I stood all alone in a hall full of people. Many of whom I had known for a number of years. I watched people chatting, laughing. They were lining up, having their photo taken. Putting on smiles to make sure their ID cards weren’t horrible. They were wearing clothes that they wouldn’t wear in this environment on any other day. A colleague approached and started talking. He thought I looked tired. Unusual at that time of year, he said. I could come and chat to him later, if I wanted, he said. Photos done, I headed off to my meeting. I don’t remember hearing much of what was said. What I do remember is sitting there and thinking about something I had heard from somebody in a leadership role many years earlier. Either you’re on the bus or you’re not. I had been on it so long that I had reached the end of the line. It was time to get off.
What had happened? Gradually I had moved further back down that bus, and I could no longer tell the driver when he had made a wrong turn or missed an important stop. I didn’t belong there anymore. I felt as though I didn’t fit in. So many decisions and directions I couldn’t agree with. So many times I could see my efforts wasted. The kids had changed. The climate had changed. But most importantly, I had changed. I was no longer the kid who started there. I had been ground down by negativity and my values were no longer aligned with the school. It’s a funny thing, belonging. What is it that makes us feel as though we belong somewhere? And why do we need to feel as though we belong?
When I started in my job so many years before, I had been brought straight into the fold, working together with my fellow teachers in a family environment. We did things together. We looked after each other. When someone was down, we brought them back up. When someone was up, we all went along for the ride. It was a very human place to be. People mattered. As time went on, some similar schools in the region began to feel a financial pinch and some of those even closed down. The school needed to respond and become more business-like in its operations to secure its long term future. Of course it did. So many people across an incredibly broad spectrum of the community rely upon the school as a place to be educated, be supported and simply belong.
I think the need to belong comes from a need for a few basic things. First of all, we all need social contact. As much as food or water, social connections are integral to human health. This requirement means that we align ourselves with various groups in our lives – at work, with our friends, in sporting and other clubs, in the local neighbourhood, and of course, in our families. We belong to these because we have things in common with others in these groups, whether it be common interests, living in the same area, having complementary expertise or most fundamentally, blood.
For me it has become about something more. In all the places I am connected, I have an ever increasing need to feel an alignment of values. In the past, most people got this kind of feeling, this sense of belonging, from membership in a church community. If you know me, then you’ll recognise that this is probably the last place you’ll find me! But agree or disagree with me on the topic of religion, I’m sure you’ll see that this alignment of values is one of the great attractions for people to be a member of a mainstream religion. Increasingly this is not about naming a faith for most people. Rather the underpinning values are the important factor in play here. Whilst ‘Love thy neighbour’ is a commandment in the Christian bible, it doesn’t have to be about Christianity. In my mind this is simply humanity. It doesn’t have to involve a deity or instructional text.
Ultimately, my workplace no longer fitted with my values around how people should be treated and how children should be educated. And that’s ok for them. Just not anymore for me. I no longer felt like I belonged, because I just simply didn’t believe in the paths and policies they were taking. But since then I have found new places to belong. I have reflected more and more how I belong in my family, and now that I’m living in a way that is more authentically me, I feel much more closely connected to them. There’s no doubt that I belong with my friends. They are a place of unconditional acceptance and support, even when I am at my worst. And I belong in my new career. As I make new connections and have new opportunities and experience, it confirms more and more how necessary and right my decision to make a change has been. And I have faith that this belief will continue to grow. It would, in some ways, have been easy to convince myself that I belonged in my old job still. Who knows what the future holds – perhaps I will even return to that career one day. I think it’s quite a challenge to recognise that you no longer belong in a place that was a kind of home for so long; a place that held big parts of my identity as a person. In the end, I have discovered that my true identity lies elsewhere and isn’t linked to a career or a place. It’s about who I am as a person: and hopefully that person is simply an imperfect and foolish human being, trying to be better.