• Nicola Ball

Learn to belong or belong to learn?

In this unprecedented world in which we live, going back to school has never been a more complex discussion. Senior leaders are chewing through the ever changing guidance, putting in risk assessments, communicating the complex, wanting and wishing the best for their whole community whilst ensuring that crevasses, gaps and for some, meteoric holes are filled with loving, kind-hearted learning as best they can. Their classrooms have been cleared, sterilised stations have replaced cosy-comfort-learning but there has never been more of a time where children need to know that they are truly loved and belong to their class (now known as a bubble), their teacher and their school. When your children come back into your classroom, they may be scared, anxious, have lost a loved one, have separation difficulties and much more, and these needs have to be met with kindness, empathy, smiles and warmth; your children need to know that you will be there and listen to them no matter what. Some children will skip into your classroom, fresh as a summer breeze and take off from where they left. Some of your children will need to ‘learn how to belong’ before they can even start to ‘belong to learn’.

For children to take risks, explore and undertake challenges, they first need to feel safe in their environment and by doing this, I don’t mean the health and safety kind of ‘safe’ (which is totally essential) but the emotional type of ‘safe’. Good relationships matter, creating a bonding, a tribe or a family where everyone feels accepted, valued and included. If we look at J Hattie’s research: What Everyone Needs to Know About High-Performance, Teacher Student Relationships, he shows that strong teacher student relationships shape the way children think and act in school. Think back to your own experiences of school – your favourite subject was the one in which you excelled at, and the one where you loved that teacher. I bet you have a few choice words in your mind when you think about the teachers from subjects where you did not succeed!

For the teacher you loved, you would have completed your homework on time, worked that little bit harder, been more willing to have a go at things that were tricky, made more mistakes and also asked for help that little bit more (knowing that they would have given you that time, every time). That’s the kind of children you want, right?

“It is teachers who have created positive teacher student relationships that are more likely to have the above average effects on student achievement.” John Hattie

So, how do you go about it? Hattie tells us that we need to invest time and effort building strong supportive relationships with our children. We need to be calm, warm, nurturing, empathetic to their thought, feeling and their needs. Children desperately need to feel important and that they matter to you. You need to accept your children for who they are and care for them as if they were yours. You need to understand how they think and feel and what is going on around them. When you are talking to them, be present, so that they know in that one moment you care wholeheartedly.

For children to go that extra mile, you also need to believe that they are capable of this because the way in which you will give instructions, you will be showing this whether you realise this or not! The high belief that you have in your children will include their behaviours, their work ethic, their willingness to improve their work, having their own high outcomes and them staying behind for more input or guidance because they know this is expected. Kim Scott (Radical Candor) urges leaders in all establishments to ‘care personally and challenge directly’ and this must the same for you when leading your students to be the best that they can be. How many times have you heard, ‘never smile before Christmas’ to instil good behaviours? There is nothing further from the truth! This will never forge the relationships that your children want or need – care personally, challenge directly.

Rita Pearson tells us directly that 'Everybody needs a champion' and that includes us! We are all in this together, starting a new term in the most difficult of circumstances. We are all one huge educational support system, trying to do the right thing for our children, wanting the best, wanting us to be the best and wanting all of our children to all meet and excel their personal milestones. I urge you to reach out to others, ask for advice, admit when things are not going right, accept the help that is offered and be brave to trial out new things, forcing you out of your comfort zone as this is what we expect of our children daily. Just like our children, we need to 'learn how to belong' under these new guidelines of what we can and cannot do; we need to learn new technologies, learn how to support children and colleagues's mental wellbeing, learn how to track lost-learning in the most non-threatening way, learn how to claim that Oscar through your daily acting performances and why? To ensure that we are all loved, cared for and that we 'belong'. Once we know that we are really, truly cared for and belong, we can all start to learn effectively, grabbing those gaps and filling them using quick-dry cemented skills and knowledge. We all need to belong in order to learn.

So, in preparation before your children enter that classroom, ‘learn how to belong’ yourself in order for you to be able to show and model how your children can ‘belong to learn’. We are all in this together, we all belong.

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