming school year?

Fulwiler: My greatest concern is that I am not going to be able to make the connections with all my new students. I spend a lot of time the first few weeks of school getting to know my students and doing team building activities and I am not sure how to do that online. 

Miller: My greatest concerns are for the overall wellness of the students. I think everyone wants students to get “back to normal”, but I do not believe it is safe to do so at this moment.  Students are stressed and anxious from last year, they miss their friends, and they may need to be motivated again after so much time of inactivity. It is going to be extremely challenging to meet students online and build relationships with them in that way, rather than having them in class 4 days a week and seeing them in the hallways. Relationships are essential to successful education.

Q: What is Safety First?

Fulwiler: Safety First is an amazing harm reduction-based drug education curriculum made for teens. It is engaging, interactive, and promotes critical thinking discussions among students and allows for safe sharing among students in a safe, non-judgemental environment. 

Miller: Safety First is a substance-use education curriculum that is intended for high school students. The curriculum is free to the public and is grounded in harm reduction theory. It focuses on giving students the facts to help them make the best and safest choices possible involving drugs.

Q: How did your students react to/engage with Safety First? 

Fulwiler: My students had a great time learning about substance use through a harm reduction lens. One student had commented that he had always heard from people to not use drugs and thought people that use them are bad until he had a clearer understanding of what a drug is and why people may use them. Students liked the freedom that the lesson allowed them to have in freely discussing their opinions in a non-judgemental environment. 

Miller: I’ve been using Safety First for over two years now and the students eat it up. They’ve never had lessons on drug use/safety that is so honest with them. Most students come into 9th grade with a few lessons on the dangers of drugs and alcohol, but the students really loved learning the information. They were inquisitive and asked tons of questions regarding what we talk about. They also feel respected and trusted, because they are being empowered with facts rather than manipulated or scared into making choices. 

Q: What was the most successful part of teaching Safety First in your classroom?

Fulwiler: The most successful part of teaching Safety First was the harm reduction strategies that are built within each lesson, which allowed all students to understand abstinence but that there may be a more realistic approach, meaning that if they ever choose to use drugs they are able to understand the safer strategies in using them. 

Miller: The most successful part of teaching Safety First is the way it destigmatizes people who use drugs. Traditionally, students come into class thinking all students who use drugs are “bad” or need help, but this curriculum shows that people use drugs on a continuum, and that most people who do use drugs are not addicted. The skill portion of the lessons were outstanding, and really put learning in the hands of the students. All lessons are aligned with the National Health Education Standards, so students are meeting state and national standards like accessing information, decision making, goal setting, and advocacy.

Q: What was the most challenging part of teaching Safety First in your classroom? 

Fulwiler: Within most lessons there are worksheets for the students to work on and after the first few lessons the students got tired of completing all the worksheets, as the teacher, it meant more student work for me to look over and give feedback to. 

Miller: The most challenging part was fitting all the information in! The curriculum is so thorough and provides so much information that I had to condense it so our school could finish our other units of instruction as well.

Q: Is a lot of preparation needed to teach Safety First? 

Thomas: Preparation for each lesson was minimal to say the least. Everything is provided from the teacher version lesson plan, teacher script, slides and worksheets for students. Everything is there, you just have to make it your own and you know your students the best in order to do that. Materials for some of the lessons are inexpensive to purchase and readily available at most stores, so no need to go out and search for things that are hard to find.

Miller: Since the way many teachers are educating students on drug education is vastly different than Safety First, yes, there is preparation needed to teach this curriculum. It took me a semester or two to become familiar with the content and the questions the students would ask.  I will say that the curriculum gives you all the information you need, plus additional resources, so it’s just a matter of reviewing and preparing prior to the lesson.

Q: What are the challenges and strengths of teaching health education online during a pandemic?

Fulwiler: The most challenging of teaching health education online is perhaps the inability to have class activities that allow students to think about the topic or as I like to say, "the what ifs." The strengths are that I am trying to be creative and I am able to do different lessons that I have never done before and be adaptable through it all. 

Miller: There are endless challenges while teaching during a pandemic. The biggest challenge is maintaining and prioritizing students’ individual mental and emotional wellness. This means that the curriculum you’re used to teaching in class has to be modified. On top of that, you are seeing your students much less frequently, which pushes a greater need for “need to know” vs. “nice to know” information.

Q: Can you identify which strengths are your students bringing to the 2020-2021 school year? How will those strengths serve them?

Fulwiler: I think students will bring a different perspective than past students. I feel they have gone and are going through something that past students have never gone through before. I believe they will be more resilient and bring more understanding and adaptability to the class then before.

Miller: One of the things I really like about BHSEC is that the students are not necessarily the smartest, but they are very curious and they ask a lot of deeper questions. Especially freshmen who are eager to please, ninth grade health education is a great environment for them to get to know each other better and learn more about themselves holistically.

Q: Can you identify which strengths your school is bringing to the 2020-2021 school year? How will those strengths serve students during this unprecedented school year?

Fulwiler: I feel, more specifically, my department is working more closely together than ever before. We are collaborating on lessons and breaking units down so it is not a burden that one teacher is doing it all and that all teachers are doing different lessons. I think this will help all students from all classes because they can get support from friends that may not be in their class but that student is still going to be familiar with the lesson. 

Miller: I think our school is putting students first when planning for this year.  We acknowledge that it is not going to be perfect, but we are going to do the best we can to make this as positive an experience as we can.  This means trauma-informed education, and really rethinking and being creative with the way instruction is delivered. By prioritizing students’ health and wellness during this time, students will feel safe, supported, and better able to learn.

Q: What will you do to support your own well-being during this unprecedented school year?

Fulwiler: I am spending a lot of time on my yard and focusing on redoing/ remodeling the inside of my place since this is where I spend my time now. 

Miller: We have experienced remote learning before, so I am aware of what to expect this fall.  I found many things that help me feel better, like reading for pleasure, meditating (Calm app), physical activity, chatting with friends, taking naps, and journaling. I will be sure to prioritize those throughout the semester.

Additional Information about Safety First Distance Learning Curriculum Teaching Preparation and Needs 

What do teachers need to do to prepare? E.g. Get comfortable in Google classrooms

In order to use the distance learning version of the Safety First curriculum, teachers need access to Google Classroom, which is free for educators and included with a G-Suite for Education subscription. Lesson preparation instructions are included for each lesson, including any necessary preparation or modifications for online learning.

What platforms do teachers need? E.g. Google Classroom/Zoom

There are only two easily accessible and highly utilized platforms that teachers need to use the distance learning version of Safety First: Google Classroom and Zoom. The curriculum takes advantage of many of the integrative features available in each.

How can teachers engage students/encourage active participation from a remote setting? E.g. Jamboard/Zoom Break-out Room

We use polls, Zoom breakout rooms and independent and group research activities that offer educators flexibility to meet their students where they are. 

In order to use our distance learning version of the Safety First curriculum, visit drugpolicy.org/safetyfirst to download it for free. 

Sasha Simon is senior program manager of Safety First at Drug Policy Alliance.