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Self-belonging for Educators: Learning F.LY. (First, Love Yourself) and then S.O.A.R.!

Have you ever had the feeling that you weren’t as skilled as other teachers you work with? Maybe you thought they had more experience than you, or the way you teach isn’t much different or better than your colleagues. Have you also told your students that each of them is special? Have you pointed out their strengths, their superpowers and pointed out examples that you noticed? Do you see the disconnect between your inner perspective versus your outer perspective?

Let me tell you a personal story about that. All the time I was growing up, my friends, family, and many of my teachers noted how patient and calm I was. They encouraged me to think about becoming a teacher, but I rejected their advice because I believed I didn’t have the ability to support my students equally. I was convinced I couldn’t be a perfect teacher. After all, I might let my students down by not knowing how to teach them and, as a result, they would fail. Do you know why I thought this way? I lacked self-confidence, self-esteem, and self-worth; I lacked a sense of self-belonging.

Fast forward to 1996 and a 40-year-old wiser me.

Although I lacked a degree in education, I believed I could do the job because I knew I could figure out what gaps I had in pedagogy and teaching methods and find ways to fill them in. I also knew I’d find a way to get my certification because my students were depending on me to know what I was doing. A few years later, I completed my certification in ESL and a year later, I became the elementary principal. Taking on the role of principal wasn’t an easy process. The Board of Trustees at the private school where I taught interviewed me. Their questions led me to believe they had doubts about whether I could handle the move from teacher to administrator. In fact, the owner of the school asked me how I would handle a situation if a teacher who had more years of experience than me questioned my ability to lead. I responded that I had a wonderful rapport with all my colleagues and “when in doubt, I would fake my confidence”. That might sound strange, but it’s true. Staff needs to believe their leader has the confidence to take charge and make the tough decisions. They also want to be sure their principal will be a buffer between them and the parents.

You probably have two questions right now:

  1. What changed my mind about teaching?

  2. How did I feel confident enough to answer the school owner that way?

What changed about me in the 20 years after I graduated high school was my self-belonging. I began to realize that I was getting in my own way because I lacked a sense of self-belonging; all self- words that sum up how we feel about ourselves. It took me many years, but I finally began compiling a list of all my accomplishments, strengths, and superpowers. I had overcome a lot in my life but never took the time to pause, reflect, appreciate, and celebrate. Once I did, I felt empowered. Now, I want everyone, young and old to feel their sense of self-belonging. I want you all to S.O.A.R. but you have to F.L.Y. (First, Love Yourself).

You can start your journey to self-belonging now! Here are some first steps:



APPRECIATE yourself and make sure you're hanging out with others who appreciate you without judgment

REACH out to ensure we leave our mark on the world with our legacy

Self-discovery is your first step to self-belonging once you embrace yourself, the good and the not so good. By first loving yourself, (wrap your arms around yourself and give yourself a big hug!) you are in the present and noticing yourself. You’re noting what talents you have, your ability to navigate the world and work, your resilience in the face of obstacles, and the care, empathy, and compassion that’s built into everything you do. After all, teachers can’t survive without it. This might take some time, but once you start listing it all, your heart will swell with a sense of self-accomplishment.

Next, give yourself the opportunity to grow. We’re not perfect and no one should expect us to be, including ourselves. We have many chances to improve, fill in the gaps, learn more. Take advantage of those opportunities. Join an organization that supports your interests like I did with ISTE. I wanted to know more about edtech and network with others who had the same interests. I’m a member of TESOL International and on the leadership team of the refugee concerns interest section. I have an amazing online PLN that supports my growth every day. You can too!

Appreciate and embrace your true, authentic self. Acknowledge that you’re on a journey to discover yourself and find people who support you on your journey without judgment. I have a wonderful support network that includes a few people who make me feel good about myself and will listen when I don’t feel so great. They listen for understanding and not for responding. They value me and validate my feelings and are willing to let me know if I’m making missteps.

Then, reach out to others and find your niche. What are you passionate about? How will you leave your mark on the world and make it a better place than you found it. What will your legacy be? Becoming a good ancestor is your way to give back to your community, local and global. Use your superpowers to benefit others. Talk about feeling empowered! My legacy is mentoring and coaching refugee teachers and leaders around the globe. What will yours be?

Why am I so passionate about self-belonging? We cannot have happy and healthy personal or professional relationships without it.

About the Author

Ilene’s Bio:

Dr. Ilene Winokur has lived in Kuwait since 1984 and is a professional development specialist supporting teachers globally including refugee teachers. Ilene has been active in learning innovation for over 35 years, is an expert in professional development, and is passionate about narratives related to belonging. Prior to retiring in 2019, she was a teacher and administrator at the elementary and pre-college levels for 25 years. Her blog, podcast, and book focus on the importance of feeling a sense of belonging.

You can connect with Ilene on

Twitter: @IleneWinokur

Instagram: @ilenewinokur

Facebook: IleneWinokur

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