Making Up for Lost Time: Cultivating Belonging as the Global Pandemic Presses On
As my colleagues and I wrapped up a week and a half of faculty in-service in preparation for this new school year, I found myself sifting through all the thoughts, ideas, and questions that were shared and inspired by the various presenters and programming. Our focus this year was on “community,” as we anticipated gathering in-person, a luxury we didn’t have last year due to the global pandemic. And now as the first week of classes winds down, I am beyond grateful for this community and the genuine sense of belonging that I feel each day.
It is no secret that the Covid-19 pandemic has wreaked havoc on our lives as we once knew them and we’ve all pushed hard to get back to “normal,” but as the Delta variant surges and Covid-hospitalization numbers climb, it is hard not to feel completely defeated and deflated. In July, after the CDC released their recommendation that teachers and students should be masked during the school year regardless of vaccination status, I knew the students would begin wondering how our school would respond to these new developments. I wanted to give them a space where they could continue to look forward to going back to school and not angst about the uncertainty of the times, so I sent a “Getting to Know You” form to the incoming sophomore class for whom I am grade dean. I asked them what they were most looking forward to about their sophomore year. Repeatedly, I heard their pleas for “normalcy” in the form of school dances, in-person advisory time, lunches without plexiglass dividers, opportunities to get to know their peers and teachers.
Though our new “normal” is masked, vaccinated (or not), making sure we can taste and smell each morning when we wake up, tensing if anyone coughs near us, and being weary about large social gatherings, the cry for “belonging” rings loudly above this incessant drone, especially among adolescents who mostly view their schools as their home-away-from home, considering that most of them will spend more time at school with their peers and teachers than in their homes.
As I planned my own in-service sessions for advisors and sophomore students during the summer, I knew I wanted to answer the students’ call for connection and a sense of belonging. Their earnestness struck a deep chord within me that brought back a familiar tune of alienation and disconnect from my own sophomore year in high school, though not triggered by a pandemic, but rather classic “Mean Girl” behavior. Ironically, when I applied for the grade dean position at our school four years ago, I applied for the senior grade dean position. In the interview, our Dean of Students asked me if I was open to working with other grades. At the time, I think I made a joke about my sophomore year of high school being “the worst year of my life,” and two weeks later, I was offered the job of sophomore grade dean. Yet, as I perpetually relive sophomore year as an adult, I’ve honed in on what I didn’t have at fifteen and sixteen years old that I can foster in my sophomores, helping them stave off the deep hurt and insecurity that I still carry from that year.
This year, with “belonging” as our sophomore North Star, I met with advisors and asked them to meditate on the question: What will you do as an advisor to foster a sense of belonging in each of your advisees this year? I encouraged them to extend the welcome that many of the students didn’t get or feel last year as freshmen because we started the year remotely, transitioned to a hybrid schedule of rotating cohorts, and then had students back in-person, with some of them opting to stay remote for the remainder of the school year. Of course, we did our best with the circumstances, but they missed out on traditional things that “bond” a class during their freshman year. I encouraged the advisors to be intentional with their sophomores and focus on community and connection to make up for what we lost last year.
Similarly, at sophomore orientation, a half day before the first day of classes, I shared my insight into their responses to the survey I’d sent in July. I recognized their desire for relationships with one another and the bond they witnessed in upperclassmen who’d had “normal” freshmen years. I also told them what I asked their advisors to consider in preparation for their arrival and encouraged them to have discussions in their advisories that day about what makes them feel like they belong. Finally, I shared with them that my hope for their class this year is that they feel like they belong at this school, are a part of our community, connected to our space, their classmates, teachers, administrators, but more importantly to themselves – what they want, what they think, what they believe and what they aspire to be and do this school year and beyond. In that moment, I envisioned fifteen-year-old me in the back of the auditorium, by myself, ostracized by “friends,” hearing what I desperately needed to hear at that time, and I understood completely, four years after taking this position, why I was the one standing in front of them as their sophomore grade dean.
There’s no question that this school year is presenting some hurdles to the “normal” year we all began pining for when last school year finally ended and the summer sun was in our eyes; however, I see my role as a leader within my community as that much more important as we adjust and readjust to our ever-changing circumstances. As I make decisions for this class, I strive to lead with empathy and a spirit of inclusion, so they come to school empowered by connection. I often reflect on my own experiences twenty-five years ago in some of the same hallways my students walk in today and the loneliness, anxiety and insecurity comes rushing back. It is hard for me to imagine what it must be like to be a teenager in 2021, not only navigating timeless adolescent trials and tribulations, but having these things compounded by social media and now two and a half academic years of Covid-19. Of course, I believe we need to live in this reality, but we can’t take for granted that the essential human need for a sense of belonging is threatened during this time of uncertainty, which fuels my vision for this school year, especially for my sophomores. In no way do I want to overcompensate or negate what we are, all navigating, but I want the students to have authentic opportunities to feel connected and I was so pleased when such an opportunity presented itself on the very first day of school this year.
Our school prides itself on its beautiful heritage and traditions. One of these traditions is the “Freshman Dance,” a dance that is choreographed by the senior class for the freshmen. On the first day of school, we have an afternoon assembly where each class performs the dance they learned as freshmen and then the seniors teach the new class their dance, which they will perform at lunch during the week after the Labor Day holiday. The dance is a wonderful way to unite the newest class by giving them something that uniquely belongs to them and marks the beginning of their lifelong sisterhood. This year, we all gathered for the assembly and the sophomore class performed their freshman dance first. As I watched the girls look to each other for the next moves and laugh as they went through the motions, the freshmen grade dean texted to say that this was the first time this class had performed their dance all together. My stomach did a little flip when I read the text.
Last year, when they were freshmen, they learned the dance on their own from a YouTube video of six seniors wearing masks and socially-distanced in our auditorium. Also, between remote and hybrid school days, the class was never all together during these first few months of school, and we didn’t have any indoor, schoolwide assemblies last year, so this class did really miss out. As the juniors and seniors performed, the sophomores realized how important this dance was to each class and felt disconnected from the experience of this tradition. When we got back into advisories while the new freshmen learned their dance, the girls expressed how much they wanted to relearn their dance as a class, perform at lunches with the freshmen, honoring the tradition, but, more importantly, bond as a class. They see the dance as a way to fulfill their desire to belong, and I will support them to make up for what they lost last year.
So as we move forward with this school year, in my role as sophomore grade dean, I want to watch and listen for these organic and significant moments to arise among the sophomores and nurture their connection as a class. Whether by scheduling a dance practice in the gym for all of the sophomores during advisory time, planning an outdoor mixer with our brother schools, or intentionally planning advisory activities that promote unity and inclusion, I want this class to be empowered by their bond and leave no woman behind. I’d like to say that I am unselfishly motivated, but part of my commitment comes from the sophomore I was twenty-five years ago that still haunts me from time to time; maybe she’ll finally rest when she sees how hard I work to ensure that no student under my wings will ever need to question whether they belong or not, because they will be surrounded by reminders that they absolutely do.
Jessica Bailey is Our Canadian Queen Bee Who Reigns Under the Yellow Banner of the Second Year.