Author, Brene Brown once quoted on American national television, promoting her latest novel, "a deep sense of love and belonging is an irreducible need of all people. We are biologically wired to belong". So, I why have nearly fifty percent of schools across Australia prioritised school belonging in their vision, yet the slide in its attainment started slipping in 2003 and has not ceased doing so since? I had to question 'why is this so important' when reading a recent study and 'what is the cause' for this scary slide?
As all good teachers do, I self-reflected and related the data back to the small sampling I take great pride in claiming my own, my classroom. I questioned my very practice: is my pastoral care strong enough? Do kids feel welcome in my class? Is the relationship corresponding between teacher, student and families with enough authenticity?
All of these questions prompted me to investigate. So, without further ado, I shall explain why the sense of belonging in schools, across Australia, is wavering dramatically.
We cast our minds back to 2003, yes, I know, it was a long time ago! Heck, I was just a Middle School student myself. I was rebellious and can't really say I, myself had a great deal of pride in my school experience or felt a true sense of belonging. What I can say about this time was that, as all teens do, I had troubled things in my life which brought about a yearning for one thing, an escape. For me, removing myself from domestic troubles at home and the pressures of study was easy, I had football. But when this was not around, the schoolyard was a haven. I had my mates around and the banter kept us all sane. I felt, despite the classroom environment feeling more like a zoo, us students united, almost inherently against the common enemy, authority. This was fun, it brought trouble but also handed a strong sense of companionship and a belonging. When I was with these pals, I felt good. This is what we all, as humans, seek. The school had innately given us this with the cohort they had accepted and the distribution of students within each class. But this is my experience, why were things so much better for a student back then than it is now? Where has that belonging gone?
Let's think globally about the place we reside in and what wasn't around fifteen years ago. For starters, the kids of today! These small things in life we appreciated back then are now seen as boring and lame. For growing up in a tech-infested world has driven concentration levels through the floor, narcissism to an all-time high (and its acceptability, I mean, who would've thought in 2003 "selfies" would soon be deemed conventional social behaviour in public?) and a desire to reach out and share everything to the greater community from the palm of our hand is incomprehensible. Facebook, Snapchat and 'slide left or right' dating apps weren't the focus of conversation, moreover, the latest episode of Degrassi Junior High and The OC. Hanging out with friends meant actually going somewhere and interacting face to face, without the moblie phone screen playing friendship projector. The point here is, schools acted as a social platform for students, bringing them together, now there is no need for that when they can just as easily sit in the bedroom without the adults or outer network peers needing to make up the background noise.
Without a doubt, a higher priority is placed upon academic rigour today, a ploy of higher scholars, in high up places, to raise the bar in Australian schools, as we worked our way down the rungs of the world's academic ladder. We all know a school focuses on core learning and teaching, that's the very idea of its existence. But, as we rolled into school each day, teaching our inquiry or developing ever important connections, a little test called NAPLAN was manifesting in the background, ready for administering in every classroom around the country, throwing the programming and expectations of content coverage into a frenzy. As much as the idea of this thing was to pick up standards to comparatively compete with the practice of schools on the other side of the world, it did one thing and one thing only. Bring about unnecessary stress. Dr Kelly-Ann Allen, from University of Melbourne recently documented, "every year, much of the educational focus and emphasis is on the NAPLAN literacy and numeracy scores which can be detrimental to a student's wellbeing and contribute negatively to their academic performance". So, for each time we step into a book store or supermarket, when we are often confronted by practise test booklets, think about this. And every time Term Two blossoms into the academic year, teachers' attention shifts to preparation (except all those schools and communities which do not care for the test…cough, cough), think about this. And finally, when the resource centres get the slightest sniff of an impressionable parent, stressing over the results of a one-off, irrelevant exam, and like a bee to honey, they are all over them, think about this. All this is causing a downward spiral in our progression. Parents, students, teachers and staff who focus too heavily on this practice, we have fundamentally flawed our institutions and its everyday practice. We have all become more and more stressed, over academia. We need to stop. Who misses out most from this fallout? EVERYONE! Further enhancing the need to attain learner independence, fulfil individual learning pedestals and completely outdo everyone else (if not for anything else, bragging rights), only creates less belonging. Enough is enough. The thing that excludes itself naturally from this systemic progression is: community.
A nasty concoction of social norms and the need to be better has actually weakened our individual growth. On a nation-wide level, we have transformed our schools into places where we no longer want to be, teachers and students alike. So, what about a way forward? Let's look into it, from the kids' perspective.
In a recent meta-analysis of fifty-one studies, which included over 67,000 students, a factor identification of what impacts belonging at school has seen some not so surprising but still very alarming results. Self-efficacy rates are lower than ever amongst our youth which impedes our quest for belonging but it is not the strongest factor. Supportive parents and family adaptability is also crucial but the overwhelming factor in the creation of belonging with a school environment- drum roll please- is the teacher- student relationship. The nurturance of care, mutual respect and value for the individual as a person, not just a data-friendly number in the system. Whilst Dr Allen acknowledges, "as the curriculum demands and class sizes increase and teachers feel stressed, this can be increasingly hard to maintain" she demands our leaders ease the data-driven strain of teaching and learning, to "allow time for relationships to happen and to look how their teachers connect with and value others." If leaders do not promote and foster this belonging, the results, across all areas of school (including community engagement and satisfaction) will continue to slide along with its academia and feeling of togetherness. She summarises her data findings with one simple sentence that should resonate with us all, "It's vital to focus on academic outcomes, but a students' school life cannot be adequately represented by a standardised score." Amen.
At the end of the day, encouraging a sense of pride in each other's journeys and taking time to create belonging within each place of learning does not have to come at the expense of academic achievement, it actually enhances it. Ironic, right?