March 24, 2022
Today’s teachers face enormous — and exciting and overdue — pressure to “create belonging for all students.” The vocabulary varies across school communities — safe spaces, leaning into hard conversations, honoring psychological safety — but the task is the same: make all students feel seen, heard, and important every day at school. Who wouldn’t want that?
Here’s the problem: I think we are asking teachers to do something impossible. Why? Because fundamentally, belonging cannot be created for students by adults. For belonging to be authentic, it has to be co-created with and among students. True belonging is earned through lived experience, and its most fundamental attribute is mutual trust.
Trust is impossible to engineer, but I do believe that adults in schools can design structures that help students foster a trusting, inclusive culture. In this article, I offer three steps a teacher can take to use class discussion — a high-stakes academic experience where students are particularly likely to feel as if they belong or don’t — to build trust and, ultimately, co-create belonging with their students.
Step #1: Name the challenge: trust is earned over time.
I was recently chatting with an ed-tech start-up and the founder asked me about “strategies for creating psychological safety efficiently in online discussions.” I rolled my eyes (incidentally undermining his trust in me, I am sure!) — and he clarified: “like what norms or ice-breakers work best and fast?”
I responded honestly: breaking the ice and norm-setting are not psychological safety; to conflate the two undermines the ultimate goal of belonging. Breaking the ice and norm-setting are fast and check-off-able; psychological safety is slow and abstract. Trust — and the psychological safety it implies — can only be earned by participants through shared experience. Shared experiences by definition take time.
The good news? Teachers can take a little pressure off themselves by naming the challenge — “it’s great that we have a norm of being able to disagree respectfully with each other, but if I were sitting in your shoes right now, I know I wouldn’t believe that we know how to do that until I saw it happen. I want to be clear that as the year goes on, and we all learn how we belong in this class, this norm will feel easier and easier to live up to! It’s ok if right now these norms feel hard or scary or fake – we’ll get there.”
In his book The Power of Giving Away Power, Matthew Barzun offers a useful metaphor that justifies this kind of approach. He calls for leaders to move from a “pyramid” outlook — with a clear hierarchical structure, like a sage-on-the-stage classroom model — to a “constellation mindset.” Barzun describes the constellation as a type of interdependent organization, where “bodies freely choose to behave in concert to accomplish something bigger, more useful, more powerful than each could alone. One could stand out on one’s own — a star — but at the same time be part of a larger unit — a constellation. This constellation points the way to [interdependence …]: a way to achieve unity without demanding uniformity. A way to get the energy from diversity without succumbing to division.”
When teachers make the leap from “pyramid to constellation mindset,” they stop trying to decree belonging, and instead give students the structure, space, and time to build trust among themselves through student-led discussion. When this happens, the results are amazing. I recently had a teacher describe her shift in perspective: “belonging is not about me and my individual relationships with students — that’s part of it, but not the most important part. Now, I have seen that students can create belonging with each other, among themselves. My classroom feels more like a team than ever before.”
Bingo — that is the path to belonging (and yes, that level of trust took time!).
Step #2: Define success: think indicators (outcomes), not just norms.
Trust is highly intuitive and usually invisible. We’ve all met someone and had that visceral feeling of “Yes — you’re my soul sister” or “Nope — not disclosing anything here.” We’ve all seen classrooms where students are not trusting — students may be reticent or just desperate to please and align with the teacher (“I can’t trust him to appreciate my ideas if they are different from his world view!”). And we’ve all felt the discomfort of falsely intimate contexts when trust is assumed but not earned.
In classrooms, statements of norms or class contracts often bring about this dynamic; they articulate aspirations and assume their immediate animation. While norms are useful in orienting teachers and students to shared values, when it comes to cultivating belonging, they are simply not enough. For students to trust that the norms are deeply held, there needs to be a way to see these values in action — and not just at the very beginning of the year.
Enter the idea of a “Dashboard” for class discussion, where teachers define the “indicator lights” that matter to them. Put differently, what would it actually look like for our classroom to be a place where all students feel heard, seen, and challenged to grow every day? What are the signs that a norm is being lived up to? How can you measure success, and places to grow?
Some indicators of a trustful classroom where students feel belonging during class discussion might be:
- Every student reports “feeling confident expressing disagreement”
- Every student reports “feeling confident asking a question”
- Every student reports “feeling like my peers listen to me when I speak”
- Every student reports “feeling connected to my classmates”
- Every student reports “knowing how to pronounce everyone else’s name”
- Every student reports “knowing my classmates know how to pronounce my name”
In my experience, I have seen that a specific set of skills-and-sentiment-based metrics offer the teacher a sense of how the classroom community evolves throughout a year’s worth of discussions. This feedback is independent of assessment and collected on a group, not individual student, level.
I offer that context because it has shown us that students love these indicators and that frankly, the dashboard inspires a growth mindset for the full class as a team. It makes the process of developing trust visible, and in our experience, the community focus helps to cultivate shared purpose and individual belonging. Students all see themselves reflected on the dashboard, every time.
We have also seen that the dashboard concept is often more appealing to students than it is to teachers. For teachers, it can feel scary — and for good reason: if in September only 18% of students in your tenth-grade class “feel confident asking a question in the class discussion,” that can feel like failure! But: the key is to remember that in a constellation-not-pyramid classroom where belonging is co-created among students, it’s not actually about you. Your job isn’t to create trust. It’s to set the conditions for co-creation. A dashboard offers you clarity on where to focus your efforts and build more structure.
Step #3: Build systems for practice — and then practice!
If the process of belonging-building is made viable thanks to an initial commitment of time and visible thanks to a dashboard, the next question is how to catalyze success. How can you speed up the process and get that “18% feel confident asking a question” metric in the rearview mirror?
The answer is in the evolution of building and living into systems — and practice opportunities — that structure students for success. After all, as James Clear writes in Atomic Habits: “you do not rise to the level of your goals; you fall to the level of your systems.” Zaretta Hammond also writes powerfully about how protocols are powerful levers for equity because of their predictability. I find athletic metaphors to also be helpful here.
At the beginning of the year, think in drills. Define the basic skills students need to be successful and design practice opportunities to correspond with each skill. In soccer, the basic skills might be dribbling, passing, shooting; in discussion, the basic skills might be R.E.A.L.: relating, excerpting from the text, asking questions, listening. Next, isolate one or two skills and design drills for practicing them — think dribbling through cones, practicing passing sequences. For example, that might mean:
- Imagining active listening “drills” where students tell and share each other’s stories — can be as simple as their biggest triumph in elementary school or as sophisticated as their opinion on a particular course text; then ask them to reflect on both the power of feeling heard and the challenge of deep listening.
- Consider question-asking “drills” like silent whiteboard conversations where students practice writing out clarification questions or other-ways-of-thinking questions; then get meta, together, about how to construct questions that show curiosity, not confrontation (you might even laugh at “fails” in popular media on that front).
Both listening and asking are skills — like dribbling and passing — that ultimately position students for success across multiple indicators.
Longer term: consider a “chalk-talk” system to support discussion where you use the data from the last game (your dashboard) to zoom in on an indicator that needs some work. If the goal is for students to feel confident asking a question in discussion, consider a sequence like:
- Engage the indicator: Spend five minutes at the beginning of class asking students to write about and share the best and scariest parts of asking a question in discussion. Unpack their answers: both the “good” (you correct misinformation, you bring up another perspective, you get the clarity you need, you express how you are feeling) and the “bad” (you don’t know how to phrase it right, you look stupid, you are alone in your perspective, you make someone mad).
- Equip students to approach it differently: Then, offer some quick-fixes for the “bad” — brainstorm accountable talk stems; write on the board in giant letters “THINKING DIFFERENTLY CAN BE A SIGN OF GENIUS” or “EVERY QUESTION IS AN ACT OF COURAGE” and have everyone initial it.
- Debrief the change: after the discussion takes place, celebrate with specific shout-outs. Tally how many questions were asked, and what type, perhaps shouting out individual students for taking risks. Ask students who asked questions to reflect on that process. Ask students who “answered” each other’s questions how that felt.
Taking a chalk-talk approach to discussion is a system that assumes visible growth — which, in most cases, is ultimately how we define success in our classrooms. It will create a metacognitive rhythm that will help students feel safe — and they will love seeing its impact.
In today’s world, educators have an opportunity and obligation to help students realize that they — and their voices — matter and that trust is earned, over time, through shared experience. The challenge, however, is that no matter how well-intentioned they are, educators cannot authentically create belonging for students. This is relational work students have to do themselves.
Teachers can support students in fostering belonging by taking three simple steps — name the challenge, define success, design systems for practice — in and beyond class discussion. Students deserve to see and learn to respect the hard work it takes to build environments where all voices are heard and challenged. The more they can be part of the process, the more they will own the outcome: learning communities characterized by true trust and belonging.