By Brian Cohen
Exclusive for Shalom Magazine
One of the hardest things to manage as an educator or school leader is keeping the school environment positive, engaging, and predictable for children at a time when we ourselves feel deeply disturbed. I’ve lived through versions of this throughout my career, such as: Oklahoma City, September 11, Boston Marathon bombing, and the murder of Ezra Schwartz in Israel. When we are in positions of authority in schools, when we create the very structures that allow students, staff, and families to feel a sense of order and calm, we must focus our attention on those things that make us feel safe.
To a large degree, for Jews across the world and especially in Israel, the events of October 7 and all days hence have felt like something more foundational has changed. A seismic shift that is reshaping the landscape of what it means to be a Jew in this day and age, let alone to work or study in a Jewish school environment. It has permeated our minds, our hearts, our spirit. And our students, regardless of age, know and feel it, too. Whether it is an 8th grader who can articulate his or her feelings on the matter or pose insightful questions, or a 1st grader who comments that she can see on the faces of the adults that something is very wrong, our children are absorbing the impact of this collective trauma.
According to the American Psychological Association:
Current events are often uncertain for children. They look to parents as well as teachers to make them feel safe in a time of war. As children start to study subjects that teach them about the world outside of their home, they will need your help to sort it all out. You may wonder how you can teach your child to move beyond the fears that a time of war brings. The good news is that, just as your children learn reading and writing, they can learn the skills of resilience - the ability to adapt well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats, or even significant sources of stress.
On the evening of October 9, the day before our students returned to school following that horrific weekend, I gathered my staff together on a Zoom. We had to see each other and begin speaking about what we were feeling, how the next day of school might go, how to care for ourselves and support one another, and most importantly how to support students. We decided to take a varied approach based on the developmental levels of the children. Notice, I didn’t say based on age. In our school, true to our dynamic individualized approach across grade levels and subjects, we try to meet each student where they are at in their thinking and skills.
Some students had little to no clue what had unfolded in Israel, while others of all ages began speaking about what they had heard or read. Our younger students began making cards for Israelis in general and soldiers in particular. Through their card making they would often ask clarifying questions or express thoughts or feelings. Without directly discussing the topic in this way we were able to hear what was on their minds and address that appropriately given the context. Our middle school students had a more in-depth conversation based on a structure we share with many other institutions when speaking about complex events: the head (thoughts), the heart (feelings), and the hands (actions). We gathered for communal prayer and to sing Hatikva regularly. We have continued on with different moments of creative expression through art and voice. We try to guide each individual toward resiliency so that they can feel less helpless, more hopeful, and more safe.
It’s not that we can guarantee without a doubt that they will be safe and secure at all times. That would not, in fact, be fair or true. But we can make them feel safe and secure, and the physical and psychological benefits of that will greatly impact how they learn to adapt and experience life. Maintaining a school environment that is safe, predictable, supportive, engaging, and kind is the most important action schools can take for their children at this time and at all times.
Brian Cohen is the Head of School at MetroWest Jewish Day School in Framingham. He received his Masters degree in School Leadership from the Harvard Graduate School of Education.