On My Mind: Thriving Through Unprecedented Change

Summer 2021

By Donna Orem

shutterstock_132443528-(1).jpgIn 1970, Alvin Toffler introduced the world to Future Shock, a book and a concept that he defined as “anxiety brought on by too much change in too short a period of time.” Although 50 years have passed since the book’s release, Toffler’s words are prescient. The rapidly accelerating pace of change has been stoking anxiety for decades, and now, more than 18 months into a global pandemic, the additional forces of grief, loss, social isolation, inequity, and economic instability have created monumental mental and physical health challenges for children and adults alike. Addressing these challenges and rebuilding school communities centered around well-being may be the most important future work of independent schools, and the time to get started is now.

The Syndemic Aftermath

Well-being has declined around the world as well as in the U.S. The Kaiser Family Foundation (KFF) reports that four in 10 adults in the U.S. have reported symptoms of anxiety or depressive disorder, up from one in 10 adults in 2019. The impact is even greater for communities of color, with KFF reporting that non-Hispanic Black adults (48%) and Hispanic or Latino adults (46%) are more likely to report symptoms of anxiety or depressive disorder than non-Hispanic white adults (41%).
In September, Richard Horton, editor-in-chief of the British |medical journal The Lancet, described the intersectionality of COVID-19 and racism as a “syndemic,” a “set of linked health problems involving two or more afflictions, interacting synergistically, and contributing to excess burden of disease in a population.” Given these complexities, he suggested that we approach the aftermath of COVID-19 in a more integrated way by involving education, employment, housing, food, and the environment as interrelated systems that contribute to well-being. Gallup’s decades-long well-being research, which identifies five elements that people need to thrive—career or purpose, social, financial, physical, and community—underscores the intersectionality of the forces driving well-being. To begin the work of building healthier communities, we must understand how school systems drive or detract from these various elements and find leverage points to enhance thriving for students and adults.

Partnerships and Purpose

One of the key lessons from the pandemic is that there is power in partnership. Independent schools have been working together and leaning on each other throughout the pandemic, and they must continue to do so in the future. But there are also partnership opportunities in the larger community that can contribute to well-being.
In a September 2020 Brookings report, “Beyond Reopening Schools: How Education Can Emerge Stronger Than Before Covid-19,” authors Emiliana Vegas and Rebecca Winthrop suggest that schools embrace a “powered-up” school model post-pandemic, one that “puts a strong public school at the center of a community and leverages the most effective partnerships, including those that have emerged during COVID-19, to help learners grow and develop a broad range of competencies and skills in and out of school.” These partnerships could be with local businesses, social service agencies, or area professionals, complementing what happens within the school walls and enhancing a child’s mental, physical, social, and purpose development in ways that a school could not accomplish alone. As the authors say, “It quite literally is the school at the center of the community that powers student learning and development using every path possible.” Although the authors focus on public schools, I believe their model could be an effective one for independent schools as well.
Schools must also partner with their students to ensure that they thrive through this time of unprecedented change. KnowledgeWorks, an organization that explores the future of learning, suggests that schools should prioritize co-creating an authentic learning experience with students. We face many societal problems, and learning should not be removed from students’ home, community, and societal concerns. Allowing students to co-create their learning will enable them “to explore and extend the scope of their power as they apply skills and witness how their work can create positive, tangible impacts on issues that matter to them and to the people about whom they care.”
This advice is especially important today as we move deeper into the fourth industrial revolution, an era marked by humans and machines working together—a reality that has been accelerated by the pandemic. Children of this era will likely switch careers multiple times, as jobs traditionally performed by humans move to machines and new jobs emerge. Given the pace and scope of these changes, we may be entering an even more accelerated form of future shock, and students may struggle in many elements of well-being, particularly purpose. To provide a needed anchor, schools must be intentional about keeping purpose at the forefront of learning and ensuring that students begin developing the social-emotional skills to navigate complexity at an early age.

Being Human

Jal Mehta, a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, identified three additional key pandemic learnings that may be essential to building healthier and more equitable school communities. In a December 2020 New York Times opinion piece, “Make Schools More Human,” he advises that we use what we discovered about the individual needs of students during this time of online and hybrid learning to recreate environments that allow all students to thrive. For example, some students prospered online in ways that they did not in the face-to-face classroom. As Mehta explains, “The lack of social pressure and anxiety has made them more able to focus on learning.” For more reticent students, chat was more comfortable for them than talking in class, and Zoom breakout rooms gave other students the ability to shine in a small-group setting.
Mehta’s second pandemic learning is that schools need to design human-centered environments. Of the many lessons both children and adults learned during these past months, perhaps the most important is the power of relationships. In this fast-paced, high-tech world, that often gets lost. In the quest for getting into a particular college or climbing the career ladder, the importance of purpose and social interactions often takes a back seat, and the result is increasing anxiety among both adults and students in our communities. We simply need to get off the treadmill and make time for each other.
And, finally, he suggests that the well-being of the entire community be a school leader’s goal. This calls on us to look at our communities through a systems lens and understand how one part influences the other. Mehta says that too often we pit the needs of students against those of adults. Research tells us that the well-being of students is tied to the well-being of adults (teachers, parents, and administrators), so we need to work to heal the entire community if we want to be effective centers of learning for children. He advises that “coming up with ways to build trust and find solutions that are good for both students and adults is one of the meta-lessons of the pandemic. … We are realizing what we should have known all along: that you can’t widget your way to powerful learning, that relationships are critical for learning, that students’ interests need to be stimulated and their selves need to be recognized. The same is true for teachers—they need to feel physically safe, they need support, they need their work to be recognized and honored, and they need working conditions that make it possible for them to succeed.”
As Michael Crow, president of Arizona State University, said in a recent Gallup webinar, we need to bring a new logic to the entire education system. I believe that new logic begins with creating equitable human-centered schools in which the elements of thriving are baked into all areas of learning and school operations. Let’s partner to make that a reality.

What I’m Reading

I have been reading and listening to many diverse voices during the pandemic. Although some of my reading, like The Color of Law and 2030: How Today’s Biggest Trends Will Collide and Reshape the Future of Everything, were game-changers for me, my go-to author during the pandemic has been Brené Brown. I finally got around to reading Dare to Lead, which explores the complexities and paradoxes of leading today and provides actions we can take to be authentic leaders. Particularly useful is her advice to identify your two most important core values and let them lead you through difficult times. Perhaps even more impactful, though, are her podcasts; they are jam-packed with the kind of help leaders need right now. If you don’t have time to listen on a regular basis, take time for the “On Day 2” episode of the Unlocking Us podcast from September 2020. In this episode, she takes on what Harvard professor Rosabeth Moss Kanter describes as the messy middle, suggesting that “in the middle, everything looks like a failure” (Kanter’s law). Everyone feels motivated by the beginnings and by happy endings, but it is in the middle, Day 2, where the hard work happens. Brown applies this concept to both leading through the pandemic and the fight for racial justice, pointing out that we are at a point of no return. We can’t skip Day 2 because that’s where all the learning occurs. Instead, she says we have to name it, normalize it, and put it in perspective. Brown is just what we need to lead us through these complex times.
Donna Orem

Donna Orem is a former president of NAIS.