belonging

Relationship is an action.

I recently had the distinct pleasure of facilitating a workshop at the Calgary City Teacher’s Convention. The workshop was The Resilient Classroom, and the conversation that flowed around the room for 3 hours was awesome, and a little frightening.

Working with teenage addicts, I all to often get to see the dark side of being a youth these days, and the challenges that some of our young people face. I’ve always assumed that I get to work with the anomalies, the kids who’ve been severely traumatized, abused, neglected, bullied, etc. After spending the morning with a bunch of teachers I realized that what I see in treatment is but the tip of the iceberg.

Teachers were describing kids being diagnosed with anxiety disorders at the age of 8. SERIOUSLY? What is there to be anxious about at the age of 8?

Not just anxiety, but isolation, depression, bullying, anger, ADD/ADHD, promiscuity…the list of challenges our young people face appeared to be endless and universal, with different areas of the city experiencing slightly different challenges based on the demographics of the families that lived there.

We talked an awful lot about the importance of belonging. How and why do students belong in their school and classroom? Do they belong because they score well on tests? Because they can memorize some facts and regurgitate them to the teacher? Because they do as they’re told and never challenge the establishment?

We came up with 6 ideas to implement the idea of “belonging” into the classroom. The first of these ideas is that relationship is an action, not a feeling. We tend to assume that students will feel a sense of belonging to their school, regardless of what we do to foster or discourage it. Because nothing screams “you belong” more than a building full of cliques, standardized testing and the opportunity to feel inadequate when you don’t know the answer to the out-dated question.

Of course relationship is an action… why else do we go on dates with someone while falling in love? Love is an emotion, relationship is a set of interactions. And how can you possibly feel like you belong to something, if you don’t have a relationship with it?

And how exactly do you foster a strong relationship with your students? I don’t know, because I’m not you, nor am I one of your students. But here’s a few things to think about:

  1. Authenticity. Be real. It’s ok. Talk about real issues, set aside your “expert” hat for a few minutes everyday and connect with a couple of students in a human way. 
  2. Share space and time. And by this, I mean really SHARE the space. Sit down for lunch together.
  3. Invite participation. Yes, students are forced to be in your classroom. Being forced to do anything sucks, whether you’re 14 or 40. The least you can do is invite them to be a part of creating a shared vision of what your time together is going to look like.

A pretty common theme among the young people that I work with is that they “hate school”. I’m sure if I polled their teachers over the years, there’d be some pretty strong feelings about the young person and their effort/attitude/behavior as well. Underlying it though, is a sense that they don’t “belong” in the school. I’m not the only one who believes this, and thankfully more and more schools are looking at this idea. For the first 10-days of the 90-day treatment program, all we do is invite belonging….by building relationship.

Which leaves me with a final thought to wrap up this blog post. I’ll tackle the other 5 ideas to create belonging in the classroom soon.

Does a child need to belong, in order to be loved? Or be loved in order to belong?