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.