Building Cohesion with Context and Concrete by Dr Helen Street

Whenever I have friends to dinner, especially those who don’t know me very well, I tidy up before they arrive.  It sometimes seems ironic to me that I tidy up the most for those I know the least. Almost as if something in me recognizes that the way I present my home plays a significant role in the development of new relationships; and is a powerful component of the overall impression I make.


Certainly, social psychology informs us that our social footprint extends a long way beyond our physical selves.  In fact, it can be an interesting exercise to attempt to define the boundaries of our social identity.  Most people would initially state that their identity stops where their skin stops. I.e. they are defined by the boundaries of their physical body. However, if someone is unlucky enough to lose a limb, surely they could still define themselves as a ‘complete person’.  Thus, this definition is arguably lacking.  In contrast, others may define their identity in terms of their sphere of influence and, as such, incorporate their homes, their work and their relationships into their self-definition.  In some cultures, this far-reaching definition is deeply ingrained. For example, in Mexico, it is believed that a person is not truly dead unless they are forgotten by those who knew and loved them. This belief emphasizes the importance of defining one’s self in terms of one’s sphere of influence, and not merely as a physical being.


We all know that it is important, arguably vital, to spend time cultivating positive relationships with our colleagues and with our students.  It is also important that we recognize that these relationships exist in a wider realm than the direct communication that occurs between two living and breathing bodies.  Just as we exist in a wider context of influence, so too do our relationships with others.  For example, we all know how important it is to take an interest in our students as a means of nurturing positive platforms for learning.  It is important to note that ‘taking an interest in a student’ when standing over them, or when sitting behind a desk, is going to have a different impact to taking an interest when standing or sitting on equal terms.  Similarly, a team building activity or brain break is going to have much more impact on a class when delivered in a semi-circle, where everyone can see each other, than when delivered in a room where the students can only see the teacher and the back of the person in front.


I recently read an interesting article by journalist and teacher, Mark Phillips, who stated that he had been surprised to find that suggestions he had made to a colleague for classroom team building had fallen flat (published in Edutopia, 2014). Everything became clear when he visited his colleague’s classroom and found it was housed in a dark and foreboding basement.  He suggested that the teacher and students invested time in creating a more positive physical environment. One that reflected the positive and engaged class they were in search of.  The teacher and students took his suggestions on board whole heartedly and decorated the room with new paint and lots of ‘homely’ touches.  The teacher happily reported a significant change in the class in terms of their increased cohesiveness and engagement in learning.  This story acts as a great example of how important it is to pay attention to the physical context for both social and academic learning. It also acts as a great reminder of how effective it is to involve the students in the process of creating a positive environment – and therefore extending their shared social identity into the classroom setting.


I have always found the idea of ‘accept me as I am’ very comforting.  As a working mother with three active children and plenty of clutter, there sometimes seems little room to move in our home. However, perhaps this saying is lost in the larger consideration of what “I am” actually means.  Most of us may well benefit from greater self-acceptance of ourselves. However, we also need to be mindful of how impossible it is to separate ‘ourselves’ from every detail of our environment.





Dr Helen Street is an education consultant, co-creator and chair of The Positive Schools Initiative.








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