5th September 22
It is the start of a new academic year and teachers at Claremont have been engaged in an urgent, vital and joyful exercise: Getting To Know Our Students. Pupil Profiles filled in by students and their parents have revealed wonderful stories of likes, dislikes, strengths and struggles, and we add to them as we get acquainted with our new intake. Little icons are appearing on our teacher’s information system to flag our boarders, our international students, members of our Football Academy, those with important medical information and students who may need additional support in the classroom. As students arrive, classes and seating plans are taking shape and tutor groups in Houses are building new friendships. Everyone is learning to recognise new faces and remember new names.
Humans are social animals, driven by our DNA from birth to form meaningful connections with other humans. Belonging to a tribe and being honoured as a member meets our fundamental needs for physical security, supportive relationships and good self-esteem. Only when these needs are met within our tribe can we begin to fulfil our potential and ‘self-actualise’ – school communities like Claremont are built to be the living embodiment of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. And yet tribalism doesn’t just build people and communities. It can also pit communities against each other and tear our social world apart. The intense ‘Republicans vs. Democrats’ tribalism in American politics is currently taking the USA down a very dangerous path. And what if you have no tribe? Then the disenfranchised loner who is excluded by their community becomes the gang member or Texas high school shooter in a desperate bid for recognition.
Tajfel’s Social Identity Theory (1978, 1979) explains it thus: we present our self-identity to the world and seek those similar to us to gain affirmation. In so doing, we categorise ourselves and others into social identities, say ‘Republican’, or ‘Democrat’. Distinct social groups form, with ‘us’ (Republicans) in the ‘in-group’ and ‘others’ (Democrats) in the out-group. This leads to stereotyping of people in other groups – we stop seeing others as individuals, only as ‘A Democrat’. We then make comparisons and exaggerate the similarities we have within our own in-group (‘Republicans are all True Americans!’) AND the differences we have versus other out-groups. (‘Democrats are thieves who stole an election!’)
And to maintain our self-esteem within our social identity, we play up the positives of ‘Us’ and the negatives of ‘Them’, even to the point of dehumanising Others – how else could Trump’s supporters storm their own Capital and threaten its elected occupants? The genocide in Rwanda between Tutsis and Hutus is a well-documented example of this process; the Arab-Israeli conflict, the troubles in Northern Ireland, the persecution of Uyghur and Rohingya Muslims and even our own nationalist, class and gender wars in the UK are other tragic examples of how labelling and stereotyping makes for division and destruction at a national level.
So what about Claremont? How do we walk that fine line between Belonging and Tribalism? Our school uniform encourages conformity around a shared Claremont identity that separates us from other schools. Within that, our Sixth Formers set themselves apart in their business attire, while our Football Academy and Performing Arts students have their own distinctive sporting ‘strip’. Our House system for pastoral care fosters healthy competition between tutor groups in epic battles for those coveted Krispy Kremes. But these artificial divisions are not as strong as the bonds Claremont students form across groups in their forest schools, co-curricular activities, sports teams, choirs, boarding houses, DofE expedition groups, dance shows and musicals.
So I think we do far more to tear divisions and cliques down in our school than we do to build them up, and as teachers we think in terms of Pupil Profiles, not stereotypes and labels. Our students continually show us that an U18 England hockey player can also be Shakespeare’s Juliet; a dancer can become a Chemical Engineer, a scientist can be a film director, and a medic can also be a brilliant cook with black belt in martial arts.
So as we get to know our students this week, and they get to know us, we will be seeking and celebrating those things that make our pupils unique, so we can bring out the best in everyone. Labels belong on products, not people. We don’t like ‘Us’ and ‘Them’ here. Whoever you are, Claremont will want you to simply Be Yourself – and we very much look forward to getting to know you better.