In bygone years, students typically experienced some degree of belonging at home. While this is still true for many students, more and more are missing out on that crucial experience. More and more are coming to us from homes broken by addiction, poverty, violence, and abandonment. The students who do have a positive home environment typically do fairly well in school. Our struggle is with those students coming from less functional environments.
For some of them, school is their place of belonging. One of my students addressed the class this year during a discussion on conflict management.
"I know I have been mean to some of you for many years, and I’m sorry for my anger. By the time I get to school in the morning, I’ve already dealt with so much junk that I’m in a bad mood when I get here. Then I set foot on this campus, and it’s like I get to start over. It’s like a weight has been lifted off of me. It’s a safe place where I can take a break from what I’m dealing with at home. But sometimes I bring the anger with me, and for that I’m sorry."
During the discussion, another student got up and gave him a hug. This second student was a great humorist but had no close friends at school and frequently got in trouble for poor social skills. He added:
"I understand what you are saying. My home is a mess too. Do you know why I wear this hat? (He pointed to a Seahawks cap.) You think it’s just because I like them. Really it’s because the only thing my family agrees on is that we are fans of this team. So when you guys keep taking my hat and hiding it, you’re taking my family."
No one touched his hat the rest of the year. After graduation a few weeks later, one of the students posted this about him on Facebook:
"Tonight we as a class said good bye to someone that has made us laugh, cry, and think really hard about what's important. We will miss you and I hope we will get to see you again; even if you probably won't ever see this, keep making people laugh."
Students must belong somewhere. Belonging is the middle step in Abraham Maslows hierarchy of needs: Physiological>Safety>Belonging>Self-esteem>Self-actualization. If they don’t feel welcome at home, and we don’t make them feel like they belong at school, I would not expect them to avoid joining a gang or expressing their need is some other negative way. If our job is to educate them, we can’t do it unless they feel like they belong.
So what can we do to foster this feeling? First students must know that they are welcome in our classroom. I try to look excited when students walk in the door. In those early morning minutes when some students are showing up to school more than a half hour early, I greet them all individually. If they were absent, I tell them that it’s good to have them back. Even if the student was absent due to a suspension for an infraction that occurred in my room, I still tell them I’m very glad to have them back. I also try to talk to them on their terms when possible. If I notice that one of them has a new skateboard, I ask about it.
But students need to know that they belong to one another. As the three excerpts cited above illustrate, students appreciate knowing that they have the support of their peers. Managing classroom opportunities for conflict management can help, but often we don’t have the precious minutes necessary to implement this as often as it is needed. When that occurs, allowing students to work in class in well-structured and well-managed teams can also help foster this interdependency.
Encouraging students to get involved in school teams and clubs helps too. Many of us sacrifice our lunch periods for our students. Mine know they can come in and play chess during lunch, and many take advantage of this.
Assigning duties to students is another way to foster a sense of belonging. To the humorous misfit mentioned above I gave the task of posting a daily joke on my classroom door. I keep a file of a few hundred cartoons and jokes I have collected through the years, and he was in charge of the folder. He even brought in a few of his own to contribute.
We teachers are creative and industrious. As we become more focused on developing a sense of belonging in our classrooms, each of us will develop our own strategies for letting students know that our school is their school and they fulfill a purpose in it.
In the coming months we will examine Stallard's three remaining needs.