SCHOOLS AS PLACES OF BELONGING

THEME 1: WAYS OF SEEING - WHY SCHOOLS NEED TO BE PLACES OF BELONGING

Q1. WHY IS SCHOOL BELONGING IMPORTANT TODAY?

Shut up and leave me aloneThe Japanese word ‘ibasho’ means a place where you can be yourself. The power of the word lies in its capacity to encapsulate the essence of belonging:

that sense of feeling confident that you will fit in and feel safe in your identity. It’s a way of being with – and relating to – ourselves and the world around us. In the context of this work, it’s about enabling young people to be themselves and part of that ‘place’ called school.

We live in a world on the move. Displacement and up-rootedness are growing. Disconnection and disengagement are in the air and our fragile planet is at risk. In today’s strange and difficult times, we all want to feel rooted and to belong. This has led me to conclude that one of the greatest gifts we can give our young people is to create schools which are places of belonging.

Belonging and me

I don't belong here
Drawing 1: I don’t
belong here

The concepts of ‘belonging’ and ‘compassionate leadership’ – as a form of leadership which helps create the conditions for school belonging – have been central to my research for some time.1 Drawing 1: ‘I don’t belong here’ is taken from research carried out two decades ago with young people who had been excluded from school. At the centre is a small child looking distraught. The caption reads: You’re thick.. You’re stupid.. You don’t belong here.. Get out of my school.2

The image is an abject depiction of the experience of being excluded, and it has both haunted and galvanized me into action for many years. A sense of place and belonging is a primal human need,3 a central element of the human psyche, often expressed in the yearning of diasporas for their homeland. It is the antidote to ‘uprootedness’ and to ‘placelessness’.4 In a global context in which social, political and economic divisions are widening and more people are displaced and on the move than at any time since the end of the 1939-45 War, place and belonging matter.

In many parts of the world, young people’s live are uncertain. They may, for example, live in fear of the drug dealer on their doorstep.5 Drawing 2 – taken from research carried out in Chile – was sketched by a young woman who lives in a shanty town. She told us that when she arrived back home from school, she locked herself in her home because she feared the drug dealers on the stairwell outside.6

Reflecting on the challenges facing many young people, and in particular those living in impoverished areas – the headteacher of an inner-city school serving a diverse population told me:

For many of our children, home and community are not fixed. Their families might have had status in their home community but are at the bottom of the rung in the UK or appealing against deportations. This raises identity issues because belonging is about the meaning we attach to a place, and our relationship to a place, and the way that this changes. School is about negotiating a new way of belonging.7
Drawing 2: I don’t like the drug dealers outside my house

Schools are communities, ‘political entities’ in which young people learn how to become part of society8. They are ever-changing kaleidoscopes of people, ideas, and attitudes, which have the potential to coalesce around shared beliefs. Teachers and young people flourish in schools that foster their creativity, resilience and sense of agency.

Schools can – and should be – places of welcome and inclusion, wonder and joy. When we think of a school what should come to our mind is a ‘place’ of belonging in which young people can begin to imagine their art, tell their poems and stories, create their ideas and think about exploring new places or inhabiting new planets. Sadly, as I discuss under question 2, this is not always the case!

BELONGING AND YOU

Belonging means you are part of something, and you are not just sitting around on the other side… not just left out or lonely.9

Young people’s sense of belonging in school is shaped by what they bring to it, their histories, their day-to-day lived reality as well as schools’ practices and expectations. Let me invite you to go back in time to your own school days – your first school, secondary school, high school – whichever comes to mind. We all bring what we have experienced as children into our lives as adults.

Think about your school experience as a set of traffic lights.

  • What did it feel like? Was it a good feeling?
  • Did you experience a sense of welcome?
  • Were you an insider or an outsider?

I have asked many participants of workshops and conferences to take part in this ‘traffic lights’ exercise. If they ‘press’ green, then the positive memories come flooding back, creating a warm glow: friends remembered; staff who encouraged them along the way; an abundance of opportunities to help them explore their identity and develop their skills. – It’s how it should be.

If the participant ‘presses’ red, then they are likely to have been bullied or excluded by their peers or ignored or denigrated by their teachers. In one workshop, a participant who had pressed the red button told the rest of her group:

We were from the other side of the tracks, everybody looked down on us. It was awful. I could make myself sick at 8 oclock every day so that I didn’t have to go to school. That’s why I became a teacher. I didn’t want anyone else to feel like that.

If participants ‘press’ amber, there is a strong possibility that they are from a family on the move, as was the experience of the workshop participants below:

  • My dad was in the military, we moved school every year or two.
  • We came from Bangladesh, and we didn’t know the rules of the game.
  • We were the city kids who found ourselves slap bang in the middle of the countryside.

You were different and stood out. Perhaps you were the newcomer, or the person who did not conform to the conventions of the day: a sporty culture, a girly culture, part of the lads’ culture.

Our ‘traffic lights’ experiences stay with us, deeply embedded in our psyche and our memories. We remember how we felt in school. All go with the Green. A definite stop with the Red. Waiting around for the Amber light to change. Being in touch with our own experiences reminds us of the importance of school belonging.

Traffic Light‘Press’ the Green light if you had a sense that you belonged and were a part of the school community.

Amber if you were an ‘in betweenee’ – felt you fitted in some times but were on the periphery the rest of the time.

‘Press’ Red if you didn’t experience a sense of welcome and felt you didn’t belong

1. See, for example: (i) K. Riley (2013), Leadership of Place: Stories from Schools in the US, UK and South Africa, London: Bloomsbury; (ii) K. Riley (2017), Place, Belonging and School Leadership: Researching to Make the Difference, London: Bloomsbury; (iii) K. Riley, K., M. Coates & S.P Martinez (2018), Place and Belonging in Schools: Unlocking Possibilities (http://www.theartofpossibilities.org.uk); (iv) K. Riley, (2022), Compassionate Leadership for School Belonging, downloadable free at UCL Press.

2. K. Riley & E. Rustique-Forrester (2002), Working with Disaffected Students: Why children lose interest in school and what we can do about it. London: Chapman Sage, p 28.

3. See, for example: (i) A. Maslow (1943), ‘A theory of human motivation’. Psychological Review, 50 (4), 370–96; (ii) J. Griffin & I. Tyrell (2019) Human Givens: The new approach to emotional health and clear thinking, Human Givens Publishing; and (iii) M. Coates (2018,) It’s doing my head in. Melton, UK: A John Catt Publication.

4. S. Weil (2002 [1952}) The need for roots, prelude to a declaration of duties towards mankind. London: Routledge Classics.

5. I. Naicker., V. Chikoko & S.E. Mthiyane (2014), ‘Instructional leadership practices in challenging school contexts’. Education as Change, 17, S137-S150. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/16823206.2014.865999. Accessed: 12/08/2018.

6. K. Riley., C. Montecinos & L. Ahumada (2016), ‘Effective Principals serving in high poverty schools in Chile: Managing competing realities’. Procedia – Social and Behavioral Sciences (pp 1-8). Available at: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.sbspro.2017.02.181 Accessed: 09/02/2017

7. K. Riley (2017), Place, Belonging and School Leadership: Researching to Make the Difference. London: Bloomsbury, p128.

8. T. Alexander (2013), Citizenship Schools: Learning democracy, raising attainment, building community. UK: Cooperative College.

9. Visit The Art of Possibilities website and you will find a number of videos about belonging. To ”meet’ the young person who said this, go to https://www.theartofpossibilities.org.uk, explore, videos, S1: Video 1. Place and Belonging in our Global World.