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To Be Noticed Is To Be Loved

By Damian Bacchoo
To Be Noticed Is To Be Loved

“To be noticed is to be loved.” -Ali Smith, There but for the

It starts with a belief system.

I believe that making children feel noticed is arguably the most important thing that we can do in schools.

Why? Because my belief system is this:

  • When children feel that they are noticed
  • it helps them to feel seen and known,
  • which makes them feel loved,
  • which makes them feel like they belong.

Noticing is the root of belonging. And belonging is, I think, the root of happy and healthy children.

I came across this US school study involving over sixty-six thousand students. Only fifty-one percent of students shared that they thought their teacher would miss them if they were absent. And, only forty-six percent of students said that they felt valued at school. That’s truly shocking. The impact on self-worth, motivation, and depression when people feel unnoticed, unseen, and unknown has been well-documented for some time, and it’s only been amplified through COVID.

For teachers, noticing is the intentional act of seeing a student’s uniqueness and showing an interest in their full life. So, when teachers pay attention to young people and remember them, their hidden brilliance and quirky nuances become known.

What does that look like in high schools?

Well, there’s no one way of setting this up. For many schools, the front line is assumed to be the relationship between the students and their mentor (or tutor, homeroom teacher, advisor, or coach…). It’s the one person that they will see every day in school, the person who will take a register and notice who is in or not in before they start school, the person responsible for sharing notices. And in many schools (like ours), mentors will also support the wider holistic program through the delivery of structured and unstructured activities. They are the constant. There is no one better-positioned person in the school to notice students.

Except, we know (and the research is often brutal) that even with such structures in place, too many students still feel that they are not seen, not known, or loved.

Why is that? There are likely countless reasons, but I am confident that it will either end up being reduced to a lack of conviction in the belief system in place by the school and its leaders and teachers around noticing and mattering. I have heard all sorts of reasons over the years, but good schools seem to make it a priority to get it right, even if they sometimes fall short (I like to think this is where my school is).

Noticing others is a skill, a practice, and should be a priority for schools, leaders, and teachers. Overlooking others is so easy to do, and I can’t help but think that it’s a trend born out of increasing individualism and decreasing social connectedness. I don’t know.

What I do know is that I can still recall every student from my first mentor group back in 2000. I can still see their faces in my mind’s eye. I could still tell you their strengths, what they need help with, their hobbies and interests, their friendships, their siblings, and a few pet names. I still check in on a few of them. For a short time, they were my family. I hope that they felt noticed, seen, known, and loved.

This is not extraordinary. I am not extraordinary. Nigel, my first mentor, made it clear that this was just my job.

As a school leader, the question I ask myself most regularly is whether my eighty-odd mentors believe in the power of noticing as much as I do. And if not, what should I be doing about it? Do they know their students? Do they know the parents? Do they know the names of their siblings? Do they know what’s interesting or bothering them just now? For many, it’s these tiny lapses of curiosity that can add up to perpetual invisibility.

I’m certainly not immune. I have not transferred my forensic noticing skills, which I think I had with my students back in the day, into school leadership in the way that I would want to. I know I am not being curious enough. I am not asking enough questions and I am certainly not checking in enough on personal details.

Noticing others is a practice that’s too important to be left to intuition.

One of the non-negotiables of being a junior officer in the British Army is the requirement to maintain a platoon notebook. Guess what it was used for? Yep, to capture all the information about the soldiers under that officer’s command, to specifically help make the act noticing systemic. Senior officers periodically check these notebooks and test junior officers on how well they know their teams. The long and short of it is this, some junior officers would never become senior officers if they fell short on the art of noticing- if they paid lip service to their platoon notebook.

There is a lot to be said for such systematic approaches to noticing. When I was in uniform, it felt a bit forced and sometimes lacked authenticity when taking out the fabled notebook in front of soldiers to confirm which football team they supported. I preferred to use my memory, whilst others would have been lost without it.

“We missed your voice in class today.”

A colleague shared with me one strategy he recently used to address a student who was skipping his personal and social education (PSE) classes. “I wanted to take it personally. They were in school and had turned up to other lessons that day. I was about to press send on an email to express my feelings. I wanted to make them know that I had certainly noted their absence and that my lessons were a compulsory part of the learning programme. But, on reflection, I changed my email.”

Here is what he sent, “We missed your voice in class today. Hope you are OK?”

The student immediately sent a positive response back, and without other words being exchanged, they stopped skipping his lessons. The inference in this sentence is genius,  you were missed. What you have to say and contribute in classes is noticed. You matter…you are loved…you belong.

It’s a belief system. 

Helping children feel noticed is arguably the most important thing that we can do in schools.

Originally published in Serendipities.

Damian Bacchoo is currently a high school principal at the United World College of South East Asia, Singapore. He has previously worked in Switzerland as a founder of a new International Baccalaureate Career-Related Programme (IBCP) school, been the global head of the diploma program and career-related program for the IB in The Hague, and was a secondary principal in Dubai at GEMS Wellington, Silicon Oasis. Prior to this, Damian was a Major in the British Army serving as an education officer in the UK, Brunei, Iraq, and Afghanistan.

Damian’s blog, Serendipities, is loosely centered around school leadership, curriculum, wellbeing, and belonging.  

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