Special Report
Student Well-Being Opinion

How Can Students and Educators Make Sense of a Year of Loss?

Spiritual traditions offer tools for facing the past and shaping a better future
By Roger Brooks — March 31, 2021 5 min read
A student walks across a sunrise to a new beginning

For most of us, educators and students especially, the last 12 months have been a time of relentless destabilization, constantly requiring us to reset our expectations for normalcy and reevaluate our place in the world. From the COVID-19 restrictions that began in the spring of 2020, to the protests following the killing of George Floyd and so many other moments of racial violence, to the divisive presidential campaign, the election and its aftermath, to the very recent Atlanta and Boulder, Colo., shootings, this has been a period like no other.

Young people have found themselves separated from classroom environments and cut off from their peers; educators have been forced to reimagine an already-difficult job for a time of unprecedented health concerns. While we cannot yet comprehend the full impact of these changes, increasing educational inequities and worsened social-emotional health tell us that both educators and the young people we teach badly need tools to help recover from the past year.

Religious and spiritual traditions may offer some of these tools. As a 30-year professor of religious studies, I know that ideas taught in these traditions, though not limited to them—ideas about community, our place within history, bearing with suffering, and dealing with complexity—can help students do more than merely endure horrific events.

Many spiritual approaches teach us to see ourselves as part of something larger and to embrace our ability to shape the future. In the face of depressing isolation, several religious traditions suggest we draw sustenance from community—for example, Islam’s notion of an ummah that supports and confirms belief and practice, Buddhism’s ideal of a monastic order or sangha, and Judaism’s commandment to find joy in family, community, and society. Imagine how at this moment this insight can help students and their teachers confirm a sense of agency: What would we change to connect more fully with the world, to create a sense of joy? Our students could gain agency to shape their own emotional lives and perhaps make a difference in the lives of those around them. Teachers can help students turn to each other and, at the same time, teachers themselves can draw sustenance from their professional colleagues.

It has been a year of hardship and tumult, and religious traditions often attempt to explain suffering or urge us to emerge from suffering wiser and more pliable than we were before. Many traditions offer models for us to follow, from Job’s unwavering piety in the face of adversity, to notions of self-sacrifice in imitatio Christi, to Buddhism’s eightfold path—a prescription for eliminating suffering caused by attachment. Considering spiritual exemplars, some of whom are secular heroes as well, teachers can tell students with confidence that terrible times have sometimes opened new worlds of empathy and hope. The traditions see sadness and discouragement as human and normal even if not a permanent psychic resting place.

History comes about not through unstoppable, predetermined forces but through the smaller decisions of individuals who could have made different choices.

Spiritual traditions also address complexity and contradiction. Often, young people in particular experience a reality in which the world as we live it and the world as we imagine it do not match. Sometimes civic as well as other rituals can help to unite these worlds (à la anthropologist Clifford Geertz’s seminal 1966 essay, “Religion as a Cultural System”). Reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, for example, confirms our belief in “liberty and justice for all,” even when we too frequently see reality diverge from that ideal.

Holding two mutually contradictory beliefs can be the essence of aspiration, even of prayer. In his letter to the Touro Synagogue in Rhode Island, George Washington wrote that the government of the United States “gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance.” Yet, he led a new government that sanctioned slavery and himself owned other human beings. At one and the same time, Washington could participate in a world of racial violence and aspire to a nation without bigotry or persecution.

Washington might not even have seen the enslavement of Africans as bigotry and so may have been unable to imagine that he was straddling his lived reality and a different world. But nothing could be more vital than for students (and their teachers) to understand that although we may live in a moment that diverges from our ideals, we have the power to bridge a connection between those realities. People make choices; choices make history. Faith traditions tell us that, working together with others, we can change the whole world, beginning with an act of imagination and decision.

Underlying all these teachings are skills that young people and adults can learn and apply—to manage emotions with a sense of hope about the future; to feel and show empathy that enables positive relationships; and to make ethical and resilient decisions. Deep learning happens best when social and emotional learning are incorporated into rigorous academic study. Critical thinking requires us to abstract ideas from one set of data and then use our own agency to apply those principles to new information and situations. To the extent that educators can help young people fuse together different kinds of learning—critical thinking, emotional engagement, ethical reflection—they will also give them the ability to make sense of novel concepts and unexpected events in the world around them.

At Facing History and Ourselves—the organization I lead—we have learned that students come to a deeper understanding of history and human behavior if they collaborate with others, especially peers, and explore their own and others’ emotional responses.

History comes about not through unstoppable, predetermined forces but through the smaller decisions of individuals who could have made different choices. In order for students to stand up to the forces of bigotry or ignorance, they need to appreciate how those forces came about and found purchase. And they need to know how to use community to combat their own fear and inaction. By using the tools suggested by social and emotional education, teachers can help students fine-tune their moral compass and seize their own agency. Even in dark times, students can be proud of how they conduct themselves and the contributions they make.

We are all, I hope, about to begin a “new normal.” With COVID-19 vaccine production ramping up and inoculations increasing exponentially, many of us are beginning to think positively about the world to come—about what it might look like and what our place in it might be. Our choices have made history—but they will also define the future. To achieve all that we hope for them, our students must be ready to embrace the complexity of the world we live in, to build confidence in their own agency, and to gain motivation to move forward into the world as it must be. Teachers have the opportunity to ensure they do.

Coverage of social and emotional learning is supported in part by a grant from the NoVo Foundation, at www.novofoundation.org. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the March 31, 2021 edition of Education Week as We Are Part of Something Larger


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