November 25, 2019

McGillis is Creating a School Culture of Belonging

by Tim Campbell, Middle School Director

While there is much joy and playful energy in a Middle School hallway, it can also be a social and emotional gauntlet, an obstacle course of impulses, glances, whispers, and what-ifs. While some young adolescents mosey confidently through their day, most carry worries and insecurities with them. Where do I fit in? Who are my friends? What if I don’t do well on the test? Where did I put my homework? What are they saying, thinking, and feeling about me? Not to mention the personal matters that happen beyond our walls yet stay in the hearts and minds of our Middle School students throughout the school day.

Knowing that the greatest factor in a student's success and well-being in a school setting is the caliber of their relationships, our Middle School teachers are actively working to foster healthy connections with and between students. We interact with students in the hallways, inquire about their passions and interests, and attend to the ups and downs of adolescence. Sometimes a simple high five and a happy hello will do the trick. Other times our open doors provide a space for students to reflect and ask a trusted teacher for help.

The crux of our students’ social and emotional well-being is in creating a culture of belonging. This year we launched our Kehilah Crew program in order to make time and space for community building beyond the classroom. We want each of our students to be known and valued as unique individuals, to form a tight-knit peer group, and to find a mentor to whom they can turn when they need help or guidance. During Kehilah Crews we work on communication skills and identity development; self and social awareness; decision-making skills and self-management; among a range of developmentally relevant topics. In doing so, we create a common language and shared experience for students to be assured that their peers and teachers are along for the ride. Kehilah Crews also provide an opportunity to play with purpose through cooperative games and challenges. Yes, we need to have fun! I can say, from firsthand experience, it is a blast being a mentor of a Kehilah Crew.

When our Middle School students walk through the McGillis hallways, we cannot remove the standard ingredients of adolescent challenges. Mistakes will be made. Emotions will be big and sometimes hard. That being said, we can ensure that each child knows that they are cared for, that they belong, and that their peers understand them as complex, interesting, and wonderful individuals. We can also guarantee that their teachers will be waiting eagerly to shake their hands or give them a high five as they enter each classroom, ready to learn.

As both parents and educators, both Mary Kimball and I recommend reading Unselfie: Why Empathetic Kids Succeed in Our All-About-Me World by Michele Borba. This book provides easy to implement techniques grounded in the latest research as we strive to raise caring and successful children.