On Love and Belonging

This past week, I had the honor and true privilege to train at the Ron Clark Academy (RCA) in Atlanta, Georgia. For you non-educators out there, RCA is a non-profit private school that mostly serves students from low-income households. Co-founded by Ron Clark and Kim Bearden, the school also actively trains educators from all over the world on how to build a learning community bursting with light and student engagement and a family-like connectedness that I’ve never seen before. I heard about Ron Clark eight years ago during my first year of teaching, and it has been a dream of mine ever since to see this special school and learn from some of the best educators in the world.

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Students at the Ron Clark Academy | Photo by Teach Me, Teacher

As I spoke with RCA teachers and students over the course of two days, the thing that stood out to me most was the true love they had for each other. And as I started to pull back that truth a bit, I noticed something else: the adults at RCA exude this humble self-assurance that is downright intoxicating.

They are not perfect, nor are they proud. They are not stuck up or high-and-mighty, as we used to say in my family. But RCA educators know themselves. They are assured of who they are and what they are capable of and what they are there to do.

In this moment of realization, something clicked in my mind. I learned from Brene Brown years ago that in order to truly belong anywhere, I must first belong to myself.

The truth is: Belonging starts with self-acceptance. Your level of belonging, in fact, can never be greater than your level of self-acceptance, because believing that you’re enough is what gives you the courage to be authentic, vulnerable and imperfect.

Brene Brown

I’ve known for a long time that those who know themselves in deep and abiding ways are able to better love others with the same depth. But I never transposed that same thinking to my career as an educator.

If I am not working from a place of strong self-acceptance and mindfulness, then I am going to crash and burn.

As I reflected on myself, I started to lean a bit closer to the proverbial mirror for a closer look. Who am I? What are my gifts as an educator? What are some ways that I can bring who I am into the classroom and allow those special qualities in me inspire students every day as they learn? These are questions I’ve never really asked of myself before. I’ve used hundreds of teaching strategies and methods. I’ve gone outside the box more times than I can count to get my students engaged and motivated to learn over the past eight years. But in all of that, I wasn’t considering myself and my gifts at all. And I think that’s really where it should start.

I can pour all of myself entirely into my work as a teacher, but if I am not working from a place of strong self-acceptance and mindfulness, then I am going to crash and burn.

And I have. Year after year after year, I find myself crawling to the end of May like my life depends on it. This might be your experience, too.

Seeing this error is not enough, I know. In order for me to get out of this all-too-common rut, I must be willing to make some changes.

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Photo by Burak Kebapci on Pexels.com

1. I need to re-examine my gifts and talents. What things bring me joy? What am I good at? What about me blesses and encourages others? These are all questions I need to lean into and ask – not just of myself, but also of those who know me well.

2. I need to find my tool. Brandon Fleming, a former educator at the Ron Clark Academy, shared with us on Friday about finding our tool to engage students and bring the classroom to life. For him, it’s debate. For Wade King, Social Studies and Current Events teacher at RCA, it’s music. Each teacher at the Ron Clark Academy has a go-to tool that empowers them to draw students in and actively participate in the learning process. As I rest and recuperate this summer, I will be exploring what tool I need to develop in order to do the same.

3. I need to put relationships at the center. At the Ron Clark Academy, none of the chants and songs and dances and engaging class activities would work without the family-like community they have. I’ve written before about the significance of a positive classroom culture and strong student-teacher relationships. After visiting RCA, I’m an even bigger believer in the transforming power that love and care can have in the classroom.

Several years ago, when I found myself in the midst of a devastating divorce, I found rock bottom. And it was in that place of profound darkness and fear and desperation that I came to truly know and love myself for the first time in my entire life. With the help of a few close friends and family members and my therapist, I worked for years to build a new life, one that is authentically real. I know the power that comes with finding oneself and living in that new light. And I can’t wait to see the changes that take place in my classroom now that I am learning to apply that same life-changing perspective in my role as an educator.

Thank you, Kim, and all of the the other incredible RCA faculty and staff. You have given me a gift that will impact my life and the lives of thousands of students for years to come.

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