Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Building Belonging (#2 in a monthly series)

Helping Hands, a sculpture by Louis Bourgeois (image by lalobamfw, Flickr Creative Commons)

Long term change requires looking honestly at our lives and realizing that it’s nice to be needed,
but not at the expense of our health, our happiness and our sanity.
~ Ellen Sue Stern   (author, speaker and relationship coach)

We make a living by what we get, but we make a life of what we give.
~ Winston Churchill

What the heart gives away is never gone. It is kept in the hearts of others.
~ Robin st John
To effectively work in the distance-learning realm, your students need to feel close to their classmates and professors, despite the miles between us. Establishing a bond, a common ground, a supportive arena for thought and expression may mean the difference between a successful, compassionate classroom and a lost, detached one.
~ Gina Greco, writing 5/21/09 in the Chronicle of Higher Education (‘Commentary’), about online classes

Executive Summary:  In 1995 I spent days prowling Hawaii schools to “snapshot” behavior management and culture, then help identify tools for positive change.  In one visit, the principal invited me to a visit a 2nd-grade classroom; the teacher had given her students a simple tool to identify conflict and then had taught them, successfully, to defer resolution.  I found it odd that other teachers knew nothing of this, a strategy which would have made their jobs much easier.  Just before school ended, a 7th-grade teacher ran up to me and told a story of being pushed to the ground by an 8th grader days before.  She had reported the incident but continued to see the student on campus and wondered what had been done to discipline him.   Shall I send this? she asked, handing me a letter for the principal.  I read it, and asked:  Could you just visit the office and ask him?  Her answer startled me:  I never thought of that.  The teachers at this school were isolated and felt individually unimportant.  As a leader, whether you facilitate learning in a classroom or supervise other teachers, your behavior choices point vigorously to what you value.  An individual’s strong feeling of belonging and connection to others in the group provide motive and support for best performance.  This message explores some ways to intentionally develop these connections—crucial to our communication of content.   
Links were active when this message was published August 28, 2012; please advise if you find otherwise.  Contributions of ideas to share are always welcome.

CREATING a feeling of belonging in students isn’t magic, but it involves an array of strategies in a repertoire you can develop over time.  Here are some techniques that help students find connections to you and to one another.  In so doing, they foster a sense of being cared for, of belonging to a supportive group.  They thereby promote student success and retention.  You’re probably doing many of them already:  for new ones, patience pays: try one thing at a time.

CONNECTIONS BEGIN with your earliest contacts.  Before classes start, some instructors send welcoming mail introducing themselves and noting key skills the class will call upon, concepts the class will develop, benefits the class will confer.  Such messages, sent to the whole enrollment, can invite students to reflect on their reasons for taking the class, reflection which then becomes a key building block in self-motivation.  Marc Gilbert (HPU’s NEH Endowed Chair of World History) describes his discoveries in Po’okela, and notes the benefits of early trust-building: (No. 41, Jan-Feb 2009)

AT THE DOOR   Greeting students with a smile and friendly voice at the doorway in earliest classes—or from time to time during a term if you do not do it very day—welcomes and says I’m glad you’re here.  Many of them harbor deep self-doubt; create warmth by finding opportunities to say I believe in you (directly or indirectly).

TELL THE TRUTH ABOUT CHALLENGES AHEAD   It’s possible, for instance, to say the course content will be challenging, and some of you will find this harder and spend more time than others.  A few will struggle very hard but still be successful.  I’m here to help, and I expect and believe you will also encourage and support each other.  In some pre-professional courses, students may believe it’s your job to deliver most of the content, but you can point out (1) that you’ll rely heavily on their willingness and interest in preparing on their own, (2) that you can’t give them all the content, and (3) that the greatest gain from class activities (including lectures) will come when they do high quality preparation.  Finally (4) employers will most value independent learners.  (Invite an employer to say so!) You may have to teach some of them what good prep means, and it may help to do so in the context of an exchange about what good preparation or good student investment means in terms of specific behavior.  For some detail about how to do so, see  Expectations or talk to your teaching center personnel about  your specific course; you’ll leave with a plan.   An article in Inside Higher Ed (10.23.09) discusses employer views of professionalism—or absence of it—in graduates: Are Today’s Grads Unprofessional?   

USE STUDENT NAMES   As often as possible, begin using student names and encourage students to use one another’s names.  Some instructors create and carry table tents with pre-printed names; others use name tags in early classes, or use seating charts and make it a point to call on students by name.    Find a wonderful article and 27 creative ways for you and students to learn names:  (Joan Middendorf, Indiana University) and even more at (Michael Palmer, University of Virginia).

OFFICE HOURS   Instead of waiting for students to come with problems, invite or require them to come to chat and gain insight about them.  (Some make this visit an assignment.)  Changing this culture makes it easier for them to ask for help.

CONNECT STUDENTS TO ONE ANOTHER   Activities that bring students together and use names and encourage cooperation—first on simple tasks--build community in classes.   I teach this by example in workshops, and on request ( I can send the PowerPoint file or this will remind you:  [These and similar strategies have the added benefit of being powerful and simple assessments of learning that don’t involve grading.] If you are not an experienced user of groups to work in class, be aware that effective group work, especially groups of 4 or more, calls upon skill sets many students learn and develop in college and will not possess when they first enroll.  Use pairs and small groups first.

BE PREPARED FOR LATECOMERS   Students often enter classes late, for reasons they can not control.  It’s helpful to keep handouts (or prompts to web-based resources) and to confer immediately with students who have missed significant instruction.  Don’t buy the implication that you are responsible for recreating their learning experiences, but do what you reasonably can and always ask them:  I know this is difficult for you.  Talk with me about your ideas for fixing this problem, and tell me how you think I can help you.

PROMOTE GOAL-SETTING and REALISTIC SELF-ASSESSMENT The use of rubrics prompts realistic self-assessment and personal goal-setting, and can motivate major performance changes. To consider ways to assist students in developing self-understanding, suggestions are at  For rubrics, begin at: , a very accessible article that will get you started.

EXPECT THAT STUDENTS WILL SUPPORT ONE ANOTHER A simple way to do this is to use class base groups, core social groups you facilitate purposely to provide cross-support.  Facilitate a culture in which members of a class rely on one another instead of on you for information necessary to the class.  For counsel about forming groups, see There's more about activities at

ASK EARLY AND OFTEN FOR FEEDBACK Perhaps more than any other behavior, simple self-assessment of teaching (such as Start-Stop-Continue) communicates your caring about the student experience.  This strategy also helps students understand they and their peers have different but complementary strengths in their methods of learning.  Getting started is easy, and the results deeply satisfying:  Assessment of Teaching   Don’t wait until the end of a term to do this.  Start early, and be certain to act constructively on the feedback when circumstances make this appropriate. Within-term feedback, in my opinion, is the single most important strategy an teacher can use to prompt self-growth, student trust, and productive changes in practice.

ENCOURAGE QUESTIONS and MODEL POSITIVITY IN CONFLICT   You will be seen as direct, but accessible and positive when you use appropriate language.  Avoid all language that might be interpreted, even when you didn’t intend so, as public demeaning or shaming.   When possible, set boundaries in private.  When student behavior sets off anger, frustration or shock, you may feel like striking out, but avoid reactive behavior.  But do tell the student, as privately as possible:  I’m excited by your passion and intensity about this, but expressing it in public hurts me and harms my relationship with other students, who look to me for leadership.  We need to continue this conversation in private.  Then invite a decision:  When and where would this work best for you?  Even when a question could have been answered by consulting your syllabus, restrain negative comments.  Doing so will pay off in long term trust.

USE TECHNOLOGY   like clickers, or Twitter, or text messages, or email . . . . to prompt student contribution or reflection.  Make sure to do this only if the technology (e.g. text capability) is available to everyone.  Then, for example:  There are two  major points made in the assigned reading for clas tomorrow.   Before class, text (or tweet) me your unique summary of one of them.  I’ll share some of the messages in class.  Text (at 160 characters max) and tweet (at 140 characters max) force brevity and processing.  The point:  get students contributing (and acknowledged for doing so) any way you can.

BUILD WORKING TEAMS AND COMMUNITY Use a search engine (team-building activities) to find a treasure trove of activities to browse, among which, of course, some will appeal to you more or fit better than others inside your class plans.  Writing (in classes and ungraded) can be used to build community, and the how to do this (focused on first-year writing classes) can be seen at  I recommend:  take 45 seconds to read first the Introduction and Conclusion; then read the 7-page body.

Next Up

Next Up in September:  Motivation; and October:  Understanding, Preventing and Managing Student Incivility

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Beyond the Blog     My greatest satisfaction as a faculty developer came from helping others do their jobs better or more easily.   I retired in 2012 from Hawaii Pacific University in Honolulu and now live in Shelburne, Vermont alongside Lake Champlain (near Burlington) in the northeast.  I travel widely in east and west, and am available both to correspond and to visit schools, community colleges and universities for private consultation or workshops.   

Write me at

Michael W. Dabney
University Faculty Developer & Coach
702 Wake Robin Drive   Shelburne VT 05482
Professional & Organizational Development Network--Member since 2004
575 Cooke Street  A-1800    Honolulu, Hawaii  96813
808-781-3294 or 802-685-0088
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