A School of Belonging: A different standard

In this age of standards, high-stakes testing, curriculum stressors, and societal pressures on students and educators, classroom time is precious.  When only academic performance is measured and evaluated, it can seem overwhelming to take time out of the school day to meet students’ social and emotional needs. But when those needs are met, students feel excited about the discoveries each new day will bring; achievement soars; behaviors such as bullying, name-calling, and teasing diminish; and the classroom functions more effectively and efficiently.

All students need to feel that there is a place reserved just for them in their school. In The 8th Habit: From Effectiveness to Greatness, the late Stephen Covey wrote of the need to find a voice and then to express this voice to the world. This voice is what we hear when students freely share the things they love to do. A school has its own voice as well, a voice that sings in celebration of the passion, the achievements, and the many joys of students and teachers. This voice-the voice of belonging-is a touchstone for many young people who need to feel the affirmation of a caring learning environment. The first step in creating such an environment is for the teacher to realize how significant role they play in the lives of their students.

Many adults, when looking back on childhood and adolescence, point to a teacher or other significant adult who helped them recognize the unique talents they could offer the world. Literature on resilience often makes the point that when a teacher believes in a troubled child, that teacher invites the child to believe in him-herself at a time when the child may feel that no one does. A School of Belonging is staffed with significant adults who consciously pave the way for their students’ new life trajectories-and who help students learn how they can believe in each other and become equal members in a culture of caring.

The opportunity to positively influence a child’s life is a precious and noble gift. Where do you start?

You must begin by articulating the vision you have of yourself by asking:

  • What is my life’s work?
  • How do I explore this calling on a daily basis, in words and deeds?

These are important  questions, and it takes courage to answer them.  But once you do so, your vision will become clearer, and ways of manifesting your vision in your work with students will come to your mind by way of your heart.  finding your own voice and your own passion is key to helping students find theirs.danica and rhys


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David A. Levine’s (davidalevine.com) work on teaching empathy as a social culture building strategy has been featured in the New York Times, National Public Radio, and ABC News. After teaching elementary and middle school, David became the chief trainer for the U.S. Department of Education’s Northeast Regional Center for Safe and Drug-Free Schools. It was during that time that he created a framework for social culture building he calls "A School of Belonging." This systems change process, is highlighted in his books, "Teaching Empathy", "Building Classroom Communities", and "The School of Belonging Plan Book." He is the founding Director of the Teaching Empathy Institute, in Kingston, NY, a program of The Tides Center, and serves as an adviser to Ashoka’s Start Empathy Initiative.

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