Norfolk Academy faculty and staff launched into meetings on Thursday to prepare for The Year of Belonging, the school’s title for the upcoming 2019-2020 academic year.
Giving the school year a theme is a school tradition, one that gives an extra dimension to the educational program as the year unfolds. The year’s theme, which often touches on character traits or behavior, is reflected in opening talks by the headmaster and division directors; teachers often use the theme on bulletin boards and in lessons.
Headmaster Dennis Manning, who chooses the theme each year, noted that this year’s theme of belonging is more complex and layered than some previous themes, such as curiosity, kindness, or friendship. The school’s new Diversity, Equity, and Justice Statement, which was finalized last year, touches on belonging in its second sentence: “Our school strives to foster a climate of belonging, so that each member of our Bulldog family feels secure, respected, and valued as an individual.”
Mr. Manning said that early uses of “belonging,” a word that emerged in the 14th century, were restricted to ownership and possession; modern usage expanded to a “sense of belonging” to a community.
“We want to work with children to make sure that they have a sense of belonging,” he said.
To that end, the second day of meetings included a workshop with Jonathan Zur, president and CEO of the Virginia Center for Inclusive Communities (VCIC). Norfolk Academy has worked in partnership with the Richmond-based nonprofit on topics related to diversity and inclusion; this was the group’s fourth visit to work with faculty.
Zur’s opening remarks focused on how a sense of belonging shapes students’ ability to feel comfortable enough in class to open up and take risks. “When students feel a sense of belonging, they see themselves in the curriculum, they are not bullied, and they have close relationships,” he said. “The students raise their hands.”
His presentation explained “unconscious bias,” defined as “attitudes or stereotypes that affect our understanding, actions, and decisions in an unconscious manner.” He then moved on to an explanation of microagressions, a term used for commonplace daily verbal, behavioral, or environmental indignities, which can be intentional or, if related to unconscious bias, entirely unintentional. Microagressions have been compared to “1,000 tiny paper cuts,” Zur said, and studies have shown that experiencing microagressions can have negative health impacts over the long term.
The faculty and staff did an activity that involved sharing, anonymously, microagressions that they may have experienced or witnessed. Afterward, Zur offered thoughts about ways to build greater inclusion, even in a learning community that is already characterized by nurturing relationships between teacher-coaches and students.
He said that individuals must acknowledge that “every member of the community has a lens shaped by our own socialization,” so it is dangerous to assume that your own experience can be treated as a universal. In addition, he said, it is important to acknowledge institutional bias and scrutinize policies, practices, and traditions. “For whom was this tradition created?” he said. “How is it experienced by individuals in the present?”
The school’s opening meetings included the introduction and welcoming of 16 new members of the faculty and staff, as well as recognition of faculty and staff who have reached service milestones, from five to more than 45 years of service.
And Mr. Manning had a surprise in store for a teacher who has belonged at the school longer than any other. Diane Wallace, who has taught fourth grade boys at Norfolk Academy for an extraordinary 53 years, was presented with a dozen roses—an annual tradition that Mr. Manning has adopted in recognition of her status as a master teacher and the longest-serving teacher at the school.
This time, he had an additional gift for her: a scooter, festooned with a huge orange bow. The scooters that have appeared in Virginia Beach this summer have been the subject of Mrs. Wallace’s well-known wit, so the gift was greeted with laughter from the recipient and the faculty, even as she declined to hop on it and zip off the stage.
Meetings and classroom preparation continue this week with a program and reception to welcome parents of new students on Monday evening, Aug. 19, and orientation for new students on Tuesday. The first day of school is Thursday, Aug. 22!