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Belonging + Play

Updated: May 29

It's hard to deny the fundamental value of belonging among the members of our school communities. It is something I have struggled with myself these last few years, and not for the first time in my career; some of which just comes with the territory of instructional coaching and moves between international schools. I should be clear and honest that not all of my social isolation has been actual - some has been perceived, and some of it has been imposed through long lockdowns. Yet the effects I have felt keenly at times… a decreased sense of safety, social status insecurity…and I know the impact these have on my work, in my home, and on my behaviours in my wider community. What I come back to time and time again is that if I do not feel a sense of belonging in these realms, I can forget thriving at life.

I’ve talked a lot about loneliness in my role over the years and I’ve been referenced quite a bit, however shifting that conversation to belonging is a bit of a pivot - it takes me from a problem to a goal - one you want to escape and the other is where you want to be. So how do we arrive?

In reading further about Jane Dutton’s Pathways for building HQCs, I realised that three of the four pathways are pillars of coaching - if they are absent then what I am doing is something else. These are:

  • Respectful engagement - engaging in a way that sends a messenger of value and worth.

  • Task enabling - helping/facilitating another person’s successful performance

  • Trusting - conveying to other people that we believe they will meet our expectations and are dependable.

As coaches we have a significant role to play in fostering learning culture and collective efficacy in our communities, and so when I think about how I represent myself, I’d like to think people would recognise these pathways in my interactions with them.

So what does this tell me?

The fourth pathway - Playing - is missing in my coaching.

The first part of the definition for this pathway I accepted easily: It involves participating in a game with another person.

What struck me was the second part: The goal is to have fun.

A little segue… In recent months I’ve read and listened with a bit of dismay about women’s struggle to identify what fun is to them, and I’m seeing the correlation with Dutton’s definition of playing. It is common for women to see their fun through the lens of productivity (“Finally sorting out the spare room”) or the fun of others (“Watching my children play sport”). There is no shortage of reasons as to why this has happened - the societal expectation that good women act in service to those around them, and put themselves last, being one. Sadly I even had to look up the definition of fun to connect to it as a noun: enjoyment, amusement, or lighthearted pleasure.

But I don’t think this is only a problem for women. I know everyone can connect with the seriousness of our work in education (and potentially our lives) these past two years and how little practice we have had at playing and fun. This is certainly true of me. But without playing I am probably hindering my ability to build those high quality relationships - and my own ability to feel like I belong in my community.

So what to do?

When I have reflected upon the relationship I have with special people in my life I have often cited trust built through shared adversity. It is such a deficit approach (which I’m kind of appalled I have had) when in fact the closeness was mostly built through shared moments of joy, achieved with the four pathways (negativity bias, anyone?).

I need to add playing to my work and life, and I need to do this unapologetically. At work playing fits easily into workshops, team sessions, and coaching partnerships. A few minutes of a game (where the purpose is to have fun, not so explicitly to learn or reflect) might diffuse, reinvigorate, and set the scene for learning that is strengths-based - and build respect and trust. Kicking off my shoes as I pass the field at lunch to take a few strikes at the football with whoever is there is something I can do with ease. In my personal life this means more ‘fun’, more regularly, and not waiting for that break or weekend - sharing my favourite music with my kids as we set up for dinner each night, and the dancing that naturally happens when we do this, is a place I can start right away. For more ways to cultivate high-quality connections, Jennifer Evans shares some ideas here.

I've already begun taking steps in this direction and I am seeing a difference - I am enhancing the connections I have already and adding more with students, teachers and parents I didn't know before. This sounds like more 'hellos', more laughter, and more genuine questions that show a desire to know others deeply. But what matters is how it feels, and I am feeling more open, more alive, and more at home in my community than I have done in months.

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