BELONGING: THE FOUNDATION OF ACADEMIC EXCELLENCE
Kevin Yaley, Ph.D.
Upbuilding the Whole Person
I will often quote our namesake, Colonel Francis W. Parker, the great educational reformer of the 19th century. One of my favorite lines of his reads: “The end and the aim of education is the development of character.”
My initial interpretation of Parker’s dictum was that good schools are fundamentally about developing good kids. While there is certainly truth to this particular analysis, digging a bit deeper into his educational philosophy, I came to understand that Parker’s notion of character education also had to do with how teachers must create learning environments where students feel and know they matter.
Stated differently, according to Parker, the end and the aim of education is the “lifting up” (development) of “the essence of every individual child” (character). Or, as Parker himself later states, education is all about the “upbuilding of the whole person.” Accordingly, the first step in this upbuilding of the child—this development of character—is to create an environment where every individual child feels as though they belong.
Why would Parker insist that the end and the aim of education is to create such environments? Because it is only once the child experiences a true sense of belonging that they can reach their highest academic potential and achieve beyond expectation.
Belonging and Academic Excellence
To feel as though one belongs has long been recognized as an innate human need and a critical driver in a person’s physical and psychological well-being. Well-known American psychologist Abraham Maslow famously ranked belonging as the third most basic human need, only behind psychological needs and safety. To belong is to feel welcome to be your authentic self and to take risks. And to want for a sense of belonging is to be human.
The ability of a school-aged child to experience a true sense of belonging begins and ends with the school itself. As a lifelong educator, I believe it is the fundamental responsibility of the teacher to create and maintain educational constructs and environmental contexts—in simpler terms, classrooms—that foster a sense of belonging for each individual child.
Why? Research tells us that it is only when elementary to college-age students experience an authentic sense of belonging in the classroom that they can achieve their highest academic potential.
“Schools must invest time and resources into teaching teachers the discrete skills needed to upbuild every child so that they can thrive academically.”
– KEVIN YALEY, PH.D.
For example, a study of 238 first-year college students found that “students’ sense of efficacy for succeeding in class and their perception of the value of tasks required in class were quite strongly associated with their sense of belonging,” (Freeman, Anderman, & Jensen, 2007 p. 216).
When I began teaching over thirty years ago, the only apparent skills I needed to be successful were knowledge of the content and basic classroom management. Today, there is a growing understanding of how the brain works and learns—how students receive, filter, consolidate, and apply learning—and the relationship between belonging and academic excellence. Knowing this, teachers need more sophisticated skills to ensure students learn effectively.
The age-old myth that teachers are born with the innate ability to create “magical” classrooms of belonging is simply misguided. Undoubtedly, great teachers bring intangible characteristics, values, and tendencies to the classroom that serve as the foundation for belonging. However, this alone cannot maintain a classroom where every child experiences an authentic sense of belonging. Schools must invest time and resources into teaching teachers the discrete skills needed to upbuild every child so that they can thrive academically.
We do this at Parker. We provide ongoing professional learning opportunities to “upskill” teachers’ pedagogical practice. Skills include providing students with the language to talk about their learning progress, broadening their understanding of students’ culturally and linguistically diverse learning behaviors, and creating an intellectually, psychologically, and socially safe environment for learning. Research confirms that by doing this, students are primed to achieve academic success.
Belonging Begets Academic Excellence
In the end, Colonel Parker had it right: the end and the aim of all education is the development of character—the upbuilding of every individual learner such that they can achieve their highest academic success begins and ends with teachers creating and maintaining classrooms where every individual learner experiences an authentic sense of belonging.
At Parker, our prioritization of belonging primes every child for academic success.