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Podcast: Belonging

middle schoolers in classroom
Photo by Pavel Danilyuk
NC State Audio Abstract
NC State's Audio Abstract
Podcast: Belonging

The holy grail for teachers is a classroom full of engaged and attentive students, but sometimes the classroom environment itself can be a barrier to that outcome. DeLeon Gray, associate professor of education psychology and equity, joins Audio Abstract to talk about the concept of belonging and the effect it can have on Black and Latino students in particular.

According to Gray, belonging is the sense of psychological membership that a student may have to their classroom or school community. And it’s uniquely experienced by students from marginalized communities and from marginalized identity groups.

There may have been experiences that people before them might have had around a place or being told – if we think back to the ’50s, ’60s, or even before, “Hey, you don’t belong here in this school.” But there are still historical traces of that to this day.

But there are things that teachers can do to foster a sense of belonging among their students.

“One of the first and easiest ways I think about this question is around how a teacher responds to a student’s mistakes that they may make,” Gray says. “Even in the way you provide assistance and support – sometimes the very same approach, even if it has good intentions, can land differently on different students based on how it’s delivered by an educator.”

Gray recommends using a student’s expertise in the classroom – allowing students to help one another where appropriate, and engaging with students about their cultures so that everyone feels represented.

For Gray, the flexible use of time and encouraging students to think about how what they’re learning can be used to help others are key. The end goal is a collaborative educational model that fosters belonging.

“Every time a student gets into a classroom, it’s a new opportunity to engage that student,” Gray says. “When we talk about students being unmotivated, we’re really placing the responsibility on the student instead of honoring the fact that motivation also resides within the context of our learning environment.

“There are things that teachers can do within their power to address belonging vulnerability in students, even if this student has been disengaged in another classroom. So, we need to disassociate students from whatever reputations they might have in another classroom and just know that we possess the power, as educators, when they’re in our classrooms, to make them feel accepted, respected, included, and supported.”