Living In-Between

Upside down. That’s how our world feels now. When so many of us left our school buildings in March, it is was Purim, the joyous holiday when all the bad was turned on its head and became good, when the hidden hand of G-d proved we would overcome and when the utter devastation that was possible became instead hope and rejuvenation. Strange context to leave the building when COVID-19 hit. 

And now as many of us are able to return to buildings, we are struck by a different Purim. This one is a day like Purim, known as Yom Kippurim (ke-Purim). This day, so full of intensity and urgency, we come to in trepidation and leave each year renewed, full of hope, knowing that we will be forgiven and there will be a future. What a strange, upside down way to frame the year- on the one hand, we go from insecurity in our future in the Purim story, to trust in G-d’s presence on Yom Kippur, from fear to hope. And on the other hand, we go from physical connection, sharing meals, rejoicing together, costumes, noise and fun of Purim, to a solemn day of fasting and prayer, alone in our togetherness, and fearful about what the year ahead holds for us, on Yom Kippur. 

This frame of Purim then and now seems, in so many ways, to be a perfect frame for this time. A time of confusing opposites, a time of deepest clarity about what matters, a time of profound connection and intense loneliness, a time of confusion, a time of “venahafoch hu,” when everything has been turned upside down. And now, as we enter the Sukkot holiday, the theme is so perfect it is almost comical: we are “back in session” and yet not totally at home, we are literally in temporary booths, and though we are back in our school dwellings, we all feel the fragility of our plans and yearn for the stability and strength that being inside a strong building gives us. We are together, and yet apart. We are living in between, between normal and not, between what was and what will be. We are very much in the present and also holding onto what was and hopeful and perhaps fearful for what will be.

At Prizmah, we have been honored to support educational leaders navigate this strange period, and in particular, we rejoice that the topics of mental health and social-emotional learning have now become not only socially acceptable but urgently prominent in all educational discussions. From pedagogy and curriculum and schedule design to buses, remote learning access and policy, mental health has now assumed its proper place as an essential aspect of our educational thinking, design and experience. This “upside down” of this time has enabled us to serve others better and save lives. 

Last year, when we partnered with Yeshiva University’s Azrieli School and launched the first cohort of school counselors, we hoped for a small group that might meet once or twice a month virtually (this was before we had all become adept at Zoom, remember?). And we were thrilled to welcome 17 counselors from all over North America. Our group became close, despite the virtual connection, and it soon became a robust team of colleagues and friends who shared resources, ups and downs, ideas, reflections and support. Often, we would end a call together knowing that lives were literally changed and helped due to the collaboration that went on during these times. Whether during the virtual meetings or through the “Reshet” (peer to peer professional development community), counselors, guided by Dr. Rona Novick and me, created programs, developed proposals and collaborated to enrich their practice beyond what we had ever hoped to imagine.

When COVID-19 hit, and we saw that the group asked for weekly meetings, we developed a program for administrators and counselors to learn about social-emotional and trauma-informed teaching to prepare the faculty to return to school in the fall of 2020. We had planned for 30, knowing that it would be difficult for people to find the time to invest and that because we required both an administrator and a counselor, we were making the pool of schools that would commit to joining even smaller. It was important to us to invest in a team approach, as that is the most effective way to impact school culture. 

We ended up having to close the program at 120 participants from over 55 schools across North America, with schools representing all age groups, all denominations and approaches. It was amazing to see this group of people together. Over three days, participants experienced programming they could use in their staff training and with students, had workshops with experts in the field and broke into discussion groups so that connections with other school leaders could be made and maintained beyond our time together. The feedback from this experience was overwhelmingly positive, and most of all, people were grateful for the opportunity.

Since the summer, Prizmah has opened a new Reshet for all day school counselors. (join here.) In addition, we have launched our second school counselor cohort, and this year we are proud to have 37 school counselors from across North America in our closed group. We continue to share resources and leadership thinking in this area across all of our communication and are planning to bring leading speakers on this topic for the field. In particular, we are working to support heads of school, principals and educational leaders in their work of supporting their school communities.

Our educational leaders have embraced this new normal and are developing new habits around self-awareness and self-care; they have deepened their skills to notice, support and address issues of mental health in themselves, their staff, students and parents. Leading by example, many of the heads of school and principals have attended extra professional development training programs specifically designed to teach these skills and so much more. Understanding that ongoing support is what will make learning and growth possible, school leaders have taken steps to include social emotional learning in all aspects of curriculum and teacher training. 

And yet, there is also the need to mourn for what was. Many heads of school have shared with me that they miss the principal that they used to be able to be. “Now,” explains one head of school, “I need to say ‘no’ often, to send students home with symptoms, to insist on masks, when I want to be the leader who is all about the warm welcome and not about the thermometer at the door.” This swift change in how we must function in order to keep the doors open has changed how our educational leaders must interact with the school community and has created even greater challenges. Yet another upside down of roles created by these circumstances.

For our students and teachers and parents, roles have become totally upside down, with parents serving as assistant teachers, students taking greater responsibility for their work and teachers having to create classrooms that extend way beyond four walls and previous strict time limits. Check-ins that teachers and students used to have are now either remote or in person but with masks and distancing. Navigating authentic connection and creating the space to be available to learn is now exponentially more challenging. There are new skills we have acquired and old skills we have developed even more. This is a positive gift of this upside down time in that it is preparing us for the education of the future. As futurist Alvin Toffler said, “The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn and relearn.” 

What we know is that fostering and supporting positive mental health is one of the key objectives of our schools, for the students, staff and families. This key understanding has the power to not only save and enhance lives in the future, but to alter the trajectory of Jewish day schools forever. If we harness this understanding and build our next steps based upon social-emotional best practices, then all of our students and families will benefit. The question that we must address is the same one we faced after Purim and the same one we face after Yom Kippur: After all of this shake up and upside down, are we different? Can we maintain what we have learned? Will we be able to carry with us the lessons of this time? While we are in the in-between time, what can we learn and how can we harness these lessons moving forward? 

As we enter the temporary sukkah, shelter, knowing it is really a reminder of our own control, how will we choose to see our world, relate to others and ourselves? Just as we look to see the stars above, invite ushpizin, spiritual guests, even when we cannot have physical guests, so too this year, we look ahead and above and leverage what we are learning so that we are stronger.

By Rachel Levitt Klein Dratch, Director of Educational Innovation at Prizmah: Center for Jewish Day Schools