Cascade a Culture of Belonging from Employees to Students

Deanna Ashby

Where did your career in education begin? If you’re a school leader, it’s likely it began as a teacher. Teachers are expected to create a sense of belonging for students. Teachers assign elementary students daily jobs and responsibilities such as checking the weather, sharing the lunch menu, erasing the whiteboard and being the line leader. Classroom jobs like these give students purpose. Over the years, your teacher role evolved to principal or administrator. In these new positions, leaders emphasize teacher efficacy expectations and standards such as greeting students at the door, calling them by name, identifying their interests and hobbies and fostering positive peer-to-peer and teacher-to-student relations. However, now as we find ourselves in the idle of a global pandemic, is there more that can be done for students and employees?

Demonstrate a culture of belonging

Virtual learning and social distancing have required school leaders and teachers to stretch to develop new strategies to create a greater culture of belonging. Research shows that students have suffered social and emotional loss because of the pandemic. “In national surveys, youth report feeling higher levels of anxiety and depression, and say that these feelings are the number one obstacle to learning, especially among students of color. Pandemic-related isolation is also putting many students at risk of mental health issues.”

It’s not just students that struggle with issues of isolation. Teachers and employees experience this as well. As organizations become more hybrid in nature, leaders need to cultivate a sense of belonging. Leaders who do this well will attract, retain and motivate their employees. In the Harvard Business Review article, What Does It Take to Build a Culture of Belonging? the author poses the question, “What does it mean to belong at work?”

In the article, Julia Taylor Kennedy and Pooja Jain-Link state that employees feel connected when they are:

  1. Seen for their unique contributions.
  2. Connected to coworkers.
  3. Supported in daily work and career development.
  4. Proud of their organization’s values and purpose.

Is there a significant difference between students’ and employees’ need for a sense of belonging? Don’t students also desire to be seen for who they are, connected to other students and adults, supported by their teachers and proud to be part of a team or school community? Can it be assumed that if we create this environment for staff, it will cascade to our students?

Shift to a virtual sense of belonging

How can each employee contribute positively to every student’s daily experiences? As we face this greater challenge of creating a culture of belonging during the pandemic, what actions can we take to support our students and staff? The Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning (CASEL) suggests assigning each student a trusted adult to talk with throughout the year. Ideally, the adult is the student’s teacher.

5 Minute Chats with Students provides the following cadence to use during these conversations:

  1. Initiate – Share with students that you are going to connect individually with them to learn how they are feeling.
  2. Open – Demonstrate interest and excitement through the connection; let them know you care.
  3. Personalize – Probe for as much as the student wants to share about their experiences, sources of stress or how they spend their time.
  4. Invite Feedback – Ask for input from the student for needed changes from their perspective.
  5. Close – End with a story, favorite song or something to provide hope.

Does this sound familiar? This looks and sounds very much like leader rounding.

CASEL also provides additional tips in the Roadmap for Reopening School. As the future becomes more digital, actions need to be easily changeable from in-person to virtual learning. Use practices such as cooperative learning groups, interest surveys, mailing postcards and team projects. Also, think outside of the box with scheduling to include looping, advisory groups, check-ins and name and claim programs using all adults in the building.

It is a leader’s responsibility to go first and create a culture of belonging for those they lead. In turn, those employees and teachers create a culture of belonging for students both in person and in virtual environments. Make it the goal to create a culture where all employees and students belong.

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