School Climate & Safety

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

By Evie Blad — June 20, 2017 4 min read

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 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


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