July 21, 2024
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July 21, 2024
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Venturing Into the Unknown

Imagine you’re a fly (or an iPad) on the wall in school right now. Here’s what you might see: Children with masks lining up for recess, six feet apart. As you pass in the hallway you hear your name. You look in the direction of that sweet little voice and see a student tilting her head and stretching out her arms with a heart-melting smile in her eyes. She calls out, “Air hug!”

Schools are open. In the face of a pandemic, entire communities have leaned into their growth mindset and believed, ”We can do this!”

Over these last months, the world has adjusted to many new ways of living and learning, celebrating and comforting one another. (My 2-year-old grandchildren only know me as a “celebrity” on a six-inch screen, but they know me.) At the same time, scientists have enabled us to understand so much more about the virus than we knew eight months ago, and that is what guided us as we developed our protocols to open school.

Back in March, we were dropped into the deep end of the pool. Adjusting to that new reality was necessary, immediate and filled with challenges and changes in how we would teach and be able to develop and maintain relationships. As we looked ahead to plan for September, we realized that going to school as we knew it back in February would change. But how do we adapt when it is part of human nature to resist change? And such a big change! Our brains are designed to keep us safe, and therefore we can see change as a threat. Even hearing the word “change” can make us uncomfortable. The key to a growth mindset is believing you have the ability to change,

supported by an environment that reinforces your goals.

Opening school would take a village. And a village we had. Doctors, parents, administrators, teachers and lay leaders—all brought their growth mindset along. What are the ingredients of a growth mindset for a school in the midst of a pandemic?

Optimism, positivity, resilience, ingenuity and hard work. We saw it all in the adults who worked to put it together, and continue to do so each day. Teachers are the superheroes of this growth mindset. There’s a picture I shared with staff as we prepared to launch into the year: a leafy park path, and a woman walking with her hands behind her back. Walking alongside her is a young child whose hands are also behind his back. This picture captures one of the keys to creating a growth mindset culture. Children learn by internalizing what they see and hear. Our voice becomes their inner voice. Our actions become their behaviors.

Our attitudes would be reflected in our students. Modeling a growth mindset as we navigated the emotional and logistical challenges of the year ahead would set the tone for how everyone around us would act and react. Children instinctively would follow our lead. The “air hug” my student experienced at the end of a lesson became a new way to connect. Another child made a beaded bracelet for our principal and told her, “This is how I’m giving you a hug.” We learn from one another, encourage each other, and we acclimate.

We are not the only school to do this. There has been so much collaboration between communities. As Jews, we are people who have had this growth mindset as a model going back to our forefathers. We see it in this week’s parsha, Lech Lecha, and in the life of Avraham Avinu, who was whisked away from his homeland and asked to venture into the unknown. His life exemplifies the faith and trust implicit in a growth mindset, and the ways in which we look ahead (and keep looking ahead) to make our vision a reality.

Yes, there have been many challenges along the way, and tired is in our vocabulary. At the same time, our “village” has been continually finding creative and supportive ways to meet the needs of our community. I am proud of all we’ve accomplished. My excitement to be in school each day is only matched by the excitement I feel each time we discover a new way to learn and laugh together. Being open and “in-person” is day-to-day. We don’t know that there won’t be a reason to close over the course of this year, but what we do know is that our positive outlook and how we model for our children will bring learning, growth and many air hugs!


Michelle R. Hoch is the director of Counseling and Student Life at Westchester Torah Academy. Before coming to WTA, she served as grade level dean and advisor at SAR High School for over 12 years. She holds an MSEd (Master of Science in Education) in School Counseling and when she’s not making herself available for students, parents and teachers she loves being with her family and can’t wait to once again visit her twin grandsons in Jerusalem.

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