A School Where Everyone Belongs

Jeff Gerber · April 23, 2019


In the 2016 motion picture “Passengers,” Jim Preston (played by Chris Pratt) is one of 5000 passengers onboard a spacecraft for a 120 year voyage to begin a new life for the human race on a distant planet. Thirty years into the voyage his hibernation pod malfunctions, causing him to wake up. 

He soon realizes his predicament, yet strives to make the best of a bad situation. He keeps fit using the ship’s state-of-the-art fitness facilities, enjoys meals made by the automated food equipment, and spends time in the bar in conversation with Arthur, the AI-infused robot bartender. But after a year of this solitary existence, Jim wants more; he needs more. 

Scrolling through the electronic files of his fellow passengers, he comes across the profile of Aurora Lane (played by Jennifer Lawrence). Intrigued, he locates her hibernation pod. Overcome by the depth of his loneliness, he makes the decision to awaken Aurora from her deep-sleep. Their relationship grows slowly and steadily over time until the ugly secret is revealed that Aurora’s awakening to live out her natural life in space with Jim, without ever reaching their intended destination, was no fluke. I don’t want to give away any more of the plot for those who may not have yet seen the film, but I do want to look deeper into what motivated Jim to act the way he did.

Jim had an abundance of all that he needed to live - food, drink, physical exercise, safety and security. But while technology provided him with all he needed to live, he lacked the deep personal connections needed to be truly alive. Jim needed to belong; he needed relationship; he needed someone to care for, and to know there was someone who cared for him. 

Young people today find themselves in a situation very much like Jim Preston. The vast majority have food, drink, safety and security. Yet while technology has provided them with all they need to live, they too lack the deep personal connections needed to be truly alive. 

Young people are more connected than ever before yet more lonely and isolated.

This is a phenomenon and growing trend I have observed over my 25 years as an educator. The proliferation of smartphones and social media have allowed young people to trade real-life interaction, connection, affirmation, and relationship for virtual counterfeits. The result is a generation that longs to belong; to have someone to care for and to know that someone cares for them.


Dr. Jean Twenge’s 2017 bestseller I-Generation does a masterful job assessing the impact of the smartphone and social media on those born between 1997 and 2012. Her conclusions support what those of us who work with teens anecdotally know to be true: they feel more lonely, unhappy, and isolated than previous generations. And the link between these feelings and the amount of time spent on screens and social media is direct and undeniable.

This need to belong of course is nothing new. It forms the core of Maslow’s famous Hierarchy of Needs, coming after the physiological needs of food and drink, safety and security, and before the higher level needs of self-esteem and self-actualization. Maslow’s analysis has been widely accepted in popular culture and is taught in virtually all introductory psychology and sociology classes. 

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Reconsidering Maslow
Perhaps it is time to reconsider Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs for the 21st Century. I might be so bold to suggest that Belonging be placed at the base of Maslow’s Hierarchy for young people today. Maslow’s paradigm was written against the backdrop of the misery, want, and conflict of the 1930’s and 1940’s. While we have not yet eliminated poverty, homelessness, and war, these are not the backdrop of the formative years of young people today. 

Instead, the backdrop of their adolescence are screen savers, Instagram filters, and Snapchat streaks. Rather than being in want of food and drink, too often they willingly sacrifice or abuse them for acceptance and a sense of belonging. While desiring safety and security, they will take part in risky behavior for a chance to fit in. Teens all know friends who are in relationships with people that are not good for them, who treat them poorly, and trample their self-esteem. Yet the relationship persists because a counterfeit love is seen as better than no love at all.

“There is more hunger for love and appreciation in this world than for bread.” - Mother Theresa

Young people today long to belong. Understanding this is foundational to anyone seeking to reach or move young people today.

The question for educators and student leaders then is, “How do we create a school community where people belong?”

“The biggest ship in leadership is relationship.”

I believe that “the biggest ship in leadership is relationship.” Belonging comes from relationships and relationships come from common experiences. One of the first things we can do to foster a sense of belonging is to keep this as the foundation of all events and activities in our buildings. Like Will Smith’s character Alex Hitchens in the movie “Hitch,” we are the ‘date doctors’ of our schools. The events and activities we run need to be designed to allow students and staff alike, who may not otherwise share common experiences, to come together. Out of these common experiences are born relationships, and from these relationships come a sense of belonging. 

I was inspired as a freshman student to become involved in leadership because of time spent on a music trip with one of our senior student body presidents. Our paths would not have crossed without this common experience. 

It is also important to look past appearances. So often we can be fooled into thinking that the students and staff we serve as leaders ‘have it all together’. We may think they don’t need opportunities to connect, to build community, to find their tribe and a true sense of belonging. But like their carefully curated social media accounts, the reality is often far different. People need human connection and compassion. 

Lastly, to be champions of relationships and belonging in our school communities, we need to Be Loving, Optimistic, Noble, and Generous!

A simple definition of love is to put the needs of someone else ahead of your own. Love is an action, a skill, and a choice -- more than a feeling. It is important that our student leaders be taught this, along with the steps to take to develop this skill and demonstrate love to the people they serve. 

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Optimists look at the bright side of a situation and see the best in people and circumstances. Optimism breeds happiness and attracts people. Perhaps the best example of love and optimism together is grandparents. They are notorious for believing the best about their grandkids and putting the needs of the grandkids ahead of their own. Imagine a school full of students and staff who had the same attitude about everyone in their building?

To be noble means to be a hero; to take the high road in a situation. To give someone a hand up instead of pushing them down, to help and heal instead of hindering and hurting. In school it might show itself in squelching a rumor rather than spreading it, or stopping to help someone pick up their books rather than laughing and walking by. It may be an old-fashioned word, but being noble has great power to transform and build belonging today.

Simone Weil wrote, “Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.”  People often think first of sharing their finances and resources when talking about generosity, but it is vital today to train our students to be generous with their time and attention. This means building on the essential servant leader character traits of selflessness, humility and kindness. The human connections that form the basis of belonging can only be built by people committed to being generous with their time and attention.

Leadership teachers, student council advisors, and student leaders often feel the pressure to have a full school calendar and offer a full menu of events and activities. It is easy to find ourselves busy “doing” while neglecting the kind of people we are “being.”  

A School Where Everyone Belongs
Young people today long to belong. Yours can be a school where everyone belongs. Make sure the events you do offer are focused on providing common experiences that lead to relationships that are the basis for belonging. And while you are doing these activities, and carrying out all your other responsibilities, make sure you are Being Loving, Optimistic, Noble, and Generous!

CharacterDares to help your students be more loving, optimistic, noble, and generous:

  1. Ask someone to join you for lunch that you have observed consistently eating by themselves. Start a conversation centered on the individual, their family, interests, etc. so that you actually get to know something about the person. Use their name – and remember it for future encounters. Ask them to help on a project around the school; let them know they are needed. 
  2. In class, at lunch/dinner, at home, and with friends, practice listening this week. Show you’re listening by using the SOFTEN model and then actively listen by asking good questions, paraphrasing, and re ecting. Be interested in the other person. Strong listening skills, used well, show respect and love to others
  3. Ask someone close to you to tell you three things that you can do to improve your relationship with them. Then listen without challenging them or trying to justify or make excuses for your behavior. Thank them for taking the risk to share this with you.
  4. Do something out of the ordinary today for someone in your life. Do something that proves (to you and to them) that your love is based on a choice and nothing else. Wash their car. Clean the kitchen. Buy their favorite morning drink. 


Jeff Gerber

Jeff Gerber is a Leadership teacher and Student Activities Council Advisor at Waterloo-Oxford District Secondary School in Baden, Ontario, Canada (located an hour west of Toronto). He has been recognized as “Advisor of the Year” for the province of Ontario and as a “National Leader of Distinction” by the Canadian Student Leadership Association. He is also a sought after speaker and presenter having spoken at schools throughout Canada and at regional, provincial, national, and international leadership conferences. You can learn more at jeffgerber.ca and connect with Jeff on social media @jeffgpresents.