It’s that exciting and exhausting time of the year when most of our country’s children return to school. I still remember the excitement of new homemade outfits for the school year! In fact, it’s the strongest memory I have about returning to school in August. I can’t recall walking into a classroom for the first time or sitting down next to new classmates. I can’t remember meeting a new teacher. I remember my darling little calico dress and pinafore with the appliqued apple pocket and the worm coming out of that cute little apple pocket. I remember Mom making that dress as she made so many of my clothes over the years. I remember Mom ordering a sky-blue nylon windbreaker from the Sears catalog for me; one that I misunderstood and believed was going to be a denim jacket but I liked the windbreaker all the same. I remember a pair of jeans that had the cutest embroidered image of a sun with the words “sunnybunch”.
So it seems that I remember home - and clothes seemed to be a big deal to me then. I remember the feeling of being home and at ease with my family. There was never a moment in which I felt unsafe or unloved. Oh, my brother punched me in the stomach and I got in trouble plenty but I never thought that I was in danger or even close to being in danger and I never wondered if my family loved me. I grew up with a sense of security and belonging. I just knew that the belonging would always be there.
Belonging. Brené Brown asked middle-school children about the difference between belonging and fitting in. Brown explains, “They said, fitting in is when you want to be part of something and belonging is when people want you just as you are. I get to be me if I belong and I have to be like you to fit in. What was shocking was when they said, 'Miss, it's really hard not to belong at school, but nothing is as painful as not belonging at home.’”
School is tough. Life is tough. I can’t imagine how anyone gets through it all without the foundation of a sense of belonging to a family. How would I have gotten through my adult experiences of abuse, divorce, cancer, a special-needs child, financial struggles, loneliness, and more without knowing that I belong to a network of supporters who have loved me for almost 52 years? And even more than knowing those people are here for me now, what growing up with a sense of belonging gave me was the grit and the knowing that I could do anything. Not only could I get through anything but I could achieve anything I aspired to achieve. I could write. I could work for the Vice President. I could win pageants. I could sing and talk in front of large crowds. I could mother. I could teach. There was never any doubt. I didn’t even ask the question, “Can I do this?” I just did it.
I realize now how lucky I was. And I recognize the misfortune of so many young people; the absence of this foundation. One in five of students in a regular classroom setting will experience trauma to such a degree that it will impede their ability to function as they should. The effects of their trauma will manifest as behavior issues so severe that they might be sent to alternative schools. For years we’ve failed to recognize the root cause of these issues and have labeled them as OD, LD, ADD, etc. And yes, they have behaved in these hyperactive, defiant, and confused ways but so many times what’s really at work is the trauma they’ve experienced.
Trauma. Not belonging. Not being fully accepted and loved for who you are. Yet expected to attend, focus, and perform in the school setting and later in the workplace.
Teachers are crucial to helping these students. Though we really want to fix the problems at home or take the child home with us, neither of those options are often possible. But we can stand in the gap for these kids and give them the love and sense of belonging they need.
We can be the stable, caring adult in their lives. We can foster healthy relationships and a sense of belonging amongst our students. In fact it’s critical that we do so. It’s not just a feel-good option or some type of extra thing we throw in. It is imperative that we help students to recognize that they are part of a community and that the classroom community can create a culture of belonging and encouragement; a culture of love.
We are no longer promoting straight academics. The students need us to teach about kindness and belonging. They need us to be role models who clearly demonstrate kindness and make everyone understand that they do belong.
The future depends on what we do in the classroom because the future is in our classrooms now. Are you teaching the future to be kind? Are you teaching the future that we must accept others and invite them to belong no matter what our differences may be?