Excerpt from: Kramlich,D.J., & Gilpin-Jackson, Y. (2022). The Educator’s Role in Creating a Classroom Culture of Belonging: Reimaging Diversity, Equity, Inclusion for the Multi-Diverse Classroom. In L. Fabbri & A. Romano. Transformative Teaching in Higher Education.

True belonging is the spiritual practice of believing in and belonging to yourself so deeply that you can share your most authentic self with the world .  . . True belonging doesn’t require you to change who you are; it requires you to be who you are (Brown, 2017, p. 40).

According to The Othering and Belonging Institute (2021), belonging happens when students in their true authentic selves are accepted as full co-creators in the classroom. One evidence for this is the level of agentic engagement, which refers to students’ supportive input to the instruction they receive. Reeve & Shin (2020) define this as, “a purposeful, proactive, and reciprocal style of engagement that is critical for fostering critical student outcomes (e.g., learning, achievement), but its primary objective is to recruit the teacher’s increased autonomous support.”

The starting point for creating a culture of belonging within the classroom is with the educators. Brown (2017) elaborates, “If leaders really want people to show up, speak out, take chances, and innovate, we have to create cultures where people feel safe—where their belonging is not threatened by speaking out and they are supported” (p. 107). Since belonging is a personal act, it cannot be imposed, rather, it begins with the person of the educator to first find belonging in their authentic selves, and then to actively embody practices for belonging to grow and flourish in the classroom. In considering creating this culture, there are misconceptions regarding belonging to be considered.

Misconceptions About Belonging

  1. Belonging is not created nor guaranteed by diversity.  While it is crucial to have representations of other ethnicities, genders, and cultures, there is a risk that these individuals may be exploited as tokens to appear varied and thus inclusive (Walker, 2015). Often, little effort is made to leverage the group’s diversity as an asset or to invite each member to participate fully in the community with their own distinctive whole self. Too frequently, diversity is utilized as a visual prop to deflect attention away from the difficult job of fostering belonging.
  2. Inclusion is not the same as belonging. Inclusion often is presented as an invitation to join an established group with its own set of rules and regulations. Belonging is more than just membership; it also encompasses influence, power, and the ability to modify and change the group’s structure and purpose.
  3. Belonging entails more than merely providing equity and promoting fairness. It must also recognise prior structural power imbalances that have impacted marginalized students since before they were born. In the classroom, belonging can be diminished by using course content rooted in a particular slant of history where the educator has not considered the wider story and intercultural contexts (Walker, 2015).
  4. Belonging is significantly more than positive peer relationships. Defining and quantifying belonging is challenging and it is often associated with peer connections and comfort levels in peer relationships (Malone et al., 2012). Creating a culture of belonging requires intentional action on the part of the educator both in person and in practice.
  5. Language and research around belonging is not consistent. Libbey (2004) undertook an exhaustive examination of the literature on belonging in schools and found over 21 different measurements. The concept of belonging is highly elusive and difficult to quantify, ensuring that it occurs might be more difficult. The ongoing research focused on the students’ perceptions of belonging with peers and relationship to the educator (Whiting et al., 2018) and does not specifically address student’s autonomy and contribution to the classroom.
  6. Belonging is not only for the K-12 classroom. Belonging for all students in higher education is a critical element to the learning process and especially for the non-traditional student (Strayhorn, 2018). For a professor to create belonging, it is also important that the university models a culture of belonging starting with the administration to both faculty and staff. These relationships impact school culture in subtle and powerful ways. When the values of the university are not its practices, this dissonance and confusion break down trust and authenticity.

In short, recognizing diversity, equity and inclusion as important and supporting peer-to-peer relationships do not themselves guarantee that belonging will result. For belonging to flourish, the space for each unique person to be fully present must be created and power freely shared, ensuring that all are able to co-create together. All must have freedom to be their authentic selves; all must have power to shape, influence and create the space in which they are situated (Othering & Belonging, 2021).

The following framework illustrates a pathway for educators in developing a culture of belonging. It is a cyclical journey of self-reflection, humility, curiosity, recognition and acceptance in which each practice, when well done, leads into the next. This cycle can, and should, be repeated continuously. This model is explained below and supported with relevant literature. This chapter orients itself to the educator’s perspective and what they may offer the student. While this model is designed for the higher-ed classroom, its application extends beyond the classroom to engagement with others who may think or act differently than us. The five practices in this model involve

  • inward reflection
  • adopting the right posture
  • asking the right questions to seek connection
  • showing recognition
  • and acceptance regardless of the differences between both parties.

This chapter then concludes with practical measures to inform the educator’s practice as they apply the framework to their classroom in order to build a culture of belonging.

Figure 1

A Model of Belonging for the Educator

These proposed five practices assist the educator in creating a culture of belonging while also enhancing trust and safety between the educator and the student that is particularly important in multicultural and multiethnic classrooms.

For more information detailing definitions, importance and application for all 5 practices in the Belonging model, see chapter 5 of the Transformative Teaching in Higher Education book available on Open Access here. Thank you to my friend, colleague and lead author Debbie Kramlich for holding the vision of this chapter and to our colleagues at the Transformative Learning Network/International Transformative Learning Association for the work you do to advance transformative learning and transformation in our world today.