Ari Gerzon-Kessler is the coordinator of family partnerships for the Boulder Valley School District. Previously, Ari served for 16 years as a principal, assistant principal and bilingual teacher. He is the author of "Money Fit" and numerous education articles centered on social-emotional learning, family partnerships and equity.
Amid the eternal year in lockdown, our youth saw their closest friends as boxes on a screen and hungered for contact and community. Decades of research affirm people of all ages are hardwired for connection, which gives purpose and meaning to our lives. The pandemic has erected additional roadblocks for students to meet this crucial need.
Despite these and other obstacles our students are facing during these turbulent times, they have the potential to become a resilient generation that thrives in a post-pandemic world.
As a former teacher and principal, and currently a district-level leader, I do not underestimate the challenges we are contending with today. A national survey conducted last spring of more than 3,000 high school students found nearly a third reporting they were unhappy and depressed "much more than usual." Suicide is the second leading cause of death in adolescents.
We need to prioritize helping our youth feel deeply connected to themselves, others and the world. Classrooms that have thrived during the pandemic are ones where educators have built strong relationships and warm communities, reports Jal Mehta, a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.
If we genuinely wrestle with the following nine questions, I am confident we can turn this difficult chapter into a catalyst for improving our education system. My goal here is not to answer these challenging questions in depth, but to underscore that as educators we need to ask them.
If our goal is truly to educate the whole child, seriously reflecting on these questions is essential. Please use these questions as a checklist to gauge where you are excelling in your service to our young people and where you can grow your capacity.
1. How often are you infusing emotion into your conversations, stories and other learning opportunities?
Information without emotion is not retained. Conversely, emotion drives attention, and attention drives memory and learning. Sam Intrator, a teacher and writer, spent a year observing high school classrooms and asked students what they were feeling or thinking in the moments when they were highly engaged, or what he called “inspired.”
In synthesizing his results, Intrator discovered that, “The inspired moments of learning shared the same active ingredients: a potent combination of full attention, enthusiastic interest, and positive emotional intensity.”
2. Where and how are you creating the spaces for youth to feel seen, heard and truly known?
“There is no world but this one. And all we want is to be seen in it,” writes novelist Jess Walter. Regardless of their age, young people have a tremendous desire to be witnessed and appreciated for who they are. It’s important for us to regularly ask how we are inviting our youth to bring their full selves.
If we want them to remove the social masks that we’ve taught them to wear, we need to be more intentional about deepening trust with them. The key that unlocks trust is psychological and cultural safety.
3. What opportunities are you creating for students to cultivate rich inner lives and explore their spiritual yearnings?
Parker Palmer writes, “Unless the classroom can somehow embrace the relations and struggles of students’ lives, students will continue to ‘lie’ to teachers, to separate the learning process from the rest of their lives.”
Recent research has demonstrated that teenagers with a strong personal spirituality are 35-75% less likely to experience clinical depression.
4. How are you helping students fortify their relationship with nature so it can become a deeper source of meaning?
Today our students are more disconnected from nature and all of its benefits than any previous generation. According to Florence Williams, children and adults alike are “increasingly burdened by chronic ailments made worse by time spent indoors, from myopia and vitamin D deficiency to obesity, depression, loneliness, and anxiety, among others.”
5. How are you teaching young people to find nourishment in silence, solitude and stillness?
We need to help our students learn how to better befriend themselves. Last winter, I was at a hot springs a few hours from my home in Colorado. Beside me was a young man, who, despite being surrounded by a stunning moon and peaceful waters, spent his entire time in the hot waters watching videos on TikTok.
Solitude is an important source for meaning, self-connection and creativity. It also supports us to bring our best selves to our relationships.
6. Where are you creating the spaces for your students to learn real-life skills?
From my two decades as a student and two more as an educator, I know well that schools consistently fall short in teaching students about best practices around diet and exercise, practical topics like financial literacy, or relational skills such as how to effectively navigate conflict or the complexities of our inner landscapes.
As Jiddu Krishnamurti put it, “education has no meaning unless it helps you to understand the vast expanse of life with all its subtleties, with its extraordinary beauty, its sorrows and joys.”
Highly effective SEL strategies connect learning to the deepest questions that students bring to the classrooms from their lives. As a student myself, what distinguished the enlivening experience of college from the uninspiring, clock-watching world of high school was that I had the freedom to follow my passions and engage in learning that was highly relevant to me.
7. How are you helping them uncover their vocation?
The word education comes from the Latin word educo, which means “to draw out or develop from within.” One of the greatest gifts we can offer is leading our youth to experiences that help them realize their strengths.
These discoveries may deeply inform their career and life path. As one of our local high schoolers shared, “I wish my teachers knew I had no idea what I’m going to do, and that they knew that I’m desperate for someone to point me in the right direction instead of just telling me, ‘You have time.’”
8. How are you teaching students to set healthy boundaries and confidently say no?
From their earliest days, the word “no” usually held negative connotations for our students. However, in a world that is overstimulating and constantly putting demands on their time, empowering students to have the clarity and courage to say “no” supports them in developing healthy boundaries and prioritizing the relationships and activities that truly fulfill them.
9. How are you providing the rituals and rites of passage that build resilience, character and a sense of belonging?
There is a direct link between risk-taking and our capacity to learn and grow. As Joseph Campbell famously said, “Where you stumble, there lies your treasure.” In terms of living a full life, there is such value in overcoming adversity.
For centuries, we held rituals and rites of passage that fulfilled this need for initiation in our youth. They grappled with challenging experiences that propelled them toward becoming secure in their capacity as individuals and aware of their inseparability from the broader community.
If the fires that innately burn inside youth are not intentionally and lovingly added to the hearth of community, says poet Michael Meade, they will burn down the structures of culture, just to feel the warmth.
In closing, let us remind ourselves education does not unfold in a social vacuum. We are part of a culture in crisis. Our students will enter a world with unique social and political challenges. So we would be wise to consider three final questions:
How are you fostering robust critical thinking skills in an era of “fake news” and “truth decay?”
How are you helping students navigate their privilege or their potential marginalization?
In a divided nation and a more interdependent world, how are you helping students become global citizens who are knowledgeable beyond the borders we have created for them?
More than a century ago, the poet Rainer Maria Rilke encouraged us to “try to love the questions themselves.”
It is time for us to live these questions now. It is time to humanize education, prioritize relationships and more effectively honor the rich inner lives of our students.
If we do so fully, we can move artfully from a time of peril to a time of possibility, an era of despair and isolation to an era of hope and connection. If we unlock our students’ greatness, they may just lead the way.