Creating a culture of belonging

Creating a Culture of Belonging

Belonging is essential to learning.

And belonging comes before achievement.  So how do we go about creating it?

During my term as superintendent of Seattle Schools we studied our outlier schools – schools that out-performed in helping each and every student succeed.  We discovered that the schools that did best showed rates of belonging at 6-8 times higher than our lowest performing schools.  The key variable we found was in the answer to the statement I have an adult at school that cares about me. 

7 Things We Can Do …

Here are seven ways we can increase a sense of caring, welcome, belonging, inclusion, acceptance by our students of color – indeed by each and every student regardless of race, income, creed, ability.


Do you have a student that you want to understand better?  Grow a stronger relationship with?  Create greater cultural awareness?  Try this.  Pick one student.  Commit to spending 2 minutes per day with that student.  Every day for the next 10 days.  You are likely to understand far more about this person than you might otherwise.  And hopefully find many additional ways to connect with that student.

Three Qs:

Do something similar for all of your students.  One colleague, a principal, makes this an explicit part of her work with teachers.  She scripts the questions.  And asks every teacher to interview each student during the month.  Then she provides … at faculty meetings a box for 3×5 cards … and gives teachers opportunities to talk with table groups about what they learned about students by doing this work.  Repeat this each month with different questions and, again, you get to know your students in much deeper ways.


Asking students to write about something self-affirming … What are the family traditions that you are proudest of … lets students know that they can bring their whole self to school … and be accepted for who they are.  Research says that student behavior and effort will rise for weeks, even months, after one such opportunity.


Another school embedded this idea into their classroom walkthroughs.  Their questions of students went something like this:  What are you working on today?  How does this connect with what you have been learning?  Where do you go for help?  How does the teacher let you know they support you in your work?  They have those questions in an app on their phone.  As the admin team visit classes, they talk with individual students, mark their app, step into the hallway and compare notes.  Another school does this with student led visits to classrooms … good ideas abound from teachers figuring out how to connect.

Student Voice and Choice

We work harder on the things we choose.  Especially if it connects to an interest we have.  Teachers who give students voice and choice see greater engagement, have better relationships and find students work harder and persist more.


While I was in Seattle, we emphasized relationships and worked in partnership with the Seattle Education Association to learn more about positive teacher-student relationships.  One aspect of that work was to ensure that students had an advocate at school. At one school they simply asked students who their advocate was … who they would turn to if they needed a listening ear?  And if the student couldn’t name an advocate … the school found one for the student.


My Brother’s Keeper has found that students with a mentor have better attendance, get better grades and do better academically.  One middle school saw a cohort students of color with high absentee rates … achieve 94% attendance and pass 64% of the benchmarks for their grade.  More than half passed the state exams for the first time ever.  Another set of schools achieved something similar by having older students read to younger students … thereby increasing the confidence and competence of students in both grades.  Students worked harder because they didn’t want to let others down.

These are just a few ways to give legs to the ideas promoted by these Washington districts:

No, these are not THE solution.  Far more rigorous steps are needed.  They are however a doable first step.  Too often we go away from inspirational messages, vowing to do better and then realize we don’t know how.  No more prizes for predicting rain, build more arks, as one wag puts it.

Ask Teachers

In addition to inspirational messages start a list like this.  Ask positive outlier teachers to add what they are learning works.  Ask teachers to try the ideas out.  Refine those that have the most resonance.  Then engage staff in which of these you will make an absolute guarantee – something we will see in every classroom.  Get feedback.  Listen to teachers.  Provide support.  Phil Schlechty called this “finding work we can do.”  It applies to students.  And it applies to us as adults.

“Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.” Maya Angelou

We CAN do better

… by making each and every student feel a sense of welcome, caring, belonging, and inclusion in our classrooms.  And when we do better … our students will do better.


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Larry Nyland speaking

Larry Nyland – Leadership Coach and Consultant.
Seattle Schools superintendent 2014-2018

To talk about growing extraordinary "high capacity" leadership for your team …
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