[The following is part of an essay series on Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) in Jewish education presenting low-barrier methods for infusing SEL into the work of Jewish educators. These ideas are stepping stones on the path to creating a more comprehensive and coordinated SEL approach. If you are interested in learning more about how to enhance your work with SEL in your educational setting, congregation, organization, etc., we encourage you to contact the authors. The series is edited by Joey Eisman (Teachers College, Columbia) and Dr. Jeffrey Kress (William Davidson School – JTS).]
By Sam Feinsmith
The introductory essay to this SEL series points to the pivotal role educators play in creating learning environments that nurture meaningful connections to applied Jewish wisdom.
Before COVID-19 hit us, children as young as six were already struggling with anxiety, and rates of depression, isolation, and suicidality in youth were on the rise. In the midst of this mental health crisis, educators with strong social and emotional competencies developed through mindfulness training, especially the capacity to self-regulate, were better able to create nurturing learning environments to support students’ emotional wellbeing. Because mindfulness – the innate human capacity to attend to our physical, emotional, and mental experience in the present moment without judgment – supports us to observe and regulate our inner experience in real time, it is a particularly powerful tool for developing self-regulation skills.
For over twenty years, the Institute for Jewish Spirituality has been training its participants – clergy, lay leaders, the general public, and in recent years Jewish educators – to develop mindfulness and self-regulation skills from within the Jewish wisdom tradition. In addition to fostering greater calm, reducing reactivity, and equipping participants with the capacity to control anger and manage depression, Institute for Jewish Spirituality alumni report that when taught in a Jewish framework, mindfulness practices supported them to connect more deeply with their Judaism and expand the depth of their spiritual experience.
The Institute’s Educating for a Jewish Spiritual Life Program is the only national program that currently trains Jewish educators to develop social and emotional competency, with self-regulation skills among them, through an array of Jewishly-grounded mindfulness practices – including mindfulness meditation, tikkun middot (character refinement) work, and Jewish prayer.
We all know that when cabin pressure drops in flight we fasten our own oxygen mask before assisting others. This is even more necessary in challenging times, when children look to the adults in their lives for reassurance, calm, and predictability in the face of uncertainty, fear, and disruption. It’s become unquestionably clear, now more than ever, that before we can genuinely help our students manage their anxiety, despair, isolation, and overwhelm, teachers (and adult caregivers for children in general) must learn how to regulate ourselves.
To support teachers in these efforts, we offer several ideas for you to consider in both the short and long term.
Reimagine your professional community as a kind of Noah’s ark, a holding container that might enable your faculty to discover a deeper quality of safety and calm in the eye of the storm so they can help students follow suit. With all the demands that moving to online learning is making, this might feel like a secondary concern – but it’s not. Consider it essential groundwork for supporting students. All of us are stressed and anxious; teachers are also working long hours while, in many cases, juggling childcare and homeschooling for their own families. Given this, helping your staff members develop concrete strategies for becoming calmer, gaining perspective, and cultivating reserves of patience, insight, and compassion might be the single-most important thing you do for them. You can do so in the following simple ways:
- On your screen, share an image of a thermometer with ten gradations. At the beginning of each faculty meeting, invite participants to use it as a “stress-ometer” tracking and sharing their stress levels with the group on a scale from 1-10.
- Build short mindfulness practices (2-5 minutes) into staff meetings. Perhaps someone on your faculty can lead a short meditation toward the beginning of each session. Or perhaps one of hundreds of the Institute for Jewish Spirituality long-term cohort alumni would be willing to donate their time.
- Offer your faculty and staff resources to learn and engage in mindfulness practice at home, ideally a practice grounded in Jewish wisdom, and to do so together (IJS offers FREE resources, including our Starter Kit and daily guided meditations).
In the longer term, when school resumes on-site, you might consider:
- Offering mindfulness training in a Jewish framework as part of professional development. The Institute for Jewish Spirituality Educating for a Jewish Spiritual Life Program is a great way to get started.
- Creating holding environments (e.g. a designated room with meditation resources and a calming atmosphere) and carving out time in the daily schedule (e.g. before the workday begins, during lunch, after school) for teachers to drop in for a mindful “time-in.”
- Nurturing a small group of early adopters to organize a community of practice in which teachers meditate together and process their experience in a safe, trusting environment. Such a container can foster open reflection about teacher’s social, emotional, and spiritual growth; application of mindfulness skills in the classroom; and how to disseminate Jewish mindfulness practice into the life of the school more broadly.
To learn more about Institute for Jewish Spirituality offerings to support your teachers now and into the future, visit our website: www.jewishspirituality.org.
Sam Feinsmith directs the Educating for a Jewish Spiritual Life and Prayer Project Programs and co-directs the Clergy Leadership Programs at IJS. He has been a thought and practice leader in the world of mindful Jewish education for close to twenty years, conducting professional development workshops, trainings, and retreats for day school and religious schools educators, and teaching Jewish mindfulness practices to youth K-12. Contact Sam directly at: firstname.lastname@example.org
- Merikangas, K. R., Nakamura, E. F., & Kessler, R. C. (2009). Epidemiology of mental disorders in children and adolescents. Dialogues in clinical neuroscience, 11(1), 7.
- Jennings, P., et al. (2017). Impacts of the CARE for Teachers program on teachers’ social and emotional competence and classroom interactions. Journal of Educational Psychology, 109, 7.
- Zoogman, S., et al. (2014). Mindfulness interventions with youth: a meta-analysis. Mindfulness, 1-13.
- Belzer, T., Silverman, G. (2019). Institute for Jewish Spirituality cohort based programs outcome evaluation.