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Belonging

We began this week together again in Chapel – pleased that our Covid numbers are low enough that we’ve been able to reduce the control measures which have kept us in smaller groups for so long. When I’m not the person addressing our pupils and staff in Chapel, I’m usually sitting in the same spot and I found myself there recently, enjoying a Lower School Chapel service and watching some very ungainly pigeons and a squirrel eating berries off the tree which I can see through the large window.

Ever since I arrived at St John’s, I’ve watched that tree and the birds which nest in it and eat from it through the seasons.  Sitting there and listening to our service, I reflected on how many seasons I’ve missed during the pandemic and also what an important space and place the Chapel is for me and for so many of our school community. It’s the place where we start and end every term, and therefore every academic year. It’s the place where we come together to celebrate or to express shared sadness or disbelief or just to be together. It’s the place where we feel a sense of belonging to our community. 

Speaking at the launch of Inter Faith Week a decade ago, Dr Rowan Williams, then the archbishop of Canterbury, said that society desperately needed to recover a sense of belonging.  He stated: “To belong is to know that there is somewhere where you don't have to earn your position – it's guaranteed; you are at home and you don't have to work in order to be there. That level of belonging is one of the crucial things which our religious identity gives to us.”

Religion can bring that sense of belonging but research also demonstrates the part which schools play in instilling a sense of belonging in pupils.  Maslow’s hierarchy of needs - the theory of human motivations - places belonging and a need for love as the third most important need, without which it is difficult to move on to develop a sense of self-esteem and a motivation to be the very best we can be. While it’s important at all stages of life, some believe it is even more crucial for young people, in their formative school years, to feel that sense of belonging in order to thrive emotionally, physically, academically and socially.  And I think we can all understand why that might be true. 

My husband runs an expedition company for groups of pupils and one of the things he prepares pupils for is culture shock.  It is a strong sense of not belonging which can be experienced when you first arrive in a new country and can be brought about by all sorts of things – not understanding the language, not knowing your away around, being unsure of cultural norms and not knowing how to behave in particular situations, not recognising the sounds and smells of the environment, and feeling that you don’t quite fit in. Feeling as if you don’t belong can dominate every thought, making it difficult to thrive or focus on anything else. But this is the extreme end of not belonging and you don’t actually need to be somewhere unfamiliar or new to struggle to feel as if you belong.  When researching pupils’ sense of belonging at school, it has been found that the support of peers and positive relationships – amongst pupils and between staff and pupils – are two of the most significant factors influencing an individual’s sense of belonging.

The importance of these relationships means all of us within a school community have a part to play in enhancing each other’s sense of belonging.  The former Children’s Laureate Michael Rosen has produced a book of poetry called On The Move.  Some of the poems chart his own experiences at school as the son of migrant Jews.

My Friend Roger

My friend Roger says
that I can’t walk up the road with him
in case his parents see me,
so I say goodbye to him
at the corner of the road.

But sometimes I just
lean
round
the edge
of the wall
on the corner
and watch him walk up the road
on his own.

How we act, what we say, and what we do each day can affect the sense of belonging those around us have at St John’s.  So I’ve encouraged our pupils to ask themselves: Do you gladly form partnerships with people who are not in your immediate friendship group in sport, drama and science, or does your body language make it clear you would rather be with someone else?  Do you welcome others to join you at lunch and notice the person who seems to have ended up on their own and choose to join them, or not?  Are you open to understanding those around you and do you understand, and act upon, your responsibility to ensure that – to use the words of Rowan Williams – everyone at St John’s feels at home? It will always be something we can work on. But I believe every individual within our community can contribute to making it a reality.

Rowena Cole is The Head of St John's School.  Follow her @rowenacole01 and stay in touch with all the news at St John's by following us @StJohnsSurrey