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A few weeks ago I was participating in a fantastic Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) session by Adrian McLean (@character_guy) and Hannah Wilson (@ethical_leader) as part of the Big Leadership Adventure by @_bigeducation and we were challenged to write a blog.  I have to admit to having become an avid blog reader over the past few years due to delving into the twittersphere but have always found the thought of writing one myself as an utterly terrifying experience.  Who on earth would want to read my inane ramblings when there are so many incisive, phenomenal musers and blog authors currently out there.  I definitely don’t feel like I belong in that sphere but the challenge was there and began worming its way into my brain. The biggest issue was what on earth I would write my first blog on. I have been reading Brene Brown’s ‘Braving the Wilderness’ recently and this idea of ‘belonging’, what it means to belong and the importance (or not) of belonging to something really resonated with me and chimed with my growing discomfort of seeing Edutwitter becoming more and more tribal.  Massive thanks also has to go to my wonderful colleague and friend Hannah Dalton (@DoddsyInit) for her feedback and suggestion that I turn this blog into a trilogy (what have I let myself in for).  So here goes nothing…

What does it mean to ‘belong’?

The Oxford English dictionary defines belonging as ‘the feeling of being comfortable and happy in a particular situation or with a particular group of people’.  Sounds simple enough but how easy is it to feel like you truly belong somewhere and is it actually that important in the grand scheme of things?

To put this in some sort of personal context, I have suffered from massive ‘imposter syndrome’ for most of my teaching career and reflecting back on the past 20 odd years, it has definitely affected my sense of belonging, and as a result, my self esteem and ability to do my job at times. I didn’t exactly fall into teaching but it was never part of my career plans growing up.  My dad was a Deputy Head and, whilst he loved his job, I could see how hard he worked and thought it looked like way too much effort for me.  However, a girl I fancied in Uni was working in a youth club on the weekends so I ended up doing the same. Whilst the relationship was short lived, the desire to combine my love of Science along with the real buzz I got from working with the teenagers from the estates of Cardiff propelled me into applying for a PGCE (plus, if you had seen how bad I was at Lab work, it was obvious that a career in Biochemical research was never going to work!).  I was pretty driven in the early days to both do the best by my students and move up the responsibility ladder and I definitely felt like I belonged, both in the profession and in the different schools I worked in.  

After 8 years, I found myself as Head of Science in a great school and that’s when the imposter syndrome hit me, and hit me hard. I constantly questioned myself and whether I belonged in the role and in such a successful school.  It even got to the point where I was questioning whether I belonged in the teaching profession at all.  Looking back now with a (relatively) dispassionate eye, I think I was a pretty decent HoD.  Results improved (from a fairly high starting point), retention into 6th Form classes increased significantly but could I have done better – most definitely.  I could, and should, have learnt more from my mistakes, been a more reflective leader and listened to my staff more but I was so preoccupied with the issue of personal belonging and all the baggage that went with it that it clouded my ability to think clearly at times.  

This feeling of not belonging in leadership dogged me for the next decade and it is not until the last year or so that I have started to shake it off (I suspect it will never completely disappear and that is probably not a bad thing as it provides a critical lens to be self reflective through).  What changed to allow me to begin to move on?  In its simplest form, I rediscovered my values and began to truly understand what sort of leader I wanted to be.  This has not been easy and I can’t honestly say I made a conscious decision to go on this journey but it has happened nonetheless.  It comes down to a combination of factors but the main ones are:

  • I stumbled upon a school that is full of people that share my values (although I didn’t realise this when I started).
  • I have colleagues that have shown me, by their actions, the importance of developing yourself as a leader and that it is ok, normal even, not to have the answers to everything but that you should be striving to constantly reflect and improve.  They have shown me that being clear about what you believe in and living your values out in your everyday life are probably the most important things you can do.  This may sound obvious to you, dear reader, but it hasn’t always been to me.
  • I have found a group of people through ‘Big Education’ that I admire beyond words and am privileged to be able to learn and grow with them over our two year Leadership Adventure and, hopefully, beyond.  I definitely still feel imposter syndrome when I am with them! 

Brene Brown talks about belonging in the following way: ‘belonging is about being accepted for you… if I get to be me, I belong.  If I have to be like you then I fit in’. That encapsulates where I am in my journey perfectly – I now get to be me, so I belong.  

Part 2 of this blog series will look at the pitfalls of belonging and Part 3 will discuss why it is important for schools to foster a sense of belonging amongst their students and how they can go about doing this.  I need to actually get round to writing them now!

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