Published on June 23, 2022
As adults we can all recall impactful moments from our own schooling that shaped who we are today. Some of them were positive and some negative, and hopefully there were more of the former than the latter!
As a student, my own interactions with educators and adults had a profound impact on my identity and self-belief, and profoundly shaped my career trajectory.
I am an English and History teacher by training and at school I had plenty of positive reinforcement that cemented this journey for me. I had English teachers that saw in me a spark and peers who reinforced that I was the ‘lit kid’ while in contrast to the ‘maths and science kids’. I went to a Catholic School and my parents were heavily involved in the Church, so my identity as the youngest child of a large, Catholic family shaped who I was then and am today. I had the great privilege of being the girls’ School Captain in Year 12 because of the belief and faith the community had in me and what I represented as a person based on my background. With that identity came a responsibility that has shaped who I am today and my understanding that leadership can be incredibly fulfilling and confronting.
At school, though, I also learnt what I was not and this has stayed with me to this day. I didn’t see myself as a mathematician and I distinctly remember the moment when a teacher reinforced this for me.
It was a cold, wintery morning and I was in a Year 10 Mathematics class before morning break when, out of frustration, I shouted at the teacher, “but I don’t understand how to do this!” All he could say in response was, “but I have already explained it. Why aren’t you understanding?” The teacher looked as deflated as I felt and I walked from that classroom believing I couldn’t do math, and feeling humiliated, sad and angry. I studied Mathematics for one more year and then never again.
My story highlights the role others play in reinforcing aspects of our identity and influencing our identity journeys. In my case, I pursued my love of literature and gave up on Mathematics. While I don’t regret my pursuit of literature, I have always felt saddened by my belief that I am ‘no good at math’. It prevented me from pursuing mathematical thinking in any form during my tertiary education and I still shy away from too strong a focus on numbers. This interaction shaped my identity and my belief about my own competencies. Likewise, my English teacher and others in school and beyond, reinforced my qualities as a reader and writer and cemented a belief that English teaching was my career trajectory.
This brings me to identity-centred learning, a simple but powerful concept that has shaped my recent thinking about social and emotional development in schools and the importance of belonging. Daniel Wickner, a primary educator based in Hong Kong, has developed the concept of identity-centred learning and describes it as incorporating three elements:
- “Identity Aspects – the most recognizable identity markers– Race(s), Gender Identit(ies), Culture(s), Sex(es), Disability/Ability, Nationalit(ies), Sexual Orientation(s), Language(s), Religion(s), Occupation(s), Familial Role(s), Age, and countless others.
- Identity Journey – the recognition that our identities transform over time and who we are now, in some aspects, is different from who were in the past and who we will be in the future.
- Identity Perspectives – acknowledges that who we are is not only defined by ourselves, but also by those around us– family members, peers, mentors, communities, employers, governments, media, and society as a whole– and how those external definitions may or may not align with how we define ourselves.”
Reading through these elements, they are uncontroversial and name what we intuitively know. We have the external markers or labels that signify who we are, but our identities evolve and change over time and other people significantly impact our identity formation.
However, I firmly believe that we need to keep this triumvirate of identity elements at the centre of our thinking in schools and be much more deliberate about supporting the unique identity journeys of our students. We need to do this intentionally because:
“we remember (and continue to feel the effects of) the key moments and experiences that defined (or helped us define and construct) who we are. Playground experiences and relationships with friends defined our social identities, while academic tasks helped us form our sense of competence and ability. Teachers, and the language and literature they taught, conferred a cultural and national identity on us. Our relationship with different school subjects and activities helped us define our identity within the school community – and later within greater society. Simply put, education was a major force in establishing who we were, who we are, and who we continue to become along our identity journey.” (source)
As my own story illustrates, schools expand or limit our sense of self and what we are capable of doing, being and thinking. Ultimately, we want our students’ sense of self to be expansive and full of possibilities so that they flourish, and schools need to deliberately enable this to happen.
“As an educator, I am driven by the desire to ensure every single student at HVGS feels valued for who they are, not who we expect or want them to be. This is how belonging is cultivated.”
Adults have incredible power to enable a sense of belonging and value, or to disable it. We do the latter then we are telling young people, either consciously or unconsciously, that their identity is limited or doesn’t have a place in our schools. In psychology, there is the concept of differentiation: being able to hold onto oneself in face of others’ demands and differences. When we have a strong sense of self, then we are not threatened by those who are different but instead open and curious. We also don’t see difference as a threat to our own identities because our sense of self is solid. Ultimately, we want our students to be well differentiated young people and adults.
To arrive at a well differentiated sense of self, schools need to be safe places for students to explore identities and to test out ideas about themselves. We see this exploration in the students who appear to be different people at home as opposed to school, or in those students who push uniform boundaries with hair that is a bit too long or jewellery they really shouldn’t be wearing. At HVGS, the school uniform is a signifier of our identity as a community and the sense of unity and commitment that we have to the School. We need to foster that sense of a shared identity – that is symbolised by a strong commitment to the quality of our uniform and student appearance – and help our young people to simultaneously find ways to express their unique identity journeys.
In the most recent AIS Perspectives survey, some students shared their thinking about how we can celebrate and recognise identity aspects and journeys:
“There needs to be a much larger focus on diversity and acceptance for all. Disabilities, neurodiversity people, gender diverse and sexuality has to be discussed for people to feel more safe.”
“There should be facilities for different cultural practices of different religions”
“I think that people should be able to express how they feel openly without people criticizing them and people should be able to speak out about real world problems and not sugar coat it. I think people should also say their gender preferences and pronouns without feeling as if they could get shamed or feel uncomfortable.”
As another student shared with me this week: “with care and leadership, students like myself will have more support and find unity in the school community.”
“As we embrace identity-centred learning, we need to facilitate dialogue about diverse identities and create the spaces where everyone feels like they belong and are supported in finding productive ways to express their identities.”
This involves welcoming different ways of thinking and being to the table and creating a dialogue from which no one feels excluded. It is a tall order! But by listening to our students, we can figure out how to achieve this aspirational vision.
A group of students have developed a concept for Term 3 that seeks to foster belonging and identity-centred learning. They have developed “Be You Day” which will be a celebration of what is ‘Uniquely You’ about our students, staff and families. It will be an opportunity to celebrate unity in diversity.
It will also be an opportunity for those members of our community who feel that they don’t belong to be seen, heard and celebrated. By doing this, we help to realise the bold and inspirational identity of HVGS, which we state with pride on our website:
“We are a vibrant blend of courage, culture, innovation and curiosity. We act with passion and purpose and celebrate each student as a unique individual.
Central to the Hunter Valley Grammar School experience is a deep sense of care and compassion; it’s what makes us different. It sets us apart. We unashamedly believe that an optimistic, healthy learning environment is the catalyst for lifelong learning.
We know that when the right learning environment exists, children feel safe to challenge and question the world around them and participate in all aspects of school life. “