The Hidden Costs of Fitting In

Tim Leet (February, 2019)

We all know that feeling, that feeling of not-quite belonging.  I have it during most fancy dinners and every conversation about professional sports, especially hockey.  On those occasions I nod a lot and follow the lead of those who appear at ease. I feel clunky, unnatural, and only partially myself.  I am painfully aware that I am posing. Mercifully, even fancy dinners end eventually and so does hockey season. I exhale with relief and retreat to more comfortable spaces.  Fitting in where I don’t enjoy an easy sense of belonging is exhausting.

There are students in our halls and classrooms who feel this way all day.  My ridiculous unease among hockey fans is fleeting and trivial, barely a stolen peek in the window of the day-to-day lives of these kids.  Still, that empathic peek forces me to see my old classroom through new eyes. I know that the feeling of belonging is essential to learning and well-being.  It is a fundamental psychological need that we all share. When the first bell rings and I look into the eyes of my students, I see that not every pair reflects back a comfortable sense of belonging.  Many are just doing the best they can.

Yet, our students are determined.  When our classroom and school cultures are not natural to them, they adapt, they do their best, they try to fit in.  They shape shift and code switch. They nod a lot and follow the lead of those who appear at ease. Talented as they are, they often convince me they are thriving and, by extension, that I’m a terrific teacher.  It’s only later that I learn what those contortions cost them. One of my former students likened her school experience to a long-distance race, a grueling event justified only by the diploma conferred at the finish line.  Hearing that broke my heart and opened my eyes. We have to do better.

Your school probably prioritizes difference and inclusion like mine does.  You probably value it yourself. But what sincere valuing of difference would ask those kids who do not operate with ease in the dominant culture to distort themselves and settle for fitting in?  In Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain, Zaretta Hammond writes, “It is not enough to have a classroom free of psychological and social threats. The brain needs to be part of a caring social community to maximize its sense of well-being…”  Later, “…the oxytocin positive relationships trigger helps the amygdala stay calm so the prefrontal cortex can focus on higher order thinking” (pp 47-48). Learning suffers under stress and fatigue, and while most students complain of being stressed and fatigued, we know very well that the weight of that burden is not shared equally.

Brené Brown has said, “True belonging doesn’t require you to change who you are.  It requires you to be who you are.” This must be our goal: a community of belonging.  Achieving this goal means taking a fresh look at our curriculum, our pedagogy, and the deep grooves of our own behavior.  The onus is on us. Nothing could be easier than teaching from the familiar and comfortable, but we didn’t enter this profession because it was easy.  If we had wanted an easy profession, we’d have played hockey.