By Rebecca Yacono, Head of Middle School
In her book Braving the Wilderness, researcher Brene Brown writes about belonging: “Belonging is being accepted for you. Fitting in is being accepted for being like everyone else. If I get to be me, I belong. If I have to be like you, I fit in.”
Unless they are members of a community that prioritizes their learning who they are and expressing it, the life of a middle school-aged student can be defined by that tension between fitting in and belonging. In the Middle School at Worcester Academy, the faculty and staff actively cultivate an intimate community that gives early adolescents the opportunities and safety to discover who they are and be themselves authentically. We coach our “Middlers” to co-create that community with us, which makes room for them to belong instead of merely fitting in.
Last Thursday, at the end of lunch, as I walked across the Lower Quad, I noticed a middle school girl, standing at the edge of the grass, hands shoved in her pockets, rocking back and forth on her heels and toes. It was obvious that she was watching a group of classmates standing together under the tent in a socially-distant clump, talking and laughing.
To my left, in my peripheral vision, I could see a teacher approaching the young woman.
To my right, I noticed yet another faculty member stop walking toward the girl, having made eye contact with the other teacher. I, too, stopped and pretended to be interested in the bright red leaves of the maple tree near Rader Hall.
All three of us had seen the girl standing alone. All three of us had planned to intervene.
At Worcester Academy, teachers and advisors masterfully step forward and back to support students as they try on perspectives, mannerisms, interests, and interactions. Our Middlers respond in kind, leaning in and pushing back, testing to find what works, what fits, what feels right for them.
Out of the corner of my eye, I could see that the girl and the faculty member with her were motioning to the other girls to come join them on the sidewalk. The other girls sashayed over, and after a short conversation, all the girls ran up the steps to spend the rest of recess kicking a ball around on the Dexter Patio.
When the faculty member joined me under the maple tree, I asked, “What was going on with that student?” The matter-of-fact answer: “She didn’t want to get her shoes muddy.”
At Worcester Academy, middle school students standing alone on the edge of the quad get noticed. Adults go out of their way to connect, inquire, and if necessary, intercede. Doing so fosters a unique middle school environment, one that makes room for students to not just fit in, but to figure out who they are and find a true sense of belonging within the community.