Back to School Blue: A Word on Belonging

It is the month of school, the time when families from all over come together to deposit their most precious beings into the hands of others, who for some reason or another have found themselves in the business of educating. It is the time when teachers and administrators rub elbows, pull up sleeves and invest time in reconnecting with each other, with the hum drum of an old, or new, school building, putting up bright posters and stamping names into books in order to put some kind of rhyme and reason to the daily routine of schooling. Summer trails not too far behind. Was it a dream, after all? Where do I fit in, in this new space that once was mine but now seems to have taken on a new shape, a new face? Time does that you know. It makes the same feel new and the new quickly feel the same. Frankly, I love the air that September brings. If anything, it brings new beginnings and curiosity. Will the dreams that I built in the sand over the summer break or unfold?

My memories of school trickle back every September, now more than anything since my own children are old enough to remember. My son is attending my old stomping ground and through him I am revisiting an old place I used to call my own. I listen into the silence of my daily walk and remember the joy and the pain of growing up and mostly, the overwhelming need to belong. I remember all the schools I attended, all the people I befriended and realize that year after year I was always, always looking for belonging. In many ways, my education failed me in that respect, or was it society in general, I don’t know – but yearning to belong is in my memory like a legacy. Why did I need this so much? Why was it so difficult to find, this ethereal feeling of belonging. What is it to belong anyway?

Somehow the need to belong is built into our DNA. Yes, I believe this is true. Don’t you? It is one of the basic needs of the human being. Should I tell you that Maslow said so for it to be true? And yet, I find that very few youngsters feel like they really belong at school. Kids are so cruel to one another. The clicks and gangs and groups that are formed quickly spread throughout the school building establishing rules and imaginary criteria for fitting in. Perhaps not so imaginary, really. Do kids still group themselves by race, ethnicity, and language these days? Yes, I believe they do. Teachers do, haven’t you noticed? Not everywhere, not always — but in many schools and more often than you think. Why? Probably because many of us still believe we are attracted to those most like us. We assume that we probably agree on most things if we share the same background. In schools where at least 50% of the teachers are middle and upper class whites teaching in schools where 100% of the kids are poor, black, Latino and immigrant populations – well, there is much to talk about when it comes to grouping, belonging, identity. Of course, these issues are by no means exclusive to inner city schools. Prep schools and private schools are equally plagued with the right to fit in, class and status issues sometimes trump race, but not always. More often than not, it is exactly, exactly the same albeit articulated differently. In the inner city, black, Latino and Asian teachers cringe when they listen to white teachers complain about certain students and behaviors and white teachers feel like they couldn’t possibly understand what it’s like to be a white teacher in front of angry brown kids. Further uptown, white teachers teach brown teachers the status quo and parents fight for diversity initiatives that never really get off the ground because somehow, somewhere with all the diversity around diversity seems not to be working. And perhaps they’re right. Perhaps, we are ALL right. We are divided amongst ourselves, aren’t we? Aren’t we?

We communicate that to our kids. Every time we describe a person by racial terms or by the amount of money they have or by their job title, we are dividing ourselves and sorting and selecting based on the illusion that we are different. So even the kids of the current generation who have significantly more exposure to multiple perspectives and people of all kinds than we ever did on television and the Internet – don’t really have access (real access) to people unlike themselves except for the people they might encounter at school. That’s why schools become the microcosm of our society. It is the place. Our own complex feelings about belonging in a diverse society, a society plagued with materialism and inequities often misinterpreted through the lens of race (a label that really has nothing to do with the color of your skin and yet has everything to do with the color of your skin)– are transferred to our students every day. Where does the “I” in “we” really belong, anyway? Regardless of all of the confusion, belonging continues to be a pre-requisite for life.

How can we create a sense of belonging for our students and ourselves? How can we break free from the labels and assumptions and stereotypes and desires and fears that continue to isolate ourselves from the universal human experience? Is there a possibility of something else, perhaps another place where we can meet eye to eye? Is it possible to create a leveled playing field? If we live in isolation of one another we can never experience true belonging. If belonging is one of our basic human needs, we can never fully develop our true potential without it.

I would like to make a suggestion. Let’s say that humans are at a critical point in their evolution and that we now have the power to exist above and independent of the material plane and that we have the power to determine the shape and content of our daily experience. Think about this. Read it again. Then ask yourself this: If we could transcend the material plane, how might we see human beings differently? What would we see? There is a unique perception, a higher state of awareness, so to speak that is key in our understanding of human potential and I am asking you to consider this possibility as you begin to contemplate belonging. Not just belonging, but the belonging that will be your responsibility in your school, in your classroom, in your intimate space called teaching and learning space, the space that you will share every day with your colleagues and your students. How can you see yourself and your students differently? How can you help them develop their true potential?

Here is another suggestion. Know yourself. Know your students. What is this sense of knowing that I refer to, that Gardner (1999) refers to? How does this sense of knowing oneself and others create a sense of belonging? Can we deliberately create the conditions in which teacher and students have access to this sense of knowing, this sense of belonging in our classroom? This is probably the most important question that you need to think about when planning your school year – whatever your subject may be — because it is here, in this search that you will understand your purpose and the power of teaching.

In the first month of school you will inevitably earn the respect or lose the respect of your students. It is that simple. Rarely will you regain respect if it is lost. It’s possible, but rare. Many new teachers reading this might not understand this yet, but you will soon. Other more experienced teachers understand this rule, but still struggle to be successful early in the year. You might ask what does respect have to do with belonging? Well, my dear friend, I am going to tell you a secret. Remember this. The students in front of you – you know the ones that will be in your care for the next ten months — all know the thing that you might not be ready to accept. And that is, belonging is one of the basic human needs and no teaching or learning will take place without it. If you value the humanity in yourself and in the young souls in your care enough to diligently, purposefully and strategically create a sense of belonging in your classroom, you will earn their respect for the rest of the year. Why? Because respect is born out of the seed of humanity- it is the place where we all meet and all see each other as we truly are – this is human potential. Trust me and take the first step.

3 responses to “Back to School Blue: A Word on Belonging”

  1. FreshlyAged Avatar

    Yes, yes, so well put when you write: “This is when a student is ready to fend for themselves!” Because what you're saying is once you find your own voice, your true self then you will possess (or gain) the strengh of character to be yourself regardless of what others may say, think, or feel. I think this is a critical concept that educators must embrace. For a student to find his own voice, teachers must create a classroom environment that focuses on each student's individual interests, passions, and strengths then “direct” the student toward pursuing his interests instead of “restricting” the student to conform to a generalized, one-size-fits-all classroom curriculum.

    For instance, if I were an English teacher and I have a student who is obsessed with video games. Should I deride him for being interested in “such nonsense” and discipline him when I constantly catch him playing games in class? Or should I “tailor” his assignments that would have him researching and writing on different aspects (which are enormous) of the video game industry? Or should I “force” him to do the same assignments as every other student on subject matters that clearly he (nor the other students, and oftentimes nor the teacher!) has absolutely any interest or passion. Unfortunately, public education would dictate that I perform the latter.

    To me, Raquel, this is when the concept of diversity comes into play. An inner-city student's socio-economic background differs from that of a student of upper-class suburbia, yet these students can have similar interests and passions. The difference is that those of the inner-city student generally are rarely acknowldeged and nurtured; while those of the upper-class student are honored, developed, and guided. You talked some on this issue in one of your other postings which I found to be so insightful. And all of this comes right back to what you suggested in this posting: that teachers and students must be allowed to have the space to become their true selves–to teach and learn about things that are relevant and that speak from their own voices.

  2. Raquel Rios, Ph.D.,   Executive Director Avatar

    I am glad that your comment speaks to the fear of not being accepted especially when many of us are still struggling to know ourselves – which makes us feel more sensitive to outside ridicule. This fear will often stop us from engaging in activities that we find joy in — as you well stated – how might our painting or song compare? Education, I suggest, has the potential of allowing both teacher and student the space to become their true selves. In giving this respect and freedom to be — you liberate your own voice. Once you find your own truth, your inner self — the opinion of the outside world will hardly matter. This is when a student it ready to fend for themselves!

  3. FreshlyAged Avatar

    Every single word you've written here is absolutely on-point and relevant. I totally agree that each one of us, especially each student in every classroom, needs to feel a sense of belonging on a personal level. And you pose the question as to whether it is “enough” to belong to a group according to race, ethnicity, class, etc., when apparently it is not enough to “fit in.” Because then all one would need to do is to always stay within his particular “group.”

    I believe that “belonging” extends beyond those physical, racial, and socio-economic identifiers which in the end are quite superficial. I believe we each have to feel that the “thing” which makes us unique, which makes us special within our own skin is the very “thing” that makes us insecure, afraid, different, and alone. That “thing” is, I believe, the “specialness” that God gave to each individual which is the stamp called “me.”

    What makes “me” afraid of “you” and everyone else who is NOT “me?” Will you accept “me” for who I am even as I struggle to know that for myself? Maybe it's the song that lives in my throat that I am afraid to sing. Maybe it's the pictures I see in my eyes that I am afraid to paint. Why? Because my song, and my pictures might not be good enough, unacceptable next to others which might represent the norm.

    I think if we find in each student that “thing” that is his own unique “me” stamp, then he will feel as if he belongs. It's not so difficult to do, really. Everybody has something that “makes him tick.” Teachers, parents must find that “thing” in every student, child–respect it, and help him celebrate it! When a person feels “safe” about what makes him DIFFERENT or UNIQUE; and “respected” (as you rightly stated)in his uniqueness, he at the same time will feel as if he belongs. The kid slumped in the corner–he has a special “thing” that makes him tick. The one over there, always the life-of-the-party … is it a charade–what REALLY makes him tick? The one who never smiles–what's his “thing?” It's there, that “thing” that will make him fit in, make him feel as if he belongs. We must find it … deep beneath the layers of race, ethnicity, color, social status, etc., and praise it.


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