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Rebuilding Communities of Learning - The Real Catch-Up - Part I

Part one of a blog by Nina Jackson on how to build belonging, connection and relationships. Click here for part two.

The world has been shaken to its core by recent events. You don’t need me to tell you that.

Governments worldwide are focussed on catch-up but – and this seems to be especially the case in England – what they mean is putting the toothpaste back in the tube and getting everyone focussed back on academic achievement as if nothing has happened.

True rebuilding is not about ‘catch-up’ on an academic level, but about ‘catch-up’ with regards to communication, collaboration, care and healing. Only then can our educational establishments flourish and thrive as exciting, supportive and caring learning environments.

Focussing on emotional healing now builds resilience into the system for whatever the world throws at us next (and climate change, we’re looking at you).

In these two blogs, I have brought together from proven ideas to help with re-building through renewal and, more importantly, create a sense of belonging for everyone in our learning communities.

That b-word is vital for young people. All children and young people want:

  • To feel part of the school
  • To feel a sense of pride in belonging to that school
  • To have teachers who are interested in them as individuals
  • To be included in a wide range of activities in their school
  • To know they can flourish as individuals, appreciated for who and what they are, and that they can discover themselves and be themselves.

This means they must feel personally accepted, respected, included, and supported by others in the school environment.

And for this to happen, everyone in a school has a role to play.

To help, I have brought together eight strategies to make children and young people feel a sense of belonging in re-building your community of learning.

Here are the first four:

Strategy #1 – The individual ‘Hello’ and ‘Personal Greeting’

Never underestimate the power of the personal meet and greet. A simple ‘hello’ tells the individual that you see them, value them as an individual and recognise that they are part of the class, school and wider learning community. My favourite greeting is ‘Sawubona’, a traditional Zulu greeting which means, ‘I see you, and recognise the worth and dignity of you as an individual. I see the whole of you – your experiences, your passions, your pain, your strengths and weaknesses, and your future. You are valuable to me’.

Try it and see the response from your learners.

There’s nothing better than a welcoming smile or a simple ‘hello’ for giving you a feeling of belonging, especially with their name attached.

Following that greeting up with a question that links to their own lives takes that level of connection even deeper – ‘How was rugby last night?’ or ‘New shoes? Smart!’ or ‘How’s your sister getting on?’... you get the idea.

When a learner is absent, whatever the reason, it’s so important to greet them with a supportive comment such as, ‘Welcome back. We’re so glad to see you. We’ve really missed you!’ as opposed to ‘Where have you been?’ Words like ‘welcome’, ‘we’, ‘glad’, ‘missed’ are little words that really help build connection and belonging.

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Strategy #2 – Build the Tribe

As humans we are naturally drawn towards being part of a tribe. And tribes thrive when there are clear guidelines and a communal respect for one another.

To achieve this, it is important to create norms, not rules, in your classroom.

Developing a set of agreements between classroom members and the teacher about how they will treat one another gives a deeper sense of belonging to those who are part of that learning family.

Achieving it requires collaboration between the teacher and the learners, which is all part of the fun, of course.

Think about creating a set of values as well as guidance on behaviour for learning so that there will be no conflict or issues when things don’t always pan out as planned.

Ownership gives a sense of belonging to the tribe too, after all.

Being part of a tribe and developing a sense of self go hand in hand. Being part of a tribe can help us when we feel attacked or wronged. It gives us a stronger sense of identity which helps when we experience bigotry or bias. We can recover more quickly due to the support and understanding that we have from others who can not only make us feel safe and secure, but also offer with help and support.

This sense of belonging has a massive influence on our self-esteem and self-confidence, even through the most difficult of learning experiences.

Being part of a classroom tribe also helps those who maybe battling loneliness (and remember, teachers need to be part of a tribe too!).

Belonging involves relooking at your learning environments too. Ask your children and young people:

  • For this classroom to belong to you, what does each of us need to do to make it the best learning environment for everyone?
  • How would you like this classroom to look, feel, smell and sound?
  • What would help you learn better? What do we need to consider for all of us?
  • How can we avoid the problems or difficulties you may have encountered in other classrooms?
  • What needs to happen when a learner needs help here? Will there be a sign, a word, a special password, a cue..?
  • How will the physical space be a safe space for all learners?
  • How can we ensure this is a respectful place, not just for each other but for personal property and belongings too?
  • What systems or strategies will we use to communicate with each other? What inclusive approaches will we have that include every single learner?

When all aspects of the classroom learning environment are agreed, choose a space where these can be displayed so that everyone can read, understand, and have regular reference to them, including those with particular needs. Infographics are great for this

Strategy #3 – Having a role or a job

For many learners (but not all – know your class) having a designated job or role within the classroom can make them feel wanted and valued and deepen their sense of belonging.

Ask the class what types of roles and jobs may be needed and rotate them too so they have a varied experience. I loved being the ‘milk monitor’ in school when it was my turn. It was a very important job and highly satisfying popping the straws into the milk bottles through the silver top. Now I’m really showing my age!

Strategy #4 – Get your listening ears on!

Listen to the needs of your class and don’t be dismissive of anything.

Find out their interests and preferred ways to access the learning as well as their current concerns, worries and points of difference.

Creating the right climate for your learners is crucial to well-being as well as academic achievement.

If at any time some of your learners find it uncomfortable or difficult to speak during group or class discussion, give them alternative ways of writing, recording, or sharing their thoughts. Think of all the learning opportunities like what I like to call a ‘Learning Buffet’. 

Remember, not everyone likes, needs, or even can eat a sausage roll[1]!

More on this topic in part two of this blog.

 

 

[1] Vol-au-vents every time for me!

About the author

Nina Jackson

Nina Jackson

Nina is a teacher, writer and speaker very much in demand for her work in teaching and learning, SEND, creativity, learning technologies and, increasingly, well-being and emotional health for children and their teachers. She is the author of Of Teaching, Learning and Sherbet Lemons.

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