Model the belonging you want to see in the classroom

By Matt Drewette-Card

We’ve all been there, and we’ve all felt it before.

A few years ago, while working as a high school teacher, I walked into an all-district professional development workshop. I sat down in a giant room with every teacher from across the district. As the day began, it became apparent that the theme for this workshop was “differentiation.” I asked around the table if anyone knew about this topic ahead of time, and everyone answered, “no.” Our speaker began, and six-plus hours later we finished.

Three elements of this scene stick out to me:

  1. My interests were in reconnecting with my colleagues and friends, and getting prepared for my students to arrive.
  2. The professional development goals and plans of the district were dropped on us without prior knowledge (And we weren’t ever involved in the creation of those goals).
  3. Six-hours being “spoken-to” about differentiation is not how to model differentiated learning environments.

Earlier this summer, several years removed from that event, I sat around a table with the leadership team for my district. I am now an administrator (a Director of Curriculum, Instruction, and Assessment), and we were deep in the throes of transitioning to student-centered learning, of which I am helping lead the transition. At one point in the meeting, we began discussing the opening professional development day for our staff, and someone mentioned bringing someone in to speak to the staff about student-centered learning. They conversed for about five minutes, while I sat silently.

Because it was happening again.

Modeling behaviors we want to see

This time, though, we changed the conversation. We focused more on modeling the behaviors and systems that our transition is heading towards. Instead of bringing someone in to talk to us for several hours, we provided environments and opportunities for our teachers to focus on several areas that they needed.

“It has to happen somewhere.
It has to happen sometime.
What better place than here.
What better time than now.”
-Rage Against The Machine

Instead of the leadership assuming we knew what the teachers needed, we created environments for the teachers (learners). We based the environments off of survey data and discussions with our instructional coaches and teacher leaders. During and after the day, we collected effectiveness data on the sessions, which led us to a survey of interest topics for our next full workshop day in early October. Our October workshop day was based entirely off of a combination of district goals and teacher interests and choices. Of our responses so far to an effectiveness survey, 98% of responders said the day(s) were either highly or mostly effective.

Our business is people

Many initiatives in schools and districts fail because of a hierarchical approach that starts at the administrative level and works its way “down.” This type of leadership approach may work well with creating products or “stuff,” but in education, our product isn’t anything tangible. Our product is “learning” and learning is based entirely off of people. Our business isn’t assessment or grades. Our business is people.

Because our business is people, if the learning environments (for students or teachers) are dictated from someone else, relevance and authenticity will suffer. Any system that is focused on learning must be user-centric. This means basing all learning time on the needs of the learners. Faculty meetings, professional learning communities (PLCs), and workshops should not only be based on the needs of the district, but should explicitly and intentionally be designed around the needs of the users/learners/teachers to meet those needs.

Leadership and Belonging in the classroom

Leadership isn’t about telling people what to do, and then expecting them to do it. Leadership is built on trust, empathy, and understanding. This is true at a level of professional learning for adults, and is equally true for a classroom environment. Student learning comes from a safe, welcoming, nurturing, and flexible environment that is based on the needs of the students, not the teacher in the room.

If our expectation is strict compliance, then the traditional set up of rows in classrooms, teacher-centered instruction, and an industrial-era model of education will suffice. However, we are no longer in the industrial-era. We are in the information-era. Students need less rote memorization and more analysis and investigation. Our learning environments need to shift to meet the needs of the learners in the classroom, not what is easiest for the teacher to manage.

This holds true for professional learning and development as well.

If we are going to honestly, truly, and with fidelity, implement a system of learning that is predicated on student-voice, student-choice, and expectations of proficiency/competency/mastery, then our professional learning models must also mirror those practices. Professional learning cannot be dictated from above; it must be built from a grassroots level. It must be designed with the users, by the users, and for the users… not just the administrative views.

How to create student belonging

The first and best place to look is the EdCamp ( model. It puts the learners at the center of the conference; building the agenda that morning, based on the needs and ideas of the participants. There may not be an expert in the room; but this model has something far better than any expert: motivated learners with devices.

When a motivated learner has both the time, support, and resources at her disposal, there is nothing that will stop her from learning. This learner-centered approach is a model that can be applied to any school’s professional development time, and can also embolden and motivate teachers to increase the amounts of student voice and choice in their classrooms that have direct correlation to increased intrinsic motivation to learn.

All it takes, is someone in your school or district to try.

Matt Drewette-Card lives and works in Maine as a passionate advocate for student-centered learning, design thinking, proficiency-based education and effective technology integration He can be found sharing all kinds of edu-yummies on Twitter & Instagram @DrewetteCard, innovating the education paradigm with (@WDLearning), or on his website:

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