It’s hard to be new.
Whether it’s the first day of a new job, starting high school, or joining a sports team – there is something uniquely nerve-wracking about a fresh start.
“We’ve all been there,” says Calem Forster, a Leadership 10 student at Clayton Heights Secondary School in Surrey. “When I was in grade 8, I was scared out of my mind. I remember thinking, ‘We’re in the big leagues now’.”
This memory is one of the reasons he works hard to ensure his school is an inclusive and safe space for new and incoming students.
“Simply remembering what you went through helps you relate to others,” he says. “Seeing someone else going through something similar makes you want to reach out and help them.”
Along with his Leadership classmates, Calem takes part in a club called Project Equal, which focuses on community building – both inside and outside of the school. The program is funded by the RBC Foundation, through the United Way Future Leaders program, and strives to ensure that all students feel important and equal, regardless of their grade, or when they join the school community.
“Sometimes we forget that the people we don’t talk with every day have so many experiences and perspectives different from our own,” he says. “Taking that time to have those conversations builds your confidence, it builds their confidence, and helps spread some really cool ideas.”
When asked what the secret ingredient is to a thriving, supportive community he pauses before answering.
“Connection. Connection with peers, staff, friends, with all of the people in the neighbourhood.”
When it comes to helping foster this connection – especially for those entering high school for the first time – Calem and his friends encourage the following three tips.
Start with saying Hi
Calem doesn’t pull any punches when asked about the easiest way to meet new people.
“I’m just going to say it,” he laughs. “It’s saying hi.”
What may seem like a simple solution can often times be the hardest part. Calem knows firsthand how hard it is when you’re faced with a room full of strangers, or a new class.
“When I first started high school, I was silent for a lot of it. Going up and introducing yourself is not easy.”
But he stresses that the rewards highly outweigh the risks.
“Once you do it, you’ve done it, and it’s such a relief! Plus it gets easier.”
It’s also a way to show others that you see them.
“Introducing yourself says: ‘This person is willing to talk to me. It’s going to be okay’.”
Be all ears
For Calem, taking the time to listen to others is the other half of taking the time to introduce yourself.
“Listening is so important,” he says. “It’s how you build a successful team. It can’t just be one person telling everyone what to do all of the time.”
Listening to others is also one of the easiest ways to find out if someone is struggling or in need extra help.
“Does that grade 8 need help with their lockers? Do they know where to go? It’s not just asking them if they need help. We need to listen to what they need.”
Find your people
Having a sense of community in a classroom impacts learning.
“You feel more confident to raise your hand and take risks,” says Calem.
He encourages teachers to take time at the beginning of the year to help foster these connections.
“Playing ice breakers, encouraging communication between students really, really helps,” he says. “And not just on the first day. Keep these sorts of activities going, to make sure those connections really stick.”
He finds that taking part in clubs or programs with people who are passionate about the subject matter – such as woodworking, business, or social justice – helps speed up this process.
For Calem’s friend Genevieve, taking part in theatre plays a big role (no pun intended) in her community building.
“We all encourage each other. Sometimes people mess up but everyone is there for each other. This gives us confidence in other classes and builds a family inside of our class.”
Remember, it takes a village
At the root of every successful community is connection. While young leaders like Calem play an integral role in making new students feel welcome, so too do the adults that love them.
- Is your teen starting high school soon? Check out these tips especially for parents.
- Are you moving to a new community? Here are a few ways you can support your child’s transition to a new school.
- Teachers can be incredible allies for students transferring to a new school. If you’re a teacher, here’s how you can help.
Calem believes that as long as two people are willing to reach out – either as the new person, or as the person who is welcoming the new person – friendships, confidence and trust will grow.
“By reaching out, it shows you have their back, if you have their back, they will have yours too.”
Calem acknowledges it can be scary, but to remember that everyone feels scared sometimes.
“Having people that aren’t afraid to say hi, to offer a hand and asking for help – it brings people together. It’s the support that everyone needs.”
– Photos and story courtesy of UNITED WAY.