This article first appeared in The Best of the 2022 Teaching Professor Online Conference (Magna Publications, 2023).
Belonging describes the human emotional need to experience acceptance from a group. As a psychosocial concept, belonging or feeling “part of” allows individuals to develop self-concept or self-identity (Turner & Oakes, 1986). For undergraduates, experiencing a sense of belonging, feeling accepted, and building relationships are crucial factors that encourage engagement, commitment to higher learning, and graduation (Strayhorn, 2018).
Experiences that contribute to a sense of belonging are particularly important for historically underserved and marginalized groups. Underserved groups—such as those students identifying as BIPOC, LGBTQIA+, nontraditional, disabled, first-generation, or economically disadvantaged—are more likely to question their social belongingness (Patterson Silver Wolf et al., 2017). College campuses have become increasingly diverse, both socially and economically, yet discrimination, bias, and injustice persist.
Leadership theories provide frameworks for faculty to foster inclusive classroom environments and support student belonging while also reinvigorating ourselves in a sometimes draining and politicized work environment. Transformational leadership and inclusive leadership theories both propose to enhance the effectiveness of leaders through aligning participants' identities with organizational visions. These frameworks present leadership behaviors as learned, practiced, and adaptable to various institutional settings. Applying either of these frameworks to the college classroom provides an opportunity to explore mechanisms for increasing student belonging. The following examples illustrate how these components might be achieved in a classroom, with opportunities to adapt to our personal teaching styles.
Transformational leadership theory
According to transformational leadership theory, four components shape leaders’ ability to align members with organizational goals. These components include idealized influence, inspirational motivation, intellectual stimulation, and individualized consideration (Vann et al., 2014). Transformational leaders create connections with others that mutually enhance motivation and view obstacles as occasions for growth.
Idealized influence refers to such demonstrable leadership characteristics as being hard-working, trustworthy, and competent. In the classroom, it can manifest in various ways, such as being honest with students regarding our availability or discussing the reasoning behind our policies. If we cannot provide prompt feedback on assignments, we can take accountability. We can share examples of when we found a concept or program challenging or when life circumstances hit us head-on. While faculty are considered subject matter “experts,” there is integrity in admitting when we are not sure of the answer to a question.
Inspirational motivation encompasses the idea of charisma, or the ability to communicate in a way that inspires a strong emotional connection in others. Learning and using students’ names is a simple yet effective means of building an emotional connection. Recognizing students’ achievements both in and outside the classroom can go a long way as well. Doing so can be as simple as acknowledging a thought-provoking question posed by a student or sharing a particularly insightful response to an assignment (with permission from the student). Taking moments to acknowledge particularly stressful times during the semester and checking in with our classes recognizes our shared humanness.
Intellectual stimulation focuses on challenging members of an organization and refusing to accept the status quo. It includes expressing confidence in students’ abilities to meet and exceed expectations. If a student is struggling, this may mean directing them to supportive resources (tutoring, supplemental materials, etc.) while still emphasizing the student’s ability to meet the challenge. When students arrive to a course underprepared, faculty leaders can step up to meet them where they are by scaffolding learning or supplementing course materials with skill-building exercises (basic research skills, citation formatting, etc.).
Individualized consideration describes a leader’s ability to focus on individual needs and provide mentorship. Asking for preferred names and pronouns is a way to both communicate support and recognize individual identities. A quick follow-up with a student who has had an illness or a significant life event demonstrates consideration for their experiences. With the shift toward predominately nontraditional students in our classrooms, we may consider integrating more flexibility into our courses to meet the challenges of those attempting to maintain some sanity in their work-life balance. For me, individualized consideration sometimes requires an attitude shift. Rather than engaging the student who has fallen asleep in class with punitive measures, I seek to help them recognize the patterns in their behavior and develop strategies for managing college expectations.
Inclusive leadership theory
Inclusive leadership theory facilitates belonging with a focus on five primary behaviors: supporting group members, ensuring justice and equity, making shared decisions, encouraging diverse contributions, and helping group members fully contribute (Randel et al., 2018). This theoretical orientation emphasizes enhancing belonging while still allowing group members to retain individualism in working toward shared goals (Randel et al.). The goal is to foster more successfully integrated work environments to support group belonging.
As with individualized consideration, supporting group members requires that we approach students from an ethic of care or a trauma-informed learning perspective. All our students have experienced the trauma of living through a pandemic. Supporting group members involves acknowledging past and present struggles, especially those of students who have come into higher education without structure and consistency from their secondary education. Providing online Q&A discussion boards or setting up a Discord chat can serve as means to empower students to help each other. Understanding the financial and economic challenges our students face requires that we recognize the need for many to work part- and full-time jobs. By making materials, assignments, or content modules available early, we can adapt our courses to support students.
To ensure justice and equity, faculty must be willing to both accept that biases exist and confront them when they arise in the classroom, even when we are responsible for them. Having biases is a part of being human. As faculty, are we taking time to recognize our biases? Are we noticing moments of sexism, ableism, or heterosexism or when microaggressions arise in a discussion? Are we brave enough to invite students to call us out and hold us accountable? These moments are often uncomfortable, but as leaders we are accountable for creating spaces that encourage our students to open up rather than shut down. For me, this has involved participating in workshops designed to help me recognize my biases and privileges and inviting feedback from students.
Shared decision-making involves a collaborative approach to the classroom and can be achieved through a variety of means. We can offer students opportunities to provide input into syllabus policies or due dates. We might invite students to set ground rules, particularly for discussions of difficult or contentious topics. Having options for assignments and allowing students to potentially choose the format of their work (essay vs. presentation vs. podcast) supports a shared decision-making process and is particularly useful for neurodivergent learners.
Encouraging diverse contributions requires that we take a critical look at the content of our courses and consider who is not represented. As a white woman, I have a homophilic tendency to choose stock photos, TED Talks, and media clips of people who look and sound like me. Teaching with intention requires that I bring into the classroom voices and perspectives different from mine. When I provide an example of a study on relationships, am I leaving out data on same-sex couples because the default assumption in our society is that “relationship” implies heterosexuality? When we discuss persons with disabilities, am I including examples of less visible learning disabilities? I can encourage diverse contributions by intentionally seeking out voices and nondominant perspectives.
Students require space to share openly, without fear of judgment or reprisal. If the topic is potentially contentious, I can help members of our classroom fully contribute by having them submit journal entries or reflections rather than planning an open discussion. The broad array of tech tools available provides opportunities to help introverted group members contribute with activities such as live polling and “exit ticket” assignments, where students submit questions related to the day’s content. My personal favorites are Menti.com for word clouds and Socrative.com, where I can pose a question to which every student can anonymously respond through their cell phones, with their responses popping up on the classroom screen. Students seeking acceptance and belonging from their peers may not share verbally in a classroom space yet may have much to contribute.
Instructors face so many demands in attempting to deliver a quality educational experience that the idea of adding one more item to the to-do list can be disheartening. But integrating a leadership framework to increase students belonging does not need to consume the limited time we have. Small efforts at relationship building and inclusiveness, consistently applied throughout a semester, create connections that mutually enhance motivation and commitment with our course participants. We are academic leaders and have the privilege of sharing our educational passions with our students; we can give our students the opportunity to share their joys and passions with us.
Patterson Silver Wolf, D. A., Perkins, J., Butler-Barnes, S. T., & Walker Jr., T. A. (2017). Social belonging and college retention: Results from a quasi-experimental pilot study. Journal of College Student Development, 58(5), 777–782. https://doi.org/10.1353/csd.2017.0060
Randel, A. E., Galvin, B. M., Shore, L. M., Ehrhart, K. H., Chung, B. G., Dean, M. A., & Kedharnath, U. (2018). Inclusive leadership: Realizing positive outcomes through belongingness and being valued for uniqueness. Human Resource Management Review, 28(2), 190–203. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.hrmr.2017.07.002
Strayhorn, T. L. (2018). College students' sense of belonging: A key to educational success for all students (2nd ed.). Routledge.
Turner, J. C., & Oakes, P. J. (1986). The significance of the social identity concept for social psychology with reference to individualism, interactionism and social influence. British Journal of Social Psychology, 25(3), 237–252. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.2044-8309.1986.tb00732.x
Vann, B. A., Coleman, A. N., & Simpson, J. A. (2014). Development of the Vannsimpco leadership survey: A delineation of hybrid leadership styles. Swiss Business School Journal of Applied Business Research, 3, 28–38.
Christina Leshko, PhD, is a lecturer in the Department of Social Sciences at SUNY Canton. As an interdisciplinary scholar, she earned her PhD in leadership at the University of the Cumberlands, her MA in sociology at Michigan State University, and her BA in psychology at Rutgers University.