My Turn: ‘Belonging’ in school must go deeper

  • mactrunk mactrunk

Published: 11/20/2023 6:21:54 PM
Modified: 11/20/2023 6:21:35 PM

One of the first things I notice in many schools these days is the emphasis on “belonging.” Certainly, this is an important element in any communal space and especially for developing learners. However, I can’t help but find this latest push, described as an effort to boost inclusivity, as ringing hollow.

We have an increasing number of days where we wear colored shirts (orange for bullying prevention day for example), or fill out pieces of paper to be included on a bulletin board, and other activities that contribute to the increasing social media presences of school districts.

My question is, where is the substantive work on actually preventing and ensuring “belonging”? I still see students sitting on the sidelines and I still have bullying cases coming across my desk. Not to diminish the thought behind the efforts of having days to honor these issues, I have yet to see solid proof that wearing an orange shirt has led to the admittedly difficult work of tackling social dynamics, especially in middle and high school.

I’ve been shocked by some of the bullying I’ve seen, and inundated by the increasing reports of inappropriate touching and racist graffiti, among other issues. Whether these issues have worsened, and by how much (in comparison to previous years), and not including all the unreported incidents, the facts seem to point in the direction of increasing entropy.

I’ve also noticed that despite the constant use of language around “community building” and the effort to wordsmith everything into a positive, that this terminology, rather than addressing challenges when they arise, really serves to simply distance a school from the truth of a matter and is edging things into an increasingly toxic positive direction.

I’ve felt this, what I would describe as oppressive, push as a staff member and noticed the effect on students as well. The message comes across as you must be happy and positive, and you should feel free to express yourself, but it must comply with our definition of happy and positive or you aren’t really part of the community.

As someone who works with neurodiverse students, and with bullying, this becomes especially troublesome as an approach because it results in a lot being swept under the rug. This also presents a problem for staff and students who struggle with mental health because being told to ignore nuance and belong on someone else’s terms and for the appearance of belonging sends a very invalidating message.

It’s a fascinating and frustrating dynamic where this kind of nuance-less language is used, and the almost theatrical showcase put on for social media and parent nights. Look at how everyone is happy and everyone belongs, but don’t look behind the curtain. I would encourage schools to really delve into the nuance and really look at what equity and accessibility and inclusivity means rather than focusing on the surface and the appearance of it. The real work is more than wearing a colorful T-shirt.

Ben Tobin lives in Williamsburg.


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