Student Life: Compassion and Engagement in a Crisis

by Nicole “Nicki” Shedd, Assistant Head of School for Student Life

As we leaned into the spring—reeling emotionally from the sudden need to close campus for the spring and move to remote learning—we quickly realized that our students were suffering tremendous loss that would extend into the fall when they returned (we hoped!) to campus. Most of them grappled with the loss of senior traditions, graduation, family celebrations, athletic seasons, theater productions, and the cherished goodbyes with friends that they might never see again. Some of our students were tasked with managing their own studies while supporting the homeschooling of siblings, picking up jobs, and some dealt with isolation and emotional distress at levels they had never faced before. Not to be downplayed, all of our students managed this change while their daily support structure was unexpectedly stripped from them.

In this unfamiliar time, our students had to redefine where they would seek support when they no longer had the day to day support of the adults on campus. Our first priority was maintaining students’ opportunities to connect with trusted adults, one of the tools critical to their health and happiness. According to author Brooklyn Raney, “Research shows that just one trusted adult can have a profound effect on a child’s life, influencing that young person toward positive growth, greater engagement in school and community activities, better overall health, and prevention of risky and threatening behaviors. From educators to piano teachers, camp counselors to aunts and uncles, and athletic coaches to babysitters, every adult who encounters a young person holds the privilege of shaping that child’s life—and also the significant responsibility.”

Our Community Health Commitment, signed by the entire community this fall, asserts that “… life at The White Mountain School is centered around a safe, inclusive community that affirms the identities and experiences of everyone who lives, learns, and works on campus. Community life is central to the White Mountain experience and creating protocols that ensure our safety while bringing us together as a vibrant whole is of paramount importance to realizing that experience.” We are committed to providing experiences and opportunities that support our students’ ability to thrive during normal times and, once we are on the other side of the pandemic, navigating that new landscape. That support starts from a place of compassion and engagement, named in our mission statement, and includes equipping students with tools and skills necessary to reduce the physical and mental health impact of COVID-19. It’s important to recognize that we’re collectively walking through grief amid the COVID-19 pandemic. We all experience things differently; grief is very nuanced, and our responses and thresholds for discomfort are also different. While confusing and complex, this also puts those of us supporting others—especially in a small community such as this—in a position to help our students understand their grief, confusion, and frustration during a time of tangled emotions and stressors.
One of my favorite parts of community life at White Mountain is our advisory program. In all of my years in boarding schools, it is where I have found the most meaningful engagement with students and what has been the catalyst for connection with my advisees and their families that remains twenty years later. The advisory program provides a unique opportunity for personal and supportive collaboration between adults, students, and families. A student’s advisor acts as their advocate and supports them in all aspects of school life. Developing connections with each advisee and maintaining a real awareness of what is happening in each of their lives on a day-to-day basis is the essence of what it means to be an advisor at White Mountain. Daily check-ins before Morning Meeting, regular advisor meals, informal gatherings, trips, and frequent conversations help to build and maintain this important relationship. Advisors strive to cultivate an atmosphere of care, trust, and mutual respect in which students can openly discuss their successes, goals, concerns, and overall experience at the School.

We began to lean into our advisory program over the summer, primarily as a means of creating and maintaining connections with students and families. But also to lay the foundation for a year when we knew that students would need a trusted adult on campus as they navigated the mental, emotional, and physical toll of adjusting to a different style of learning, living residentially, engaging with peers, and processing the trauma, that has for some, exacerbated some of the tricky moments that our students are grappling with during their teenage years. According to the World Health Organization, “Adolescence is a unique and formative time. Promoting psychological well-being and protecting adolescents from adverse experiences and risk factors that may impact their potential to thrive are critical for their well-being during adolescence and for their physical and mental health into adulthood.”
Advisory dinners are an important part of how we create community at the School. In fact, it could be argued that sharing a meal with our students may be the single most important part of our Student Life curriculum. It is especially valuable in our schedule’s frenetic pace that we prioritize time to simply be together. A shared meal signals that we value and respect each other and that it is important to us to spend together. The benefits from strengthening our advisory groups through shared meals can include better communication skills, improved self-esteem, and a protection against negative social dynamics. We set our phones aside and share the stories that shape our lives; we laugh, we joke, and, most importantly, listen. We teach our students that sharing a meal with people you care about is a symbol of forgiveness, togetherness, and a shared understanding of the things that tie us together. It is a signal of coming together, a time of reflection and offering gratitude, and creating friendships. This was once a practice that we observed three times per year. In this year of need for increased connectedness, we have increased the frequency of these dinners to once per month.

We have partnered with The Social Institute, a national company that uses an online platform for exploring social and emotional learning (SEL). From their website: “The Social Institute (TSI) is a gamified, online learning platform that empowers students to navigate their social world — social media and technology — to fuel their health, happiness, and future success. By reinforcing character strengths like empathy, integrity, and teamwork and by showcasing their role models (from student leaders to U.S. Olympians), we use a relevant, positive approach to inspire students to make positive, high character choices.” SEL is important in school communities because our brains require social and emotional health to learn and develop. Really digging into the work of SEL requires connection, which one could argue is more readily available in a residential school setting, where adults have chosen to live a lifestyle in which they live and learn alongside their students.

In the current climate, our students are dealing with more than just a pandemic; they are weathering a storm of isolation, of racial injustice, of COVID-19, of political intolerance. As we work with our students and our own families to understand this complex environment, it is more important than ever to understand, appreciate, value, and respect each other. Through this work, our community will continue to practice weaving compassion into our daily lives while practicing radical hope and acceptance. The work that we have been and will continue to do with The Social Institute consists of one tool in a toolbox. Our equity and inclusion work, work in Morning Meetings, advisory groups, the dorms, the Learning Center, Student Assistance Program, in classes, and on athletic team and in co-curricular groups are also tools in the toolbox. As always, the guiding principle for our work is connection, community, and relationships. It’s about connecting kids to peers and adults and making them feel safe and secure as we lean into the hard things. And there will, no doubt, continue to be hard things this year. It’s next-to-impossible to expect teaching and learning to occur in a crisis without attending to our emotions. It’s important to normalize emotions and give students creative ways to have outlets when things are hard.

It is hard to effectively tend to our emotional health if we neglect our physical health—I know that I function best if I squeeze in a quick run or walk outdoors when I’m feeling stressed or overwhelmed. In his powerful work about the eye-opening discrepancy between today’s children and time spent in the outdoors, child advocacy expert Richard Louv argues that the lack of nature in the lives of today’s screen-dependent generation has created a nature-deficit. Louv attributes this deficit to concerning childhood trends, such as a rise in behavioral issues, anxiety, obesity, attention disorders, and depression. Leveraging our enviable geographic location, we have the distinct advantage of getting kids outdoors often, meeting them where they are in terms of individual comfort and ability while allowing them to explore the ways in which they want to connect to this beautiful place.

We have used the challenges of the fall to reimagine how we engage students and keep them active in our athletic and co-curricular program, in our on-campus Orientation Trips, and by building on the enthusiasm around our new Outing Club. The fall athletics and co-curriculars program, which is critical to the community-building and camaraderie that we prioritize at White Mountain, was implemented using remote and hybrid models-offering daily activities, both in-person and remote, for our first four weeks before switching to our formal athletics and co-curricular program. The program included activities such as rock climbing, yoga, building workshops, mindfulness, fishing, running, mountain biking, photography, chess, current events, drawing, and archery. We believe that our afternoon programming, Orientation activities, and Outing Club programming are an essential part of our sustaining students’ mental and physical health, and are committed to providing robust and inviting programming that is holistic in its approach to meeting the varied needs of our students.

As the waves of the COVID-19 pandemic begin to wane, we will not vividly remember our dorm and campus work jobs, our crew shifts, the content from classes, what the weekend activities were, or how delicious the meals served to us in the Dining Hall were. What we will remember are the relationships we have formed with those around us. Most anywhere you go on campus, you can see that students and faculty are engaged with and genuinely care about each other. Students and adults risk vulnerability here and do things that they might not attempt in another community. We can do this because our culture supports an environment where people can feel safe and cared about. We work hard to build trust, to listen to each other, and celebrate with each other. We cheer for each other when things are going well and support each other when things are tough. Our community leads with being gracious, and I believe that this is a more gentle high school experience in terms of judgment and rigid student cliques that exclude others. Being intentional about creating that kind of community is what compassion looks like and separates us from other school communities.

Founded in 1886 and set in the beautiful White Mountains of northern New Hampshire, The White Mountain School is a gender-inclusive, college-preparatory boarding and day school for 140 students grades 9-12/PG. Our mission is to be a school of inquiry and engagement. Grounded in an Episcopal heritage, White Mountain prepares and inspires students to lead lives of curiosity, courage, and compassion.

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