Kris and I recently attended the Learning & the Brain conference in NYC, which was centered around the importance of social connectedness and belonging in education. The topic resonated with me as I reflected on my own years in school, my first year as a teacher and subsequent years in the classroom, and finally my current relationship-centered work at Astra. It’s also mirrored in Cheryl’s recent blog, where school wasn’t a place where she felt like she could be without armor.
One session I’m holding close right now started with the presenter asking attendees to call to mind a time when, in our professional lives, we felt like we didn’t belong. They asked us to recall it as vividly as we could, thinking about what was happening and what we felt in our bodies.
I thought of my first day of summer planning at my former (and beloved) school. I didn’t know anybody, and everyone else seemed to share this sense of closeness of which I was very much outside. We were in the gym, with the doors to the outside propped open to encourage the tiny amount of air flow the room got. I was sitting quietly, taking much longer than I needed to open my notebook and select the right pen. I felt utterly alone, even as my new co-workers excitedly shouted greetings and hugged one another.
A few minutes after thinking and talking through our experiences of not belonging, the presenters asked us to think about a time in our professional lives where we felt a deep sense of belonging. I thought of the same school, also during summer planning, but a few years later. I felt like a part of the fabric of the school that I’d begun calling mine. This day of summer planning felt more like a family reunion than colleagues coming back together, with animated shouts of excitement at seeing each other and hugs and figuring out where to sit, both so I’d be near the cooler parts of the room and so that I wouldn’t be too distracted by the inevitable side conversations I’d have with friends.
When I looked at these two moments purely through the lens of belonging, it crystallized a few important job-related pieces for me:
1) Belonging can’t be magicked into a person or imbued into a space; it’s the result of time and work. The culture of any organization unfolds over time, and even if an organization takes meaningful steps to be inclusive from the start, belonging takes time to develop. The culture of my school was genuinely welcoming and lovely, but I had to be there and develop my own relationship to the work and the other people before I could feel it.
2) Unless you’re starting out at the very beginning of an organization, everyone starts on the outside looking in. The feeling of not belonging is a universal one--most everyone has had a first day where they didn’t know what was expected or where to find what they needed. So, when you feel like the one who doesn’t belong in a space, it can be helpful to remember you aren’t alone, and your feelings aren’t singular. This also means it’s incumbent upon folks who feel like they do belong to be generous with their time, expertise, and connectedness. It felt hard for me to remember that other people were likely feeling on the outside on that very first day, and it also felt hard to remember that disconnection in my subsequent years once I had that sense of belonging. We need to actively engage our empathy in moments when it’s likely people may not feel like they belong, and, when someone may be having a hard time, we need to think about how socially connected they may (or may not) be feeling.
3) Connection is everything, and it must be intentional. Humans are social creatures; we are meant to engage with one another. When the rules of how to do that aren’t clear and well-known, it can be difficult for people to know what to do and to genuinely form connections. Organizations and people in positions of power must go out of their way to make explicit their cultural norms and identify ways that will help build belonging. One of the things that most helped me shift toward feeling connected was to have multiple people (none in any supervisory capacity) who I could regularly meet with and ask questions of. So even though I spent much of my first year at staff meetings feeling some sense of loneliness, there were paths I was on that were helping me deepen my connections, and I didn’t have to find them on my own.
This post has focused on adult culture and the importance of creating a professional community that supports belonging, connection, and empathy. That culture is felt throughout the building, and helps us build that same sense of belonging and connection in our classrooms with our students (the topic of future posts!).
Do you work for a school or organization that helps its members feel a strong sense of connection? We’d love to know more! Tell us about it in the comments.
Image from Unsplash.com.