When I signed on to teach at a school in Georgia at age 24, I assumed it would be an adventure; I just didn’t know what kind. I was a dyed-in-the-wool Yankee — and in New England, every place where I had ever felt like I belonged was within a few hundred miles. Seven years later, I see my time in the South as a seven-year crash course in being an outsider and learning how to recognize myself at home here. More important, my transplant experience has helped me focus on the challenge of helping all students feel like they, too, belong when they come to school each day.
I probably should have anticipated feeling like a fish out of water in Georgia. I hadn’t processed that I was joining an Upper School faculty that was mostly men, deeply experienced (average tenure was 14 years), and highly educated (PhDs abounded). I had seen my school’s stadium, but I hadn’t understood that football (and cheerleading) were the heartbeat of the entire community. I had noted the school’s founding date — 1951, old by local standards — but I hadn’t anticipated the opportunity and complexity of being part of an institution that was just coming of age.
In my first week on campus, however, people acknowledged and affirmed my difference. At orientation, the Dean of Faculty told us, “We hired you for who you are today” — and when he sat at my table at lunch, he asked me specifically if I had heard him say that. When I was crestfallen after students bombed a summer reading assessment, my Department Chair said: “Your standards are very high, higher than you realize and what kids are used to. But stick with them. It’s one of the reasons we chose you!”
Within the first few months, I found affinity with two female colleagues. One was a fellow Northeast transplant. Another was a veteran who had been a young female teacher decades ahead of me who listened without judgment and shared her own stories of feeling she didn’t belong: the countless, awkward comments about her appearance; the dismissal of her ideas in meetings; that time a student’s father demanded to speak to her supervisor about his son’s progress without listening to anything she said. She sent me to Joan Didion’s On Self-Respect again and again.
Within the first year, I found two homegrown guides who responded to my borderline anthropological curiosity with divergent, generous perspectives. Tell me about the shorthand of churches, about why there’s no talk about race when it’s everywhere, about grandparents and family structure, about the mystique of hunting and fishing, about this school when you first began teaching here!
A few years later, my Division Head moved me into a Grade Dean position where I served as a public steward of this place that had once felt so strange. I was given leadership roles because of the very things that had once made me feel so apart.
Helping Students Be Seen — and Heard
Through it all, even if subconsciously, my teaching practice came to focus on belonging. I saw enormous potential in the school’s impressive diversity (by the numbers: 80 zip codes, 37% students of color), and wanted to offer the students in my English classes the assurance that they belonged. So I wondered: How can I design practices to accelerate belonging, based on what I learned about what it takes? How can my curriculum acknowledge and affirm differences, create space for affinity (mirrors) and curiosity (windows), and allow for meaningful, individuated growth?
Recognizing that many students were reckoning with painful, and in some cases systemic and suppressed, feelings of un-belonging, I started small: focusing on student-led discussion. As I halfheartedly practiced the Harkness method, I saw — in the frustrated introvert, in the boy who spoke over the girl, in the child who took furious notes but never raised her hand, in the girl who agreed with everyone and compulsively looked to me for approval — potential for deeper connections among children, ideas, and texts. I saw a context where kids were not bringing their whole selves, and I thought about how the dynamics of a second-period discussion on Purple Hibiscus or Macbeth — Who talked? Who listened? Who interrupted? Who disagreed? Who used confidence instead of evidence? — was an interesting proxy for talking about voice and belonging in the wider world. I decided that learning to talk about discussion dynamics was a safe way for us to learn about the patterns of power, ranging from personalities to implicit biases, that can make us all feel as if we do or do not belong.
From these observations, I developed R.E.A.L.: a modern framework for meaningful student-led discussion. R.E.A.L. empowers teachers to design a discussion practice aligned to their particular values, context, and goals. It starts with the premise that all teachers know discussion is important, but actually value very different elements of the practice. Within a classroom, R.E.A.L. establishes a common language, shared routines, and a growth assessment culture orientated toward discussion: It begins with four simple skills — Relate, Excerpt, Ask, and Listen. Routines for reflection, including students setting and tracking progress toward goals they set and group-wide debriefs, ensure meaningful, individuated growth.
Since 2013, R.E.A.L. has piloted with thousands of students in diverse contexts and yielded stunningly consistent results. Across school types, grade levels, and disciplines, students report that they feel heard and their voice is relevant. Teachers report knowing their students better and assessing discussion participation more equitably and efficiently. Parent feedback ranges — from reporting their child speaks more or listens better at the dinner table to saying this is the first time their child’s report card hasn’t had a sentence about speaking-up-more-often.
Seen, Heard, and Real
We all know that true belonging comes from not just being seen and heard but also from the sense that we are being real with each other. It grows out of conversations that aren’t just full of R.E.A.L. skills — but ripe with moments where we show our authentic selves and grow through misunderstandings. That kind of realness comes through hard moments. That time I asked my colleague to stop making jokes about mistaking me for a student — and instead we reframed our default conversation to be about paths through grad school. That end-of-unit reflection when a student wrote, “I thought she was going to hate me when I disagreed with her. But actually, she gave me a shout-out which made me see that I helped her re-consider her perspective and she was thankful for that even if she seemed annoyed when it was happening. Also other people took my side, which was interesting. Experiences like this make me remember why I need to speak up, even when it feels uncomfortable or I’m tired.”
My hope and prayer for our schools as we wrestle so mightily with questions of belonging this year: that we commit to making each other feel seen, feel heard, and feel real. In the words of Marjory Williams Bianco, in that childhood classic The Velveteen Rabbit: “‘Real isn’t how you are made,’ said the Skin Horse. ‘It’s a thing that happens to you.’”