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
- 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 Students” as a sort of a la carte menu may help foster connections.
- 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.
- 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.