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What U.K. Classroom Teaching Taught Me About the Power of Belonging

Image by Johann Dréo—full credit below.
Image by Johann Dréo—full credit below.

The key is to notice the quiet ones.

“You shouldn’t wear those long dresses,” said my new boss, who was “having a word” with me during his smoking break. I was young and new to teaching. I hadn’t yet found my footing at this school. 

            My boss leaned back against the wall. “Of course the kids give you a hard time, when you look feminine like that. Wear something more powerful. They’ll take advantage otherwise.”

            Stunned, I spent the rest of the day wondering whether the rebellions I’d been seeing in my classroom were due to my floaty skirt. They weren’t, of course, as I’d soon see. The kids were testing my boundaries—it’s kind of their job. But at the time, I felt sick to my stomach. The way I dressed hadn’t affected my classrooms as a trainee, but did my boss know something about these kids that I didn’t? Was I less powerful than I thought, when I dressed as I chose?

            Did I actually not belong?

______________

We talk a good game when we say, “Be yourself,” and, “It’s your difference that makes you strong,” but when we’re told by a boss, “You’re not enough,” it can be harder to believe. In terms of the pecking order, these bosses have more power.

            But what they do with that power makes all the difference.

            Besides, the pecking order isn’t the only kind of power. Buffy the Vampire Slayer, my all-time favorite business coach, touches on this in an episode called “Checkpoint,” when she addresses the council who ostensibly control her. “See, I’ve had a lot of people talking at me in the last few days. Everyone just lining up to tell me how unimportant I am. And I’ve finally figured out why. Power. I have it. They don’t. This bothers them.”

            Difference can be interpreted as threatening when it doesn’t, can’t, or won’t conform, whether you’re a young, femme superhero, working for a snobby, misogynistic council, or a teacher at high school near London, wearing a floral dress.

            My take? Whenever it seems like there isn’t room for difference, it can feel like we’ve been stoppered. But we’re actually witnessing the fragility of a loudly normative world.

______________

“Coming together in unique ways is what has made us, as a community, strong,” says HR luminary Pat Wadors in her LinkedIn Learning course, Diversity, Inclusion & Belonging. “Introverts and extroverts, hunters and gatherers—I mean, you name it, this diversity of who we are makes us stronger as a village, as a tribe, as a community.” As a young tom boy, Wadors herself was excluded from Little League for being a girl, but when she discovered there was nothing in the rulebook that said girls couldn’t play, she was allowed back onto her team.

            But the boys stole her mitt. They didn’t invite her to pizza.

            She knew she didn’t belong.

            Wadors’ difference was a strength for that team, and she proved it by being excellent at the game. 

            As Wadors reminds us, we need diversity. But when our leaders don’t help us to feel that we belong, it’s hard for those who are different to speak up, to act, to express opinions.  Being yourself and expressing your truths actually strengthens the group, as well as your sense of belonging. “When do you get so comfortable that you, with bright eyes, go, ‘We can do it better this way,’ or, ‘How about this great idea?’” says Wadors. “You’re fearless. That’s what you get with this core sense of belonging.”

            On the Little League team, once she won them an important game, the boys invited Wadors for pizza and she finally felt that core sense of belonging. It was the first time she’d hung out with them where she felt wanted. “They returned my mitt that day,” explains Wadors. “That was my first belonging moment. And from that point forward, I rocked who I was.”

______________

I did stop wearing those floaty dresses for a while, but once I began to find my footing, I went back to dressing as I used to. In the meantime, I was moved to the classroom opposite my boss’s. While I was teaching, we’d often hear him yelling, hounding his students to be quiet. More often than not, the yelling would result in momentary quiet, followed by further—often louder—disruption from the kids.

            I get why his students didn’t stay quiet. For me, a great rule of thumb in life is to never do anything in response to being yelled at.

            Then, one day, I was away from work, sick, and the following morning, I was summoned to the headteacher’s office. Ominous though this felt, when I arrived, the headteacher was smiling. “Yesterday,” she said, “when I covered one of your classes, I walked into your classroom to find some of the most disruptive kids in the school, sitting in rows, quietly reading their books, even though no one had been there to supervise them.” She gave me a puzzled look. “I’ve covered that class plenty of times for other teachers, and I’ve always arrived to chaos. Evenhave difficulties controlling several of the boys. How do you do it?”

            I explained.

            These kids were in the lower stream. They had low self-esteem. Many came from difficult backgrounds. The noisy ones were barked at every day. All of them were expected to fail. They got more attention for rebellion than they did for effort and achievement. And, as I’d learned as a trainee teacher, when someone doesn’t believe they’ll get attention for trying, they may aim to get attention in other ways. 

            But there were a few kids, with equally low self-esteem, who just quietly did their best, getting little attention from any of their teachers who were too busy trying to get the class in order. These students were mostly female and some were young women of color. 

            As a teacher or leader, what you put your attention on grows. Give rebellion your attention, and that’s likely what you’ll get. Want peace? Want to learn? Want everyone to feel safe enough to contribute, be creative, try? 

            The key is to notice the quiet ones.

            So, to work with the class, I started giving my attention to the students who were quietly reading at the start of the lesson. For a little while, those lessons grew noisier, but I kept giving the quiet ones the majority of my attention, and it didn’t take long for the other kids to respond. Pretty soon, when I walked into that classroom, you could hear a pin drop. Every week, the class was sitting quietly, ready for me to tell them the truth—that they were an excellent group.

            Their self-esteem rocketed. In lessons, the quieter ones started putting up their hands to answer questions.

            And that’s what I told the headteacher.

            Once I’d finished, she said, “I’m going to think about this. We’ll talk more.”

            That meeting with her was a turning point for me. Not long after, I’d be offered a Quality Management role, taking responsibility for whole-school behavior, with a focus on rebellious boys—a promotion that, had he not left, could have made the boss who’d criticized my wardrobe my junior.

            The day I was offered the role, I was wearing a floaty dress.

______________

When I was a trainee teacher, I was taught classroom management by a brilliant lecturer, whose name I’ve sadly forgotten. He walked into the room and drew a triangle on the board. In the middle, he put a single dot.

            “What’s in the triangle?” he said.

            We replied, “A dot.”

            “What else?” he said.

            “Nothing.”

            “Nothing?” he said. “Try again. What else is in the triangle?”

            It took a moment before we found the answer. There wasn’t just a dot. There was also space.

            “As leaders,” he said, “if we only ever notice the dot, the dot is all we’ll get. We have to take responsibility for actively seeing the space—or, in classroom terms, the quieter behavior, which often comes from those who feel different. If we only ever listen to those who shout out the answers, and we only ever let the confident kids contribute, everyone will miss out. The whole class, teacher included, will miss the great ideas that the quieter ones can bring.”

            What you give attention to, you’ll receive more of.

            What you ignore will likely fade.

            Questions I now ask myself, on a daily basis: In what ways, as the leader of your life, are you giving the quiet ones your attention? In what ways, as the leader of your life, are you listening to difference and honoring it?

______________

An old friend of mine was a research scientist who managed a group of researchers. One of his researchers, a woman of color who was also a non-native English speaker, wanted a promotion in the research department, but he never felt able to give it to her. “She lacks originality of thought,” he’d tell me. “I can’t get her to understand that if she wants to go higher, she needs to stop going by the book.”

            I’d say to him, “Maybe she can go higher in other ways.”

            He’d reply, “In research, originality isthe way.”

            One evening, I went out for drinks with this friend and a few members of his research group before we all headed off for dinner at a restaurant, which was a short car journey away. The young woman in question didn’t know where the restaurant was, so she followed my friend and me in her car. It turned out to be a complex journey through a dark and stormy night. The traffic was abysmal. The roads were winding. The way was unclear. My friend kept saying, “Damn! She’s going to lose us.”  

            But she didn’t.

            Not once.

            “She has a gift for following, doesn’t she?” I said. “Maybe that’s something to consider at work.”

            The light came on in his eyes. “She isgreat at following.” He paused before adding, “And perhaps, in some ways, I’m less so.”

            When I think back to this moment, another quote from my business coach Buffy the Vampire Slayer springs to mind. Faith, who is also a slayer, says to Buffy, “I came here to beat the other guy. To do right, however it works. I don’t know if I can lead. But the real question is, can you follow?”

            Who knows what the woman from my friend’s workplace could potentially contribute to a team where she was recognized as powerfully capable, where she felt she truly belonged. Plus, surely an ability to follow suggests other sought-after talents, too, like accuracy, rigor, and attention to detail. 

            Leadership qualities.

            We are also obsessed with originality and creativity in the west, believing that these qualities can’t be learned. As a former teacher, I think that’s nonsense. Capability often shows a great capacity for learning—originality can come out of this, but not without confidence. 

            Had anyone thought to nurture the gifts that this young woman so clearly possessed? Was there not a higher role in the organization for her, given her skillset? Was anybody even asking these questions? 

            Wasn’t it anyone’s job to do so?

______________

Over the past few months, I’ve come out as non-binary and received various responses. One of these, which I received after sharing a story of my non-binary identity, was, “The world isn’t going to change for you, you know. I can tell you that, right now.” In another instance, being a professional content writer, I wrote an article featuring an expert only to find that, once I’d come out as non-binary, she took the credit on social media and forgot to tag or acknowledge me as the writer—even though we’d met via the social media channel in question—as if the piece was hers alone.

            Repeated events like these have made me quieter. I’m fighting this, as you can see, determined not to fade away. But networking is hard and sharing is harder, when people you barely know have a tendency to tell you, “You don’t belong here. You never will. And I’m not going to help.”

            In a classroom once, I taught a poem called Search for My Tongueby Sujata Bhatt. The poem, which is beautiful, has a section that is written in Gujarati. A young Indian woman in that class who was almost always quiet suddenly started to speak about the poem. Not only was Gujarati her first language, but she had experienced what the poet was writing about—being a second-language English speaker and thinking you have lost your original language before finding that, in dreams, it begins to pour back into you. What was lost blooms.

            Before we studied this poem, you might have thought that this fourteen year old had little to say. She was one of the quietest students in the class. But her comments on Bhatt’s work were nothing short of powerfully illuminating. She taught us a great deal. Things changed for her in that classroom, too—and therefore for all of us. She began to share more, in general. To take more risks, to raise her hand. Her grades went up. She was being herself.

            My guess is that she felt she belonged.

            We must find ways to let each other know that every one of us belongs. Once we know we do, as Wadors says, we are often at our best. What the Gujarati-speaking student taught our class that day was profound. And the poem in question was part of the English GCSE exam, the results of which are so important culturally that they can determine your entire working life.

            We quiet ones count, too. We different ones have something to say. Those who don’t conform to “type” can bring riches.

            Inside the triangle, there is also space.

            And in space lies possibility.

______________

Star Williams, content writer and ghostwriter

Leaders, check out Pat Wadors’ LinkedIn Learning course, Diversity, Inclusion, and Belonging, in order to find ways to create a deep sense of belonging in the workplace—and more.

Image credit: “Coloured pencil” by Johann Dréo is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 

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