Tag Archives: Belonging

Forward Reflections: The Essence of Belonging in the Journey Ahead

Sometimes I am guilty of stating the obvious. To steer clear of this, I instead wish to provoke the reader with a few questions. As summer comes to an end and a new academic year looms on the horizon, how might summer’s final quiet moments of deep reflection result in action? Further, are you taking time to consider ways in which classrooms and entire school communities can be impregnated by a critical and omnipotent sense of belonging?  

Education: A Crucible for Molding Minds and Shaping the Future

For many, August is the new September as school will start well before Labor Day. Regardless of timing, the next month surely will witness a coming back to life for schools. Regardless of the preparation on the part of teachers and administration, it will be students who ultimately breathe life back into the shells we call school. Bustling hallways, the clamor of youthful footsteps, and hopefully an echoing of far more questions than answers. Discovery. Pervasive in schools and society, but also paradoxical, is an elusive treasure: belonging. More than a feeling, belonging need not be like a hidden oasis in an arid desert, for it holds the power to quench the parched spirit and genius to soon step into our schools. Torrents of uncertainty and the biting winds of isolation can be quelled. Yet, it won’t just happen. We, as educators, must deliberately set the stage. Taylor Mali’s slam poetry performance, “What Difference Does a Teach Make,” remains gospel as there is no space for the self-deprecating claim, “I’m just a teacher.” 

Education has, does, and will always serve as a crucible for molding minds and shaping the future. Definitely not a role to be underestimated. In this molding and shaping, a sense of belonging must be the lifeblood of all we do. Belonging naturally courses through the veins of learning but also the fragile tendrils of what it means to live. Though there are countless studies of belonging across multiple disciplines, including education, sociology, and psychology, we know, no proof is necessary to support the idea that belonging is an innate and essential human need. Before the “gates” open and students pour into school, it serves us well to not only consider but make a plan for how we might create a greater sense of belonging in our school communities.  

Three Strategies to Develop Belonging

  1. Know Your Students: Create opportunities for students to share their unique stories. President Theodore Roosevelt said it best, “No one cares how much you know until they know how much you care.” Take an honest interest in students and foster inclusivity and diversity, modeling care so students similarly take a genuine interest in not only knowing but appreciating each other. Considering Betsy Butler’s, “11 Tried and True Strategies for Getting to Know Your Studentsas a sort of a la carte menu may help foster connections.
  1. Deliberately Design Learning Which Integrates Community: Encourage collaboration not just between students but also across the entire community. Communicate with parents and invite others in, but also consider how students’ learning might be able to make a positive impact on the larger community. One such school that navigated this paradigmatic shift is Iowa BIG. One example is their half-day option for juniors and seniors from three districts to conduct community-connected projects for core credit. For more on this, see feature and podcast
  1. Provide Support and Resources: Aside from dedicated student support services, integrate peer-to-peer tutoring and encourage participation in a range of extracurricular and club activities. Don’t leave it to counseling centers alone to support students with self-esteem, stress management, and building healthy relationships. By providing the support students need, there will be a strengthening of being valued and truly feeling like one belongs. Veteran teacher Tim Smyth shares in, “The Truth About SEL. It Works,” the importance of connecting with students on a human-to-human level. “We’re all going through something, every one of us, especially teenagers. They have a right to be mad, have a right to be sad, a right to be joyful.”

Ultimately, schools must foster a profound sense of belonging among students, faculty, and families. This does not just happen but requires intentional practices that nurture inclusivity, connection, and support. Deliberate actions are necessary for the seeds of belonging to be sown. Seeds to be watered, sunned, and shaded; allowing students to flourish and thrive within the nurturing embrace of their educational community.

WELL Certification: Building for Health and Wellness

So, who already is setting the stage for creating spaces that lend themselves to greater belonging? Jeff Platenberg, Assistant Superintendent of Fairfax County Public Schools (FCPS) shared, “Safety and well-being of our students and staff is our top priority. Ensuring that our buildings are optimized to provide a healthy learning and work environment is a critical part of that effort.” FCPS in turn earned the WELL Health-Safety Rating. LEED, standing for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, is well known the world over and is a certification focusing on environmental impact and sustainability. One requirement to become certified involves the integration of healthy, sustainable construction practices. Green Business Certification Incorporation (GBCI) administers the LEED certification program and in July 2020, developed WELL Certification. WELL takes it one step further, and focuses on people’s health and wellness. It is “a performance-based system for measuring, certifying, and monitoring features of the built environment that impact human health and wellbeing, through air, water, nourishment, light, fitness, comfort, and mind.” Hundreds of experts across academia, public health, medicine, government, and real estate provided input, and now schools, startups, and Fortune 500s are utilizing the certification as a seal of prioritization. When we recognize a student will spend more than 15,000 hours at school in their lifetime, it behooves us to create more healthy environments.  

Forward Ho! Lovers of Truth and Good!”

In the tapestry of education, tolerance and welcoming are no longer enough. Appreciation and belonging are what will weave the threads of connection, understanding, inclusion, and empathy. Threads that will create a foundation where students can grow, flourish, and find their place in this vast world. Poet and playwright Charles Harpur said it best in “Forward Ho!” 

And doubt not, the earth that has grown old in sorrow

Shall grow young again in the light of that morrow.

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A Return to Authenticity

I don’t remember anyone ever using the word “authentic” back in the 1990s. Now, we hear about being authentic in how we lead, traveling to experience the authentic, and even how to cook authentic pasta. The push towards greater automation and artificial intelligence possibly propels us further toward falsity and maybe has us yearning for authenticity even more.  

Brené Brown, researcher and storyteller says, “Authenticity is a collection of choices that we have to make every day. It’s about the choice to show up and be real. The choice to be honest. The choice to let our true selves be seen.” Maybe this infers a need to increase human levels of consciousness, from an approach of a concentric circle, starting with oneself. The choice to take a step back and authentically “audit” our lives. Releasing ourselves from the stranglehold of technology is a fantastic starting point. Thankfully, we are already beginning to see a march toward an inevitable tipping point. An evolution of sorts, where an invitation to remove the tethering to a phone, computer, tablet, or wearables, is accepted with greater willingness and alacrity.

First, rewind. In the summer of 2017, I was leading a two-week student expedition in Iceland. As a part of orientation, we proposed a tech fast for a day. “Give yourself a break. A chance to fully be present. Instead of rushing to take a photo or send a Snapchat (mind you, this was a year before TikTok merged with Musical.ly and became available in the U.S.).” To see 15 pairs of teenage eyes bulging and turned upwards in disbelief is a site to see. It was further compounded by one bold student’s “authentic” quip, “Why?” With an added emphasis on fully drawing out the “iiiiiiiii.” Needless to say, it was a tough sale.  

Not Entirely Connected

Fast forward six years and the expectation on these same expeditions is a tech-free first seven days. Further, it is something students and families agree to. The statement being made is one centering on being intentional about technology, so students can fully engage in the experience, build a stronger sense of community in their group, and strengthen skills in creating interpersonal relationships. All are critical to an increasing need for connection. The irony is that in a hyper-connected world, digitally, there are many signs on the wall that we are feeling less sense of human connection. Of belonging.

Senior writer of the New York Times, David Leonhardt, imparts how academic research provides evidence for how digital technology is leading to less happiness, especially for teenagers. Yet, despite the magnitude of findings, “Sometimes, the totality of the evidence is stronger than the average correlation across a group of artificial experiments.” 

To Do What is Right by Children

So, what might schools and parents do? Instead of what appears a happenstance default to, if a phone can be afforded, and a child wants it, put it in their hands. Critical is for adults to step up. To educate themselves on the advantages and pitfalls of a world being overrun by technology. A world where “typical” American teens supposedly spend half their waking hours on smartphones. A component of stepping up is taking back ownership of the decision-making process. This need not be contested by children as more often than not, it is the adult responsible for shelling out the hundreds of dollars for the device(s) and monthly internet charges. In essence, “children’s phones” are simply on loan. So, it is the adult who rightly can, and arguably should, make such decisions as how much screen time is “right.” When Lisa Damour, psychologist and author, began to implement tech use in her home, the response of her children mirrored a sentiment I recently witnessed on recent outdoor outings with teens. Not only did they not put up a fight but the response resembled a sense of relief.  Damour elaborated how “it did wonders for our family to limit screen time. They are coming back to life. They are more social. They talk instead of shrug and when they get home from school they don’t run up the stairs and close themselves in their rooms. They seem happier and aren’t in such a rush to get back to their phones…and my thirteen and fourteen-year-olds actually went outside. To play. I know, I couldn’t believe it either.”

Similar results were found at Chatelech Secondary School in British Columbia after a 5- month revamping of cell phone use at school, “We are seeing improved mental health, we’re seeing decreased bullying, we’re seeing more engagement in class, we’re seeing more social interaction, kids are playing again instead of being on their phones and we’re seeing increased academic success.” The response when the policy was introduced was also similar. Some students were angry and upset, while others, “were extremely relieved.”

Awakening to What Truly is Authentic

If these examples are not enough to build credence, it may prove beneficial to examine the paradox happening in Silicon Valley where for the last few years, more than a handful of billionaires have said no to screen time for children. A few quotes to ponder include the likes of Melinda Gates and Steve Jobs.

“Phones and apps aren’t good or bad by themselves, but for adolescents who don’t yet have the emotional tools to navigate life’s complications and confusions, they can exacerbate the difficulties of growing up: learning how to be kind, coping with feelings of exclusion, taking advantage of freedom while exercising self-control.” ~Melinda Gates

“It literally changes your relationship with society, with each other. It probably interferes with productivity in weird ways. God only knows what it’s doing to our children’s brains.” ~Steve Jobs

The dawning days are behind us. We need not be confused by the likes of ChatGPT and popular media proposing all things artificial intelligence. Rather, there is an awakening, a return to authenticity. A world of purpose. Of balance and intention. A world of far greater connection. Connected with our surroundings, with each other, and to ourselves. Free from the complexities that technology often presents. Lives of “authenticity.”

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Why to Listen Like a Bird Watcher

What if we approached each day like a bird watcher? Poised, observant, and listening attentively. Such a sagacious approach might translate into a clear differentiation between a “digitally” connected world and what it means to truly be connected. Amidst the increasing prevalence of decomposing communities and growing isolation, it might do humanity well, or even just ourselves. Pause is necessary, as is examining the choices we make. Computers and cell phones, not unlike firearms, cannot and should not entirely shoulder the blame. Rather, it behooves us to closely examine whether we are using the technology, or if it is “using” us.  

Countless bowed heads stare at 5-inch screens, drowning humanity in ubiquitous distraction. A relatively recent “dependence” now is considered “normal.” An addictive habit arguably acts as interference in our ability to relate one human to another. Though not entirely true because one must consider how tech is utilized. Still, vying for our attention is very real. One recent report cites how our brain consumes 11 million bits of information every second.  Trapped in such a hurricane, might we return to center? Where possibly at the eye of such a storm is suspended madness; poise and high regard for the art of conversation.

A world of opportunity circulates all around us. If only we will look up in stillness. Like a bird watcher.

If only we will listen.

Like a bird watcher.

Listening is Difficult

One of the beauties about listening is that is free, and yet so rare. An equalizer of sorts, as listening, cannot be correlated with socio-economics, race, or politics. Though there are listening “skills,” to listen is more a question of willingness than technique. Seth Godin maintains that listening is difficult. “The hardest step in better listening is the first one: do it on purpose. Make the effort to actually be good at it.”

Five years ago I likely would have scoffed at the idea of relationships being forged in an online setting. Students would share how they had “friends” online that they gamed with, talked/chatted with, etc. An inkling of intrigue often led to my asking an array of questions, a desire to understand this “phenomenon” better. Yet, I always grew a little more than disbelieving. The start of a COVID school year online, however, offered my own experience and a window into what it was like to develop relationships online. At the time there was a disagreement about whether or not students should be required to show their faces. Forced as it was, sometimes coaching students to appear on screen was required. All the while, it was interesting to consider how much we might value seeing a person if we are speaking with them. Did it have something to do with visual cues provided to indicate whether students were truly listening?

A Sense of Belonging is Embedded in Re-Imagining Learning 

Fast forward a few years as I dove deeper into the “waters” of what it might be like to develop relationships in an online setting. One big difference was that students elected to enroll in the online course. Of equal importance was that Global Online Academy (GOA) was not “just another” online educational platform. Behind GOA was a vision for a new educational system eager to adapt to students, rather than asking students to adapt to educational systems in decay. Their mission is to reimagine learning to empower students and educators to thrive in a globally networked society. A component of this reimagining learning includes teacher competency to build collaborative communities. Students should not feel isolated but instead, invited into communities that are built on trust, care, collaboration, and high expectations. A place where students feel connected but also empowered. More equitable systems and structures are embedded in such a design, in an effort to create a more socially just world. Learning to listen is a cornerstone and one strategy employed throughout GOA courses are routine opportunities for students and teachers to connect via Zoom meetings. Never under the auspices of a lectured approach, synchronous time is regarded as “gold.” Student and teacher locations span the globe, and such collaboration allows for new perspectives, as conversations are infused with differing cultural and life experiences. Wellsprings waiting to be tapped, however wholly hinged on a willingness to listen. 

Video Use as a Medium to Build Relationships

A routine assignment employed in the GOA course I facilitated was video reflection at the end of a module. The power of these 2-dimensional recordings can not nor should be underestimated. After the second video, I felt like I knew some students better than I sometimes knew students in an in-person setting after a year. Why? A degree of the power could come down to a distilled approach, the essence being conveyed. But also a greater degree of willingness to be vulnerable as students just looked at the camera and talked. Without the worry of what the listener might be thinking or might say. 

Surely we all have found ourselves at one time or another, thinking about what we are going to say in a conversation and not really listening. Wanting to take OUR turn. However, in this case, it’s a talking head approach. Linear, from A to M (or maybe Z!), with no stops or interjections of the listening. 

To truly experience relationship building requires an honest willingness to listen to students talk for, 5-minutes at a time. Simon Sinek asserts the need for change so the focus is on input and not the customary output. Maybe a bit of an investor mentality is what is required. To listen to a 5-minute video is not much. However, multiplied by twenty students, suddenly requires nearly two hours. And how often do we just listen for two hours? 

Understanding that conversations, like relationships, are not one-way, meant I often responded in video form. This too takes time but has the potential to pay huge dividends. To build relationships but also provide the necessary quality of feedback students can learn from. Often congratulatory but also balanced and encouraging growth. For example feedback on the important role of feedback, “Abigail I understand how you do not want to come off as critiquing someone and I appreciate this. However, you have so much to offer and what might help is if you are intentional about separating the individual from the work/art/assignment. We each have our perspective and I’ve seen how you can offer truly valuable feedback.”

This video exchange approach spurs the conditions ripe for developing a community and a sense of belonging. These relationships developed out of conversations follow a different rhythm, however, are incredibly rich. Possible because we truly are listening to each other. How many students have a chance to share with a teacher for five uninterrupted minutes? And how many receive five minutes of personal and specific feedback?    

This is special. A reimagining of methods of learning which truly create belonging and empowerment. Methods aligned with the acumen of Brene Brown, “We have to listen to understand in the same way we want to be understood.”

A Difference Between Hearing and Listening

I wonder sometimes if certain students listen just so they can speak. The beginning of each school year requires a bit of time to develop a community unwilling to tolerate speakers interrupting each other. This is similar in Zoom and yet the presence of lag seemingly builds in a tendency to be more patient and wait for your turn to speak. To listen with true intent requires slowing down.  Simone Buitendijk, Vice-Chancellor at the University of Leeds shares, “We need to practice the art of talking with intent and, more importantly, the art of listening with intent.” Adding earnest in our lives, as we trade an ounce of narcism for a pound of that which extends beyond ourselves. This does not mean abandoning the likes of Instagram, nor must we be hard-pressed to develop listening habits overnight. Instead, a growing consciousness of the power of being present is required. As well, equal parts intentionality and habit, as we move beyond mere hearing. In Dr. Kristen Fuller’s “The Difference Between Hearing and Listening,” she emphasizes how “Listening requires empathy, curiosity, and motivation.” 

Tis’ the Season to Give the Gift of Our Time and Attention

One might hear the morning bird song out the window.

Then, make a conscious choice to slow down, remove distractions (yes, that cell phone!), and listen. 

If only we will listen.

Like a bird watcher.

To truly listen to the birds may just result in a calming of the nervous system, as well as a greater sense of connection. Such a choice need not cease with the birds. Think what might result when we begin to listen with intention to each other! The choice is ours. 

Why not slow down, be present and give the gift of our time and attention?

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Communities of Belonging

Teaching internationally sometimes is like being inside a cocoon.  School days typically in English. The comforts, routines, and rhythms in our new “homes” are similar; often little difference whether in Cairo, Shanghai, or Rio de Janeiro. Of course architecturally they may differ, yet our lives therein, not so changed.  In most cases, it would be a long shot to claim it is a hardship to teach in accredited international schools.  So comfortable, we may even have to go out of the way to feel vulnerable. Still, the fact remains that always outside the doors of home or school is “the different.”  Or more apt, the reflection that we are the “outsider.”   This possibly is the motivation behind our being abroad.   

And we are lucky for this chance. 

The fact being, we made the choice. We also have the option of how far we might “dive into” the host culture.  Fathoms deep, we may break the surface, challenging ourselves to begin learning the language.  Yet, regardless we will remain “the outsider.”  A feeling sometimes that could even be distressing.

Yet, we are lucky for this chance (refrain).

For the Times, They Are a Changing

How many people truly have the choice to navigate into and out of a dominant culture? Few I would argue.  Instead, so many are without this privilege. They simply nod their head, stand in line, and follow antiquated systems of organization and inequity.  Forced to play by what some may call, “the rules of the game.”

Singer Bob Dylan probably said it best,

And the present now will soon be the past

The order is rapidly fading

The first one now will later be last

For the times, they are a changing

The times are definitely changing.  So too are the “rules.”

International School Leadership Holds a Mirror Up to Themselves

Many of us were not aware, how during the spring of 2019, the Diversity Collaborative, a voluntary group of international educators, initiated a research study by partnering with ISC Research and George Mason University. “The goal was to survey the field of accredited international schools to establish a baseline of information in the international school sector about school leadership and diversity.”  2,676 accredited international schools received the survey and an informative three-and-a-half minute video summarized the results.  

Mind you this is pre-pandemic and more than a year before the murder of George Floyd.  Even earlier, in 2017 The Diversity Collaborative was established, in effort to commit to creating and sustaining a more diverse, inclusive, equitable, and just international school community through our focus on leadership.

In an often myopic world bent on entropy, it is refreshing to have such good news. 

Others Help Pave the Way

Within governmental agencies there is even a push for more diversity and inclusivity.  This is evident, regardless of the stir caused by the CIA’s recent recruitment campaign titled, “Humans of CIA.”  According to an article titled, “Unpacking the CIA’s cringey recruiting strategy,” the push for diversity is not new. “In 1994, then-CIA director R. James Woolsey said in testimony before the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence that “the ability to understand a complex, diverse world—a world which is far from being all white male—is central to our mission.”

According to McKinsey & Co, companies spend $8 billion a year on diversity training.  Yet, this is just a start.  Camille Chang Gilmore, Boston Scientific’s global chief diversity officer says it best. “Diversity is a given, inclusion is a choice, equity is a goal. Belonging is our ultimate end point.” 

Belonging.

And isn’t this paradox seemingly woven into the fabric of 21st century life?  Always connected but more disconnected than ever; an increasingly socially isolated world.  The belonging Gilmore speaks of is almost tribal, a systemic need. It remains even more paramount when power structures are left unchecked; fraternal in their decisions of who allowed in the “room where it happens.” Or, who ultimately belongs.

But, as we have heard, “The times are a changing.” 

In the school where I teach, a recent DEIJ statement was crafted to be used on the school’s website, admissions application, handbooks, etc.  One part specifically attests to the importance of belongingness.  

“Our community is actively engaged in reflection and action planning to ensure that our school is creating and maintaining an inclusive culture where everyone feels they belong and where our students leave with the attitudes, values, and tools they need to enrich the world.”

The Survey

The data from the 2019 survey helped form a baseline for The Diversity Collaborative’s work.  This year another survey was launched (closing on May 30th) and is more detailed, requiring respondents to dig deeper into the roles of their leadership teams.  The initial question is a declaration of the region of the school. Following this, nationality and race/ethnicity are defined so there is shared understanding and clarity.  The survey then asks for the respondent to declare the gender, nationality based on passport, and ethnicity of the head of school. Then, questions are asked regarding the number, gender, and nationalities of members on the leadership team, as well as whether or not the leadership team has educators from the country where the school is located. The same questions are asked but this time about the school’s board members. Last, the 22-question survey repeats the questions but as they pertain to schools’ teachers.

Now What?

International schools are definitely interested in keeping pace and walking alongside the global communities they serve. Data gathering is but one small step.  Reflection, policies, professional development, partnerships, advocacy and action are all in process.  Ralph Waldo Emerson attested to the gravitas of action. “What you do speaks so loudly that I cannot hear what you say.” The Diversity Collaborative shared in a recent presentation a very clear statement of action in this regard. 

“We recognize that the changes described will take time and resources,  but that just adds to the urgency for all of us engaged with international schools to act without delay to start to dismantle the systems that have prevented some outstanding educators from becoming international  school leaders and to build a more equitable and inclusive international  school sector so that educators of all backgrounds thrive.”

Helpful Links for More Information
ISS Diversity Collaborative
2019 Infographic of the results
For any survey questions, please reach out to [email protected]

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