Offices & Resources

 

On Belonging

On Belonging
Convocation Talk
John Warren
September 9, 2022

On a beautiful fall Saturday afternoon in November of 1971, the 6-0 Groton Zebras varsity football team arrived at Belmont Field to take on the 4-2 St. Mark's Lions varsity football team. St. Mark's was definitely the underdog. Indeed, many members of the Groton team had never lost a football game during their entire time at Groton.

I was a IV Former on that St. Mark's team, playing sparingly as a defensive tackle and occasionally on the kickoff and kick return teams. My major contribution to the team was being part of the group that simulated the formations and plays of our weekly opponents so that the first-string players could get accustomed to what they would face on a Saturday.

We were very ready for that Groton game. The team went into the game with confidence because we had put together a better record than had been predicted, and because even in the two games we had lost, we had played very well. We had great faith in the way our coaches had prepared us for the game, and we were inspired by the leadership of our captains and the other VI Formers. We were especially motivated and inspired because of a team dinner the night before the game at a nearby restaurant hosted by some parents, a far less frequent occurrence than happens now. At our place was a printed menu that featured items like Zebra meat (well, it was actually steak), and over the course of the evening we heard many very powerful motivational speeches.

On that Saturday, Groton got off to a fast start, leading 27-14 at halftime. But we Lions were undaunted. We came storming back, scoring 14 unanswered points in the third quarter and holding on for a 28-27 win. (1) As you can imagine, pandemonium erupted on Belmont Field when the clock ran out. The key visual that all of us on the team still have in our minds (I know because we still talk about the moment) is our kicker kicking the extra point that gave us the one-point lead. When last Spring a member of that Groton team, who was visiting with a prospective student, recounted key moments in that game, I learned firsthand about the power of that memory for Groton players too.

Being a member of that 1971 varsity football team was an incredibly important part of my St. Mark's experience, even though I was rarely on the field in games. Being part of that team was so important to me because it was the first time at St. Mark's that I felt a true sense of belonging. Thanks to the approach of other players, especially the VI Formers, I was made to feel a full part of the group, respected for my 100 percent effort in practice (Age Quod Agis), and believing I was making a contribution to that team because of the positive feedback I received from coaches and fellow players. (2) As my St. Mark's student career went along, that sense of belonging grew as my relationships with peers and faculty deepened and as I was able to make contributions I felt good about in different places around the school, inside and outside the classroom.

My greatest hope for every one of you, every member of the St. Mark's community, student and adult, is that you feel a strong sense of belonging here at our School. While there are many ways to define what it means to belong, I especially like the definition presented by social scientist Brené Brown. Picking up on the attributes Brown identifies, I care deeply that you feel respected for who you are, that you are able to be your full self here as opposed to simply trying to fit in, and that you are able to feel good about the contributions you make to this community.

Developing a full sense of belonging does not happen automatically or immediately. However, I hope that those of you new to our community have come to feel an immediate sense of welcome, an essential first step in feeling that you belong. We need to recognize that developing a full sense of belonging is impacted by how each of us approaches our life at St. Mark's, so we have some control over it. As members of this community, we each also have a responsibility, in our actions and in our mind-set, for helping others develop a sense of belonging.

Why is a sense of belonging so important and something I care so deeply about? The answer actually rests upon common sense: we are all happier and more productive, able to thrive, if we feel like we truly belong where we are. Expanding on this point, all sorts of research documents a correlation between possessing a sense of belonging in a place and emotional well-being. Summarizing that research, Brown notes that "in the absence of love and belonging there is always suffering." (3) Brown's statement certainly resonates with me: I want everybody here to thrive, and I would never want anyone to suffer.

Since possessing a sense of belonging is widely recognized as important, both here at St. Mark's and at peer schools, St. Mark's and other schools ask about it regularly in surveys. Researchers who think deeply about what constitutes a sense of belonging and how to measure it have come up with these descriptions and have asked students to report the extent to which they experience their school in this way:

  • I am comfortable being myself at this school
  • My opinions are respected at this school
  • There is at least one adult who knows me well
  • I am motivated by teachers who encourage me
  • In general, I am excited about my classes
  • I feel good about who I am as a student (4)

During the 10 years we have administered this survey, over 80 percent of respondents have reported that these characteristics do describe their St. Mark's experience. While that statistic can be viewed positively, especially since it stacks up very well with the results at peer schools, I hope you would agree that this statistic is too low because as many as two out of every ten St. Mark's students every year do not feel as if they fully belong, according to these criteria.

When you dig deeper into information we have about the student experience at St. Mark's, particularly exit interviews of a representative sample of VI Formers our Director of Institutional Research Sarah Enterline has undertaken, we learn that a sense of belonging is more common among students for whom the culture of St. Mark's feels very familiar because of their background. We have tried to address this situation as sensitively as we possibly can in an effort to create a sense of belonging for every one of our students and to support our students for whom feeling like you belong may come less naturally because of your background.

The growth of–and support for–affinity groups is one example of that effort. Social science evidence indicates that affinity groups make a huge difference to a sense of belonging for students, especially if this kind of environment is not the one you have grown up in. (5) Adult professional development, intentional creation of curriculum content, and increasing resources for emotional support of students who have not grown up in this environment have been other ongoing initiatives that have proven to make a difference to students' sense of belonging. The commitment to each of these elements is deep and ongoing because of our desire that every St. Mark's student feels that they belong here.

Whatever your background, and whatever your identity, there are also steps you can take to develop a sense of belonging here that will make your experience the best it can possibly be, allowing you to feel as good as you possibly can here, and do what we all want for you: thrive.

One piece of advice that seems particularly appropriate at Convocation, the beginning of the academic year, is to put your full energy and passion into your academics. Faculty take the words of our mission statement very seriously, so we deeply want to inspire your academic and spiritual curiosity and kindle your passion for discovery. Because, as our mission statement says, we value cooperation over self-interest, much of the St. Mark's academic experience takes place in small groups, including project-based learning.

So, since we are a school, finding fulfillment and reasons for pride in your classroom experience will surely contribute to a sense of belonging. Your teachers are eager to help you experience your classes in this way.

Over the summer I read a book called In Search of Deeper Learning by Jal Mehta and Sarah Fine. (6) They say that "deep learning accrues over time through an upward spiral of mastery, identity, and creativity." (7) Mastery, they explain, means developing the skill to identify relevant information, and internalize it so you can use it productively, as opposed to simply memorizing information for a test and then forgetting it shortly after the test. Identity, they explain, means becoming personally invested in what you are learning, believing the information to be relevant and therefore something you want to remember and use because you care about it. Creativity means doing something with the information, developing an original argument, for example, seeking to persuade a teacher or—even better—a larger audience, of a conclusion you arrived at or a point of view you developed based on the information you studied.

While I could provide many examples, Fine and Mehta's description reminded me, in particular, of an experience I had last May in an Advanced Global Citizenship class. During the class period, while students engaged in one classroom in online research and collaborative work for a final presentation that was upcoming, small groups joined me one by one in the adjacent classroom to practice their presentations and get feedback. The overall assignment was to undertake a deep analysis of the work of a non-governmental organization (NGO) using all the skills learned since the beginning of the year. Two examples of NGOs different groups studied are Pencils of Promise, which has helped build over 550 schools in Ghana, Guatemala and Laos (8), and Teach for China, which has placed American and Chinese college graduates in schools in high poverty rural Chinese communities. (9)

What struck me in every case was how knowledgeable every member of every group was about their topic, how precise the logic of the presentations were, and most strikingly, how passionate every single one of the students was about the subject and the argument they were making. So, I was seeing the top end of the spiral that Mehta and Fine describe, and I am confident that these students were feeling a sense of belonging as emerging scholars since they were demonstrating something that St. Mark's values.

I greatly hope that you have this sort of experience in your St. Mark's classrooms this year, wherever you are on the upward spiral. Committing yourself deeply to your St. Mark's academics will increase the chances of you experiencing your classes in this way, thus enhancing your sense of belonging.

I hope, too, that you will engage in the many parts of our educational program that lie outside of the classroom in the ways that fit with your interests and skills. These places can contribute importantly to a sense of belonging. Indeed, developing a sense of belonging in a group can contribute to developing a more general sense of belonging at St. Mark's as a whole, as I experienced as a IV Form member of the football team.

I have mentioned affinity groups as one place where belonging can happen, and I have mentioned athletics. Many other examples exist too, including robotics, choir, orchestra or acapella, your house community, and drama. Mehta and Fine present an extended case study of the preparation and presentation of a high school dramatic production to reinforce the point that the parts of the education program outside the classroom can provide very rewarding experiences of deep learning (10).

I also ask, as another step you can take to develop a sense of belonging, that you make an effort to let yourself be known. I wholeheartedly endorse Brené Brown's statement "if people don't really know who we are and what we believe or think, there's no true belonging." (11) Therefore, as Brown continues, "belonging is a practice that requires us to be vulnerable, get uncomfortable, and learn how to be present without sacrificing who we are." (12) In other words, if you are going to be known, then you have to be willing to let others know you, your background, what you care about, what you feel good about at this particular moment and what you feel less good about.

At the same time, and crucial to a culture of belonging, when someone shares a part of themselves, and is thus vulnerable, we each have a responsibility to listen respectfully, empathetically, seeking to understand, and validating what we are hearing. By the way we listen, when someone is sharing something important about themselves, we either build connection, honor the trust offered by the person sharing, and thus increase the components of a sense of belonging or we shut the person down which is hugely deflating and makes the sharer and risk taker feel less like they belong.

Brown describes true listening as story stewardship. "We are good stewards of the stories we hear," she asserts, "by listening, being curious, affirming, and believing people when they tell us how they experienced something." (13) By contrast, she continues, all too often, unless we are very careful, we can inadvertently shift the focus of the conversation to us, our own experience as opposed to theirs, or question or not believe "what someone is sharing because it's different than our lived experience or diminishing the importance of an experience because it makes us feel uncomfortable or, worse, complicit." (14)

So, as you seek to develop a deeper sense of belonging in a small group or a large group, I hope you can find a trustworthy listener to share important parts of yourself, and for those of us given that trust, I hope you can indeed listen in a way that is worthy of that trust.

Finally, if we are going to support a developing sense of belonging in others, we need to commit to living out a major tenet of our Episcopal identity, respectful dialogue across lines of disagreement and difference. Comments in a 2022 exit survey of VI Formers indicates that the School has work to do in order to meet this standard, an essential component to a culture of belonging. Some VI Formers reported that, both inside and outside the classroom, they were reluctant to state an opinion because they feared that opinion would not be heard respectfully by other members of a group. Experiencing St. Mark's this way impedes a sense of belonging.

This VI Form feedback resonated with me because I have witnessed dismissive comments in advisee meetings that, despite my best efforts, was a pattern I found very difficult to stop. Therefore, I would ask for a self-regulation and receptivity to feedback about how you are coming across to others, and a true curiosity to hear more about a point of view different than your own. That approach will contribute to your fellow students' sense belonging

For me, a deep sense of belonging at St. Mark's began on my football team and broadened from there. I certainly could have described academic and residential life experiences that contributed to that sense of belonging as well. I want so much for each of you to feel like you truly belong at St. Mark's. Experiencing our school in this way will make your time here happy and productive, preparing you in the most affirming way to lead a life of consequence.

Wherever you are in your St. Mark's journey, I trust that you will find people and places that help you develop and deepen that sense of belonging. I trust also that you will approach your life here with an openness and receptivity that will help build that belonging.

By the way we approach our school this year, we have the opportunity to make the year special for ourselves and for others. I ask that you make committing yourself intentionally and explicitly to belonging part of that approach.

Thank you.

  1. The game received coverage in the Boston Globe, "Inspired St. Mark's Edges Groton, 28-27, November 14, 1971, and the New York Times "St. Mark's Sinks Groton on Rally," November 14, 1971 Preps - The New York Times (nytimes.com)
  2. See Brené Brown, Atlas of the Heart: Mapping Meaningful Connection and the Language of Human Experience, New York: Random House, 2021, p. 165 for the definition of belonging I drew upon.
  3. Brown, p.154
  4. Thank you to Director of Institutional Research Sarah Enterline for providing me with this information.
  5. See, for example, Gregory M. Walton and Shannon T. Brady, "The Many Questions of Belonging," in Handbook of Competence and Motivation: Theory and Application, 2nd Edition, edited by Andrew J. Elliot, Carol S. Dweck, and David S. Yeager. New York: Guilford Press, 2017 pp. 272-293. Article suggested by Amity Doolittle.
  6. Jal Mehta and Sarah Fine, In Search of Deeper Learning: The Quest to Remake the American High School, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2019.
  7. Mehta and Fina, p. 366.
  8. Press - Pencils of Promise
  9. (16) Teach For China | Facebook
  10. Mehta and Fine, pp, 252-307
  11. Brown, p. 158.
  12. Brown, p. 159.
  13. Brown, p. 265.
  14. Brown, p. 266.
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John Warren '74