Don’t forget the little (big) things

Creating a sense of belonging for each student is the first and most important function of any school. Everything else (literally) is academic.  

My first lesson in how to go about this (many years ago) came from my first teaching mentor who believed it was all about “nailing the welcome” at the start of each lesson.  I recall the instructions I received were along the following lines:

“Stand at the door as they come in, look them in the eye, smile and say their name”

“If you are able to stand at the door at the start of your lesson it means that you have planned it properly and haven’t cuffed it.  It means you aren’t late or faffing around”

“If you are at the door it means that you are well placed to greet each and every student as they come in.  And that’s important as you might be the only adult that day who really notices or connects with that student”  

“If you can make eye contact, they know that they have been seen and acknowledged.  When you smile, then you are telling them that they are both welcome and safe.  And when you say their name, they will know that they belong”.  

“It’s just a little thing, but it makes a big difference.  The rest will follow”

When I started teaching, my mentor was already considered ‘old school’.  And whilst there were many teaching and learning ideas and practices that I knew I needed to quietly consign to the history bin (shhhhh), I instinctively knew that his door advice (and our friendship) would endure.  Indeed, when I became a headteacher he gratuitously gave me almost the same advice he gave me over 20 years earlier:  

“However busy you think you are, stand by the front gate.  Every morning, every day.  Welcome your students into school.  Look them in the eyes, smile (through your mask – they know) and say hello.  This is the work”.

We are going to be doing a lot of work on wellbeing and belonging again this year.  Time (well spent I think) has already been set aside for consultations, surveys, data analysis, evaluations, professional development, strategic planning, reading case studies, exploring research and the like.  That’s great and it’s also exactly where we wanted to be, even if it can sometimes be very difficult to determine where to start, what to prioritize and how to determine the impact of our work.

So I find it quite reassuring to remind myself that sometimes it is the little things that can make the biggest differences.  And if you, like me, are starting 2022 wondering where you stand on wellbeing and belonging this year, why don’t you start by standing at the front door…or the front gate? The rest, as a wise man once said, will follow.

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