Belonging, part 5: Young people are put in our path to teach us new lessons
By Blog Editor, IOE Digital, on 27 July 2022
The guests at the best bug hotels – I learn from my five-year-old granddaughter – can be ladybirds, beetles, even butterflies. While this is not my vision of luxury hotel living, her tutorial reminds me that young people are put in our path to teach us new lessons, and to remind us of what we may have long forgotten.
This blog – the last in a series of five about Belonging – was inspired by a recent visit to a school in Hackney – Cremer Randall Primary. My aim in visiting the school was to gather material for the final instalment of the podcast series, Let’s hear it for School Belonging. This is a story of possibilities told by young people, school leaders and experts from around the world, with insights from Rapper Jamie Pyke.
I have known the headteacher of Cremer, Jo Riley (no relation), for some time. She is one of the 16 headteachers I worked with during the Covid-19 Pandemic. I learned much from her and her peers about the importance of ‘compassion’ which contributed to my thinking in Compassionate Leadership for School Belonging. You can download this book for free – a bonus in these inflationary times!
The Covid lull gives me the opportunity to visit the school and Manuela Mendoza and I readily accept an invitation to the school’s Jubilee Street Party celebrations. On arrival, we dip into the Jubilee performances, delivered in the playground with vigour by Cremer pupils. Once the excitement has died down, we meet with some of the students.
We later interview Jo.
For some time, I have been mulling over one particular piece of the ‘Belonging Jigsaw’: the importance of the place in which we find ourselves, by design or happenstance. Norman Wirzba’s 2021 book, This Sacred Life: Humanity’s Place in a Wounded World had contributed to my reflections. Wirzba – who must have the best academic title going – ‘Research Professor of Theology, Ecology and Rural Studies’ – reminds us of the importance of identity, roots and place in our troubled world.
We interview the children at Cremer. They are brimming with confidence. As they are attuned to the needs of others, they also tell us that not everyone feels as confident as they do. As Cremer pupils, they tell us, it’s their job to help and ‘give them advice, so they don’t keep worrying’; introduce the newcomers to others.
‘We’re all different’ they say, and we don’t always know what’s going on with other children, ‘like they might be taking their anger out on some people because of what’s happening at home’. They talk about the bigger picture, the wider world we inhabit ‘We’re lucky that we go to school, because some people don’t go to school.’ The message they want to give to others is: ‘make sure you enjoy school and make sure you have a good heart’.
Jo tells us that the school has just adopted a new vision statement, a purer strap line: ‘Belonging, Becoming Believing’. Michelle Obama would like this. ‘We start with belonging’, she has explained, because ‘unless you feel you belong, you’re not going to thrive, you’re not going to settle’.
What makes a place really a place is not its location but the relationships and memorable experiences that happen there. Reflecting on the visit, I am struck by the strength of the relationships between staff and pupils, as well as the feelings that the pupils exude. They are in a place that matters to everyone in it, a place which recognises them for who they are. It is this sense of place which contributes to the strength of their sense of ‘belongingness’, as well as their awareness of future possibilities.
The young people who pass through Cremer’s school gates are a life force: set to make their mark on the world. I reflect that school belonging is just the starting point. A sense of school belonging propels young people through life. It encourages them to listen and learn from others.
It also enables them to grow in confidence and knowledge, and as they learn more about the world around them – whether it is a ‘bug’ hotel or global warming – it inspires them to live on this planet with dignity. It is this kind of school experience which sets young people on a pathway to citizenship – personal, social and global.