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Professional Learning

Coaching to Create a Culture of Belonging

6 Min Read
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What Does It Mean to Belong?

Think about a moment during your K–12 student experience when you felt like you truly belonged. What words come to mind when you think about it? Welcomed, maybe? Noticed? Confident? Important? As members of HMH’s professional learning team, these are a few words that we’ve heard over the years when we ask educators this question. Feeling like you belong somewhere is a personal experience and will evoke different words for everyone.

Belonging is bigger than just K–12 schooling, of course. It is associated with joy and human flourishing. It’s what happens when you strive for humanizing practices. In Atlas of the Heart, Dr. Brené Brown shares that belonging is a “practice that requires us to be vulnerable, get uncomfortable, and learn how to be present with people without sacrificing who we are.”

Inclusive Professional Learning Communities

Any community that we find ourselves a part of—from an online forum to a fitness group—can become a space where we can feel like we’re included and belong. In education, belonging is instilled through inclusive learning communities whose members share common goals, are willing to build relationships, and are guided by learning experiences. Instilling inclusive learning environments is at the heart of coaching.

Although inclusive professional learning communities can have different forms, they broadly ensure that participants feel comfortable, safe, and heard. Reaching this point requires communication among everyone. U.S. Secretary of Education Dr. Miguel Cardona said, “Creating a culture of intentional collaboration and looking at . . . the whole educator is probably more important now than ever before.” There are five practices in particular that are common across effective professional learning communities that cultivate meaningful connections and foster growth:

Practice 1 Safe Spaces: All members need to feel safe and affirmed. When people feel safe, they are more willing to be vulnerable and share their ideas, questions, concerns, hopes, and aspirations.

Practice 2 – Group Norms and Goals: Consider what makes the members of your learning community feel comfortable. Collaboratively establish group norms that foster a culture of growth so that common goals are realized.

Practice 3 – Active Learning: A community is about sharing ideas, grappling with new ones, and learning from one another. Include opportunities to try, practice, and reflect.

Practice 4 – Voices Honored: Ensure all members have an opportunity to share and be heard. As your community of belonging develops, you will notice more voices in the conversation. Active conversations and dialogues are encouraged because everyone has a unique perspective to share and give.

Practice 5 – Risk-Taking: Put yourself out there. Risk can feel uncomfortable, but encouraging risk-taking is one way of recognizing that people are not always accepted out of the gate. Be sure to model this behavior; when you are brave, it provides a safe space for others to do the same. Risk is not often included in lists about belonging, but it’s important to facilitate hard conversations and stay resilient through uncomfortable situations.

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Fostering Meaningful Connections

In order to set the stage for an inclusive professional learning community, a key step is to foster meaningful connections, not just between coaches and educators—but among educators and between educators and students. We all need each other in order to create meaningful connections. There are three main ways of doing this:

Be Seen: Fostering connections starts simply by showing up. Do not underestimate the importance—and oftentimes, difficulty—of merely showing up to a meeting or event. Seek out opportunities to meet with your peers and take advantage of opportunities when they arise. When you show up, people will get to know you, and you will begin to feel seen.

Be Connected: Sometimes, it can feel hard to find the time to connect with others. But, it’s important to remember that if there is something that you need or a gap to fill in your knowledge, there is someone out there that can help you fill in the gap. When we connect, we can make the work lighter for each other and have more productive interactions.

Be Supported: This phase can feel like teachers are taking on the most risk. Here, teachers should advocate for what they need to feel supported. Once people feel connected, what they need to feel supported and continue to have meaningful connections is clearer. Get the work done as a team.

From Belonging to Student Outcomes

When a learning community is truly inclusive, belonging occurs. Belonging may be the heart of the work, but the work continues—the goal for all participants is improved student outcomes.

Community members who feel like they truly belong can better communicate their experiences and reflect on how to maximize student outcomes. After all, it requires being vulnerable as a teacher to share unsuccessful student work. A belonging environment helps coaching to be positive and delivered in a way that is as impactful as possible.

There are a few components of coaching experiences that are key to helping a culture of belonging translate into better student outcomes:

Norms: It’s important for coaches and teachers to all agree on certain norms to follow so that everyone’s time is valued and growth stays top-of-mind.

Consistent Structure: Clear expectations and boundaries around how a community operates help to keep discussions focused.

Similar Goals: A productive coaching session relies on the teacher’s goals matching the coach’s. When goals are aligned, there is a shared purpose, and it is easier to find specific student examples to discuss.

Robust Discussions: Effective coaching requires the willingness to contribute so that it isn’t a one-sided conversation. Coaches should be learning partners who listen critically to every teacher’s experience.

Members who feel like they belong to a learning community have an opportunity not only to learn new ideas but also to apply them to their daily teaching practice and reflect on how the process went and what was learned.

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When thinking about coaching, belonging is at the heart and center of the work. Once there is belonging, goals can align, and discussions can be organized and productive. What will we work on together? What will we learn from one another?

Ultimately, a culture of belonging is bigger than just a professional learning community. When you feel like you belong, whether you are a teacher trying to improve your practice, a student trying to learn something new, or simply a human trying to navigate the world, then you can grow and learn in a safe environment.


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