Belonging: A Cultural Approach to School Enrichment
What is it about bees? They band together in colonies, and each bee is vital to the daily success of the organization.
What is it about bees? They band together in colonies, and each bee is vital to the daily success of the organization. More to the point, each bee is integral to the prolonged success of the hive. From worker bee to queen, each bee has meticulous attention to duty and the welfare of the job she is designed to complete.
That level of commitment is hardly ever visible in human organizations, and even when it is attempted it is never fully realized. Why? The very thing that makes bees components of a larger organization is often denied to humans in organizational structures seeking to become better.
The notion of belonging, the idea of social identity and one person’s role in that identity, is integral to bee success. Every bee knows the value of her contribution, and therefore each one supports the ultimate goal of the colony. Unfortunately, in human organizations, the identity and contribution of Everyman is often the last concern of large, intricate plans for outcome-based production.
In all honesty, attention to belonging on the individual level is difficult to achieve. It is almost impossible to conceive a plan which encompasses every person’s viewpoint in a world of multicultural identities as vast and varied as snowflakes. Nowhere is this more evident than the culturally responsive world of education.
The very nature of the work educators does require varied approaches that appreciate open minds and talents. This world of varied approaches and techniques presents the greatest challenge for institutional belonging, and ultimately it provides the greatest rewards for the investment.
How can we plan for schools to function with the precision of a bee colony? A solution to this quandary is more an investment in cultural exchange than a plan. Leaders who approach the individual as integral are more likely to ask for perspective, influence, and explanation.
Just as the queen knows the hive is functioning through communicative pheromones, leaders must stay abreast of changes within the organizational structure by being present and involved.
Localized references to “buy-in” are commonly seen as an ad hoc concession to stakeholders. However, this investment mindset can greatly enrich the school system by presenting leveled equity exchanges among all levels of the faculty. This cultural approach, an approach with special attention to the belonging of the participants, can be promoted through three implementation strategies.
The first strategy is the “‘Concentric Circles of Influence” approach. A well known social learning theory has been developed by Albert Bandura, who works within both cognitive and behavioral frameworks that embrace attention, memory, and motivation.
His theory of learning suggests that people learn within a social context and that learning is facilitated through concepts such as modeling, observational learning, and imitation. Bandura posits “reciprocal determinism” which holds the view that a person’s behavior, environment, and personal qualities all reciprocally influence each other.
The importance of positive role-modeling on learning is well documented, so an organization that promotes mentoring and cross-pollination within its own population can sow seeds of positive growth.
This is healthy for the overall success of the organization because it breeds its own never-ending supply of investors. This strategy can also be implemented in both top-down and bottom-up relationships.
Leaders can seek out highly talented teachers and promote their efficacy, pedagogy, and structures for others within the system to emulate. A struggling third-year teacher within this system may seek out a tenured voice to mentor their practice and shape their approaches.
In this way the institution as a whole benefit as both teachers grow within the community, trusting each other more as an outcome. This internal promotion creates shared belief in the efficacy of approaches and cement educators trust that the approach is sound and future investment in differing directions will be met with support and possible adoption in the roles of mentors.
The second strategy is “Collaborative Grouping,” and it offers micro development features that can promote growth. Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger discuss this in terms of “situated learning theory” and “community of practice” theories.
Situated learning theory recognizes that there is no learning which is not situated, and it emphasizes the relational and negotiated character of knowledge and learning as well as the engaging nature of the activity for the individuals involved.
It is within communities that learning occurs most effectively. Interactions taking place within a community of practice — e.g. cooperation, problem-solving, building trust, understanding, and relations — have the potential to foster community social capital that enhances the community.
Thomas Sergiovanni reinforces the idea that learning is most effective when it takes place in communities. Utilizing these theories small group teacher collaborators can focus on the specific needs of the organization. These groups of teachers can delve into specific pedagogical areas with precision and develop unique, culturally responsive approaches.
For example, a department chair can approach members of her discipline area in the role of the queen bee. She can identify high need areas, listen as teachers offer valid options, and oversee members of her group as they pursue individual initiatives and investigations. As a group, the members own the outcomes.
Belonging becomes less a skill and more a result of the approach as these problem-solving groups see themselves as essential elements of the whole with little to no oversight from administrators.
As long as the groupings are kept deliberative and focused many institutional improvements can happen without the reticent apprehension of foisted mandates and edicts. Teachers see the investment as productive to the whole, and the rewards are self-motivating.
A third strategy is the “Social Identity” approach. It focuses on the six key social identities in which people most frequently anchor their sense of belonging. These identities are family, friendship, lifestyle choices, nationality, professional identity, and shared interests.
Each of these identity layers incorporates intricate needs and concerns, but on an institutional level, these identities can be orchestrated to fulfill functional approaches to enriching school culture. As each identity layer is highlighted and given attention, the school culture begins to reflect deeper growth and investment.
Howard Gardner elaborated on his theory of multiple intelligences in 1983. Gardner argues that every person’s level of intelligence actually consists of many distinct “intelligences.”
These intelligences include (1) logical-mathematical, (2) linguistic, (3) spatial, (4) musical, (5) bodily-kinesthetic, (6) interpersonal, and (7) are intrapersonal. Although his work is speculative, his theory is appreciated by teachers in broadening their conceptual framework beyond the traditional confines of skilling, curriculum, and testing.
These bits of intelligence can be seen reflected in social identity and suggest that allowing these to grow can create self-gratification for those operating efficiently within the school culture. Each recognized identity responds to recognition with positive investment. Positivity, in turn, lifts the organization as a whole, establishing a culture that is accepting, uplifting, and positive.
The added benefit is that as teachers reflect the investment dividends downward students begin to gain a sense of self, identity, and true belonging. A school can include many identities, each with specific needs and concerns. Creating specific identity approaches such as family-friendly planning, paired outings for close friends, and professional growth opportunities allows a school to promote this identity and bring the teacher into a more sustainable relationship with the institution.
An administrator’s knowledge of shared interest can bridge the gap between him and a teacher who is reticent about buying into the school enrichment. These personal level interactions can do more to grow teacher belonging than weeks of observations and interventions.
So how do we begin? The strategies listed above are not mutually exclusive. Instead, the institution as a whole has to step forward and commit to seeing the belonging of its members as vital to success.
Unfortunately, many modern reforms discount those who belong in the organization as implementers of grand plans and overlook them as participants in mutually beneficial equity agreements.
This top-down, edict driven system of changing education creates a muddled mess that produces very little honey. Just as bees are facing the catastrophes of hive collapse, institutions of learning are crumbling under the weight of complex implementation strategies that remake the role of educators without their permission. As educational institutions seek to turn this era of reform from tragedy to triumph, they must realize an investment in all those who belong is the catalyst for positive change.
Creating cultures of growth that produce collaborative outcomes are preferable to lone teachers hoping to survive the next round of imposed “improvements.” Honey reflects the tastes and flavors of the pollination maps of the bees who create it. Strategies like those above will create students who reflect the positive cultures of belonging which supported their learning
Grover Welch is a ninth grade English teacher at Newport, Arkansas. He has a MSE in Reading from Arkansas State University.