by Felicia Wilks, assistant head of school/Upper School director
Assistant Head of School/Upper School Director Felicia Wilks welcomed parents and guardians at the Upper School Back-to-School Night and shared her advice to students from the first week of school. Read an excerpt from her remarks.
Tonight, I want to share a few ideas I shared with your students during our opening assembly. I’ll begin by saying, there’s a lot happening in the world, and it has not been easy! Just in the last few months, we have seen protests happening locally and nationally about racial injustice; the lead-up to a contentious November election, the devastating and ongoing impact of the pandemic, and most recently, the fires and smoke.
With all of this in mind, I wanted to offer students some advice for getting through these extraordinarily challenging times.
In doing so, I focused on three areas: self-care, gratitude, and relationships. Focusing on these areas has helped me personally to deal with the challenges we are all facing, as well as finding some bright spots here and there, too.
The first thing I want to talk about is self-care. Self-care is anything that brings you joy and promotes your mental, physical or emotional health. Sometimes, as a parent, I have fallen into the false feeling that self-care is selfish. It is not. It is a means of survival — especially in these tough times.
There is so much to worry about: our children need our support and so do our partners, professional colleagues, aging relatives, and likely many others. But in order to be a resource or support to anyone, in order to be active in our communities and courageous in the face of injustice, we need to be healthy and strong.
The children in our lives look to us to model how they should cope with stress and disappointment. It is important to remember that as models, we are not only parenting for now, but also for our childrens’ futures — we can influence how our students behave and the tools they reach for in stressful times when they are 30, 40, or 50 years old. Taking care of ourselves is great modeling for our children, but it also sustains us, so we are available to give the love, support, and patience our loved ones need from us. I hope you will all consider ways — no matter how small, to invest in doing something good for yourself on a regular basis. It’s important.
You can support your students this fall by helping them to put good self-care routines in place. I asked students to take some time in the first weeks of school to set up a healthy schedule for themselves that includes ample time for rest, movement, food, and breaks especially on long days of classes. I also encouraged them to find ways to move throughout the day — if they have a free period, can they take a short walk? Or do something else that gets them away from the screen for a while?
My second area of focus is about practicing gratitude. There is lots of research that suggests that practicing gratitude can contribute to positive outcomes, from happiness to improved self-esteem.
One study showed that after 10 weeks, those who wrote about gratitude daily were more optimistic, felt better about their lives, exercised more, and had fewer visits to physicians than those who focused on daily sources of aggravation.
As a parent, I have tried to instill a sense of gratitude in my daughters, and it has not always been easy. It is developmentally appropriate for our adolescents to be self-centered, so thinking about what others do for them and what they are grateful for does not always come naturally.
Like with self-care, it matters that I model gratitude. I try to remember to thank everyone, including my children, when they are helpful or thoughtful. I am also explicit with my kids about the things I am grateful for — from the way sunlight comes through the cherry blossoms in spring to the fact that we have a safe place to live.
At school, a few times each year, students write thank you notes during advisory. It is a random fleury of gratitude that brings joy to those who write the notes and to those who receive them. Consider pulling out a few blank cards and having your student sit with you to write a couple of thank you notes from time to time — even if these notes are just for the other people at home. They can be to anyone and for anything they are grateful for.
This brings me to my third area of focus for getting though this time: relationships. During this time of social distancing, it has been difficult to connect in the ways we always have, and yet, it is more important to have strong connections with those around us than ever before.
As I suggested to our students, it will not be easy to build new relationships during these socially distant times, but I encourage you to do so anyway. There will be many opportunities to connect with the school and with parents and guardians in your student’s grade. I hope you will take advantage of these opportunities throughout the year. I also hope you will connect with each other personally. There is a lot of wisdom among the parents and guardians in our community. And when parents and guardians share information and connect with each other, we help to keep all of our students safe.
It will also be important to encourage your students to take the risk of reaching out and making some new friendships this year. Sometimes, students are nervous about reaching out, and I know it can feel like a big risk, but please encourage them to give these awkward connections a try.
Teachers are intentional about creating opportunities for connection and collaboration among students in their classes. Advisory and class meeting opportunities also offer ways for students to make friends. These are great places for students to build from — reaching out to someone who was in their group in class or calling someone in their advisory is a low risk way to possibly make a new friend.
The other thing I’d like to say about relationships has to do with ethics, empathy, and equity — three important values at Lakeside. All summer, I watched as our country experienced yet another flashpoint around racial injustice. The tragic deaths of George Floyd, Brionna Taylor, and countless others bring the injustice many Black, Indigenous, and people of color experience daily to light for those who do not experience this injustice.
These moments are all about relationships and how we want to be in relationship with each other. This is a time for us to help our students consider what it means to practice the ethical and diversity, equity and inclusion mindsets that are a part of our school’s mission and re-envisioning. In particular, this is an opportunity for us to make the space for our students to decide what they believe and how we want to get involved.
One of the most important roles we can play in our students’ lives is of the listener. Our students are taking in so much about what is happening in the world around them. They are in a moment of their development where they are figuring out their own values and perspectives. They are considering how all they have learned to date maps to the world as they experience it.
In class, teachers are explicitly working on teaching students dialogue skills. Dialogue differs from debate in some key ways. Both have value in a variety of settings, but what we are seeing is that students don’t see enough models of dialogue in public discourse. As an example, debate is characterized by the notion of winning and listening to find weakness while dialogue is characterized by working together for common understanding and collaboration. These skills are necessary in our work to prepare students to solve the unstructured and difficult problems our world faces.
At home, I encourage you to listen openly and share honestly with your students. Allow them to practice their ideas on you.
When I was an undergraduate, I was lucky to have the great poet Sonia Sanchez visit to speak to a small group of students. She told us many things that I have thought over since then. One thing she told us was how she spent her Sunday mornings with her two teenage sons — she would play a song for them and they each played a song for her. They played the songs all the way through. Some of the songs her sons played were terrible, she said, and some were not so bad. They each could have their opinions about what they heard, but they had all agreed to listen to each other’s music with open ears. This dialogue lasted for years in her family and gave her and her sons a practice in dialogue — of sharing, openness, and understanding. I was not a teacher or a parent yet when I heard that story, but it has served as a guiding example in my life as a teacher and parent and has led me to ask again and again, how I might both share what I know and be open to learning from the children in my life about what they know.
I look forward to working with you this year to support and educate our students. When we work together at school and at home our students benefit.