Getting to the Heart of the Matter

Most of us have never seen our sense of comfort and normalcy change so quickly as we did in March 2020 with the onset of a pandemic. Schools, one of the primary necessities that shape society’s progress, were thrown into a chaotic state of immediate change from learning in the classroom to virtual learning. Students soon learned that school, a main constant and source of security, would be closed with no return to normalcy in sight.

At the same time, never has the need for social-emotional support been more essential to the classroom and our leadership programs than now. As educators, how do we train our students so quickly in mindfulness, flexibility, and self-care? The answer is to start with training our student leaders, as they will set the example and help others in their school community.

At the onset of the pandemic, most of us became frustrated and weary from all the cancellations and social activities that we could no longer participate in. Upon great reflection—and drawing on the positivity and hopefulness my mom instilled in me—I decided our goal for student council would be to stay connected, as this is one of the keys to social-emotional learning (SEL) and well-being. Our new student council motto at Western Branch Middle School (WBMS) was “We may not be in the building together, but Bruins will stay connected.”

With connection as our goal, I began to train our leaders to “LEAD” with heart:

Love

Empathy

Awareness and acceptance

Decision making

We would set up a culture in which kindness, passion, positivity, and creativity were promoted and fostered. This would allow student leaders to empower themselves by having their voices not only heard but valued.

Love

Love your team! As the old saying goes, there is no “I” in team. Create a teamwork environment. Everyone works for the good of all, knowing that the puzzle will not be complete without everyone’s contributions. This provides each leader with a valued role in celebrating students’ growth and accomplishments.

Our student council met on Zoom every week. We always started with a “vibe check,” usually by having each leader share their one-word vibe. I also allowed them to play a song that expressed their vibe with the group. This short and fun activity allowed students to express their emotions comfortably and get a sense of belonging as they focused on shared experiences with their team. They also created virtual projects, such as sending “virtual hugs” through our school social media. For this project, our students created picture collages of themselves hugging a member of their immediate family or pets.

One of our other Bruin traditions has been partnering with our feeder schools each year in an event we call “Santa CLAWS for a Cause.” This event involves our principal dressing like Santa, and me and our student council students dressing as Rudolph and the elves. We travel to the primary and intermediate schools to spread the joy of the holidays while Santa reads a story about kindness to the students. This has been a community favorite, as it allows a free photo opportunity with Santa, a tradition that can otherwise be expensive for families during the holidays.

As 2020 changed all of our normal gatherings, we decided to continue the event virtually in the spirit of connection and love for our community. We created a YouTube video, and our principal received all the students’ names ahead of time. This allowed Santa to call the children by name, telling them that he knew they had been great students this year. Surprisingly, this virtual event was just as meaningful as the in-person visits; personalizing the names was just what this event needed to foster connections and holiday joy. When we received a Zoom picture of all the kids holding up thank-you signs, we knew that leading with love and finding resilient ways to connect during the pandemic were paramount in creating the student council we wanted at WBMS. Through this activity, we learned so much about fostering leadership that meets the social-emotional needs of others and ourselves.

Empathy

Many would agree that empathy is the most important quality of a great leader. Extending grace and kindness in difficult situations sets the example for kids to follow this direction with each other. This must be practiced by the adviser and shown to the students in order for them to properly learn the value. With empathy in mind, our student council created programs to support one of the marginalized groups in our school by working with students with special needs. The program was called “Chat and Chew.” Students would eat lunch with our students with autism. During the pandemic, they adapted this to a Zoom lunch.

After getting to know the SEL needs of their new friends, our students also secured the funding and helped create a sensory-friendly hallway. Participation in these projects not only benefited our students with special needs, but also gave purpose and connection to our student council members. There is no better way to feel better about your own circumstances than to help others.

Awareness and acceptance

As an adviser, I modeled the way by showing awareness and acceptance through allowing student voice to become essential to all decisions made by our student council. I realized that no adult had ever needed to adjust and change in their circumstances the way our children had to adjust to this new virtual classroom. I knew that sharing the wisdom of accepting and welcoming others’ ideas and opinions creates the investment that helps the leader to become, rather than just to receive. Working toward learning and seeking knowledge and understanding instead of extrinsic rewards are keys to sustainable happiness. These are valuable social-emotional skills that help people sustain joy even in a time when that’s difficult.

To set these principles in motion, we created positions in student council where our student leaders would participate and attend Zoom meetings with adult groups (such as the PTA, parent advisory, and even faculty meetings). Our principal created student advisory committee meetings and town halls during lunches that included student council participants. All of these actions allowed our student leaders to express their concerns and be heard on multiple levels. Many of our student council members expressed how cathartic it was just to have their feelings heard and validated on the ever-changing issues that COVID-19 has created for our school. The validation provides the major SEL components of awareness, acceptance, safety, and belonging.

Decision Making

Making tough decisions can be daunting; however, it is a key component in leadership. Albert Einstein said, “Failure is success in progress.” Students need to be allowed to make decisions and discover the strength in failure. An adviser needs to create an environment in which strengths are promoted and valued, and weaknesses are managed and supported. Through the process, a leader can discover their niche or talent, which will help them find their flow and ultimately make careful and thoughtful decisions that yield positive results.

While still dealing with the pandemic, our student council was put to the test when we met over the summer to decide what service project we would create and how to use the money we fundraised with our Chick-fil-A sales. Our kids carefully and thoughtfully decided to commission a local artist to paint a mural with large piano keys and musical notes that extended the length of our hallway. The “Music Matters” hallway would become a beautiful reminder of the power of music to bring people together of all backgrounds and ethnicities. While in the midst of the pandemic, our student council wanted to find one thing that seemed to strike a chord (no pun intended) with almost everyone and bring them joy. This was decision making at its finest, with leaders adapting and meeting the needs of the current situation and circumstances.

The pandemic has made many things in our lives more difficult. In many cases, it has eaten away at some of our social-emotional normalcy and threatened activities that have always sustained us as humans. With that in mind, never has there been more need for compassionate and forward-thinking student leadership in our schools. The “Bruins LEAD with heart” initiative has shined a spotlight on the resiliency, kindness, and commitment of our young leaders to adapt to the changes life brings.

Martin Luther King Jr. said, “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.” As we look to begin the next school year, I feel hopeful having seen how we can learn from our young leaders as they have been so adept at creating connection opportunities and meeting the social-emotional needs of their classmates. At WBMS, our leadership program is not just surviving; it’s thriving. —


Amy M. Daniel is an eighth grade history teacher, student activities director, SCA sponsor, PTSA liaison, and social media director at Western Branch Middle School in Chesapeake, VA.

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