School Climate & Safety Q&A

Q&A: Teachers’ Cues Shape Students’ Sense of Belonging

By Evie Blad — June 20, 2017 4 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

If students don’t feel like they belong in their school environment, they can feel like impostors, said Dena Simmons, the director of education at the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence and a former middle school teacher.

That feeling can create fear and anxiety that hijack students’ learning experiences or lead them to believe they are not capable of success, she said.

Simmons’ views are not just informed by her professional and academic work; they are also shaped by her experiences as a child of an immigrant mother who transferred from a public school in the Bronx to a mostly white boarding school in Connecticut.

Dena Simmons, director of education, Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence

In a TED Talk, Simmons discusses the time a teacher at her new school loudly confronted her in front of her peers about the way she pronounced “asking.” The moment, she said, made her feel like she didn’t belong.

Simmons says students in all kinds of schools pick up on cues like she did. Disproportionate discipline rates for children of color, a lack of literature featuring characters who look or live like them, or a sense that their “identity isn’t present” or reflected in their teachers or peers can create hurdles to belonging.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Those two are connected, right—a student’s environment and their confidence about performing in that environment?

Yes, and there’s different things that can tell you that [this environment wasn’t created for people like you]. You can look into your books and see nothing like you.

Your teachers very rarely, if you’re a person of color, look like you. Or, if you’re a student with a disability, you rarely see teachers who look like you as well. Constantly you’re getting all these messages where your experience, or your identity, isn’t present.

In some ways, your experience, your identity, is erased; it’s invisible. You start to look around and try to find pictures of you and you can’t, and so you start to panic. You start to say, “Do I belong here?”

That’s why I think it’s crucial for educators to, if they don’t represent their students’ backgrounds or can’t relate, that they make a concerted effort in inviting those experiences into the classroom through expanding the curricular experience of students and inviting mentors in the classroom that can speak to their own experiences, and many times those are experiences that are marginalized. We have a status quo in this country, and if you don’t fit it ... you will feel like an impostor.

How did you experience this at your boarding school?

My boarding school did have nurturing aspects to it. Like I shared, leaving the Bronx and not having to hear gunshots out my window, and going to a place where it was quiet when I went to sleep was a very welcome novelty for me.

There were definitely things that I welcomed about that experience. However, it did not come without its trauma.

I think what happens in, I mean a lot of the boarding schools in the country, and I don’t want to downgrade them, they do really great work. But, in my research on bullying, and you talk to any of those private schools and they’ll say, “We don’t really have a problem.”

That, to me, I think is the largest issue. When you don’t identify that you potentially have a problem, then you don’t think you need to address it.

In general, if [educators] think that they are saving people, then they don’t think that they can actually do harm in their “saving.” I think that happens a lot, not only in privileged schools, but also in any district or charter school in our nation.

We send these narratives of saving these black and brown kids from urban environments that we, in many ways, through our narrative, disempower the communities that we say we’re trying to save.

How can teachers address these factors and build belonging so that students don’t feel like impostors?

If you don’t fit into the status quo, then you are made to feel like you do not belong. That’s why it’s crucial and important that as we educate our students, as people in front of the room working with our students, that we address our own bias.

We need to address and reflect on our positionality. What does it mean for me to be a white woman from Arkansas teaching in the Bronx? What does it mean for me personally as a black woman from the Bronx who’s acquired all of this social capital who is now teaching in the Bronx? Regardless of who we are, if we’re in the room as the educator, there’s a certain level of power and privilege that we have that we have to reflect upon and speak on.

We have to be vigilant about it so that we don’t inadvertently abuse our powers, inadvertently suggest that there is one way to do things because it is our way of doing things.

I tell people that if we approach the world like it is art, then we will begin to see the beauty. If we walk into our classrooms with the mindset that ... there are assets from which we can learn, we will shift our thinking away from thinking that we are coming in to “save these kids,” and I put that in quotes because I hate that. ... Instead, [teachers should] see our children, the communities we serve, as art—as people who we can learn from, people who are beautiful, communities that are beautiful, as lessons to be learned.

Coverage of learning mindsets and skills is supported in part by a grant from the Raikes Foundation, at www.raikesfoundation.org. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the June 21, 2017 edition of Education Week as Teachers’ Cues, Subtle or Not, Shape Students’ Experiences


Commenting has been disabled on edweek.org effective Sept. 8. Please visit our FAQ section for more details. To get in touch with us visit our contact page, follow us on social media, or submit a Letter to the Editor.


Events

This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Teaching Webinar
What’s Next for Teaching and Learning? Key Trends for the New School Year
The past 18 months changed the face of education forever, leaving teachers, students, and families to adapt to unprecedented challenges in teaching and learning. As we enter the third school year affected by the pandemic—and
Content provided by Instructure
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Curriculum Webinar
How Data and Digital Curriculum Can Drive Personalized Instruction
As we return from an abnormal year, it’s an educator’s top priority to make sure the lessons learned under adversity positively impact students during the new school year. Digital curriculum has emerged from the pandemic
Content provided by Kiddom
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Equity & Diversity Webinar
Leadership for Racial Equity in Schools and Beyond
While the COVID-19 pandemic continues to reveal systemic racial disparities in educational opportunity, there are revelations to which we can and must respond. Through conscientious efforts, using an intentional focus on race, school leaders can
Content provided by Corwin

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

School Climate & Safety 'Devious Lick' TikTok Trend Creates Chaos in Schools Nationwide
Shattered mirrors, missing soap dispensers, and broken toilets in school bathrooms have been linked to the "devious lick" challenge.
Simone Jasper, The News & Observer (Raleigh, N.C.)
2 min read
At the new Rising Hill Elementary School in Kansas City, Mo., gender neutral student bathrooms have a common sink area for washing and individual, locking, toilet stalls that can be used by boys or girls. Principal Kate Place gave a tour of the facilities on Saturday, Aug. 11, 2018. The school is in the North Kansas City school district.
A gender neutral student bathroom.
Keith Myers/The Kansas City Star via AP
School Climate & Safety What the Research Says A Hallmark of School Shooters: Long History of Social Rejection
New research finds that shooters in K-12 schools are more often "failed joiners" than loners.
5 min read
Butler County Sheriff Deputies stand on the scene at Madison Local Schools, in Madison Township in Butler County, Ohio, after a school shooting on Feb. 29, 2016.
Sheriff deputies were on the scene of a shooting at Madison Local Schools, in Butler County, Ohio, in 2016.
Cara Owsley/The Cincinnati Enquirer via AP
School Climate & Safety 4 Myths About Suspensions That Could Hurt Students Long Term
New longitudinal research shows that longer in- and out-of-school suspensions have severe consequences for students.
5 min read
Image of a student sitting at a desk in a school hallway.
Jupiterimages/Getty
School Climate & Safety Photos The Tense and Joyous Start to the 2021 School Year, in Photos
Students are headed back to school with the threat of the Delta variant looming. How is this playing out across the country? Take a look.