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B is for Belonging

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By Steve Albert

The start of a new school year is always an exciting time, and, among other things, it allows for an opportunity to redirect focus and priorities. Beginning with our back-to-school in-service for faculty and staff, we are focusing this year upon the theme of “belonging.” This is a natural extension of the work that we have done in recent years to address diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) at PJA.

When I was in graduate school in the 1990’s, I took a course in “Multi-Cultural Education.” At the time, most independent schools were just beginning to review curricula through a cultural lens. The focus of these efforts was ensuring that the people, places, ideas, history, literature, and arts that are studied in school reflect a broad range of cultures beyond the white, male, Western, Christian emphasis that was traditional.

This effort broadened over the next few decades to include: diversity – the effort to ensure that people of many different backgrounds and perspectives participated in the school community; equity – providing every member of the school community with equal access to the opportunities that support their development and help them thrive; and inclusion – behaviors, by schools, that demonstrate to people that they are accepted, respected and valued. These are the principles that are incorporated into recent DEI efforts in independent schools.

Today, we’ve started to talk about DEIB. B is for “belonging.” Belonging is related to inclusion, but it is not the same thing. Inclusion is action taken by schools and school communities, while belonging is the experience of the person or people who are being included. Ideally, the two go hand in hand, but it’s also possible that inclusion efforts don’t necessarily lead to a sense of belonging, and that’s the reason for exploring both values independently.

According to the National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS), “Belonging refers to the emotional and experiential outcome of inclusion. All humans share the need to be taken in, cared-for, protected, and valued by a group, community, or organization. Belonging gives people a voice in a community, and encourages and enables them to contribute to it and to expect support from it as well.”

While this emphasis on belonging in independent schools is relatively new, the idea itself is not. In 1943, the psychologist Abraham Maslow first published his “hierarchy of needs” as a theory of human motivation. Immediately above basic physiological and safety needs, Maslow placed “belongingness.” At this level of the hierarchy is the need for friendship, intimacy, family and love – humans need to feel like they belong in a group.

We know that belonging is critical in schools. According to NAIS, “Belonging is a foundation for learning. When students know they belong and feel valued in a school community, they are comfortable taking the academic risks necessary to grow and develop. Belonging is tied to academic engagement and achievement for all students.” 

As we jump into the 2022-23 school year, we want to ensure that all members of our school community – students, families, faculty, staff, alumni, and alumni families – feel a strong sense of belonging at PJA. We invite you to participate actively in our community this year – in ways that haven’t been possible in the last few years – to ensure that our school is a place where everyone feels that they belong.