An argument for belonging
Matthew Savage considers the importance of symbols and flags for young people as they develop their own sense of belonging and identity in their school.
“That’s me! That’s mine!”
When visiting a school earlier this year, I had the privilege to spend some time with their high school ‘affinity group’, an informal gathering of queer educators and students that had evolved in the wake of the pandemic. I had just shown a slide with a selection of LGBTQ+ flags, and one student bounced in her chair like a toddler, arms aloft, irrepressibly excited to have seen her flag and, in doing so, basking in something about which most schools boast but far fewer actually achieve: belonging.
What it means to belong
Witnessing her pure joy made me reflect on the form and function of belonging in our schools, and, hence, write this article. Goodenow and Grady describe belonging as “the extent to which students feel personally accepted, respected, included, and supported by others in the school social environment”, and this definition has been widely cited since. In my own work, I conceptualise it as when, upon returning to school from any break, short or long, at least a small part of every member of the community feels like they are coming home. Does everyone in your school feel this?
Obviously, this assumes a benign expression of what I call ‘homeness’, and we must be intentional in creating this, especially for those whose experience of a physical home is antithetical. For me, it means safety, exactly as Maslow meant, and also family, chosen not inherited. It means freedom, to remove my mask and, fearlessly, be my authentic self. And it means unconditional love, the knowledge that I am enough as I am, valued and valuable without condition or contingency.
I have always hated shoes, and once wrote a sonnet about this, as a Principal, for a school assembly. Even as a young child, I was ever aware of the thrill of kicking off my shoes as soon as I returned home from school. There is a powerful metaphor here, which is not lost on my long time mentor, and universal sage, Professor Stephen Heppell, whose work on the ‘shoeless school’ endures today. Therefore, maybe another way to describe belonging is when we feel able, metaphorically or literally, to kick off our shoes.
I frequently remind my client schools that, whilst wellbeing withers when we put academics first, the pursuit of #WellbeingFirst will augment academics. And the same is true of belonging: if it precedes academics, wonderful things can happen. Research commissioned by the NEU locates what it calls the “belonging opportunity”, including, for example, increased motivation, increased wellbeing, improved academic achievement, and a growing sense of agency, “a belief that they can make a difference”. There is so much to be gained from engendering belonging in our schools.
A treasure trove for resources and expertise on wellbeing in schools, the Anna Freud Centre usefully identifies the parts of ‘belonging’ that make the biggest difference, and, unsurprisingly, it often boils down to connectedness: positive, consistent relationships with staff, and peer relationships. My own work on wellbeing reads constellations from a galaxy of data stars, in order to help every student be seen, be heard, be known and belong, but the deeper and stronger our relationships, the smaller our need for all of that data in the first place.
Adapting to where we belong
Systems-informed Positive Psychology is important here; after all, “…we do not exist on our own, but because of and in connection with the systems in which we reside.” (Kern et al, 2019) Therefore, belonging is not, nor can it be, something we do to any member of our community; rather it is, or must be, systemic adaptation, such that belonging grows in that space. Andrea Downie’s work on what she calls “wholebeing” builds on this, rooting belonging in my relationship not only with myself, but also, critically, both with my community and with the world.
When I help schools better understand and include their trans and non binary students, we derive our work, at least in part, from Biology, and, specifically, the beautiful and widespread gender diversity in the natural world. And Biology is our friend here too: “a need to belong…appears to be buried deep inside our biology, all the way down to the human genome.” (Allen et al, 2020) In short, belonging is not just a goal – it is a biological necessity. And to be denied it is to be robbed of something that makes us human.
An uncomfortable truth
This is an uncomfortable truth for the international education sector, wrestling, as it is starting to do, to decolonise what is, in so many ways, an imperial construct. Listening to Professor Kathryn Riley’s podcast project, “Let’s hear it for school belonging”, is uncomfortable sometimes, but necessarily so: “‘Shut up and leave me alone’ were the only words that 10-year-old refugee ‘Aisha’ could find to say in English, after three weeks in her school.” In this clip, Aisha has been robbed of this biological necessity by the instruments of empire, and whilst we awaken to accountability, the Runnymede Trust argues, “The question of belonging – who we were, who we are and who we want to be – has taken on a new urgency.”
Finding your flag
Which brings us back to flags. The euphoria I saw in that student was, essentially, a case of semiotic identification, the discovery of a shared language. In the moment of my sharing that language with her, she belonged. The school’s lobby was awash with the flags of all the nations represented by the student body, and I wondered, why not include, in that display, each of the LGBTQ+ flags too? Interspersed, without fanfare, maybe they would offer, to each of the queer students and staff, that same shot of belonging. One of the teachers then suggested the same for the flags of other minoritised groups, and I was introduced, for the first time, to the disability flags. And, as someone still coming to terms with my own disability, you know what? I bounced in my seat too.
Every school has its own flags, implicit and displayed. What are yours? And when each of your student reads them, do they also say, “That’s me! That’s mine!”?
I wrote this article during the journey to see my son, Jack, in Glasgow, and when we arrived, guess what was billowing, resplendent, from his apartment window?
Matthew Savage is an assessment, wellbeing and DEIJB consultant, working with schools worldwide to help every student be seen, be heard, be known and belong. He belongs on the Isle of Skye, and he has just bought a ‘disability pride’ flag.