EAST WENATCHEE — Robert Gallaher finished his second-period leadership class at Eastmont High School last April the same way he always did, with a mantra written on the whiteboard.
“Be the change and choose love.”
His class often focuses on difficult subjects, but no matter how heavy the topic, he wants to students to hear a positive message before they leave.
Mandatory for Eastmont high schoolers for the past four years, his leadership class aims to teach students how to handle their emotions, examine the relationships in their lives and make a positive impact on others, among other life lessons. This trimester, 118 students are enrolled.
“This class is really easy,” he reminded the class that morning, “but what we talk about is really hard.”
The class took on more urgency, Gallaher said, after students returned to in-person learning after a year and half of disruption.
"The content has always been significant to the students," he said. "But when we saw the issues that came up, issues that had always been there, the urgency of getting as many students into the class as quickly as possible was such a priority."
The class included an activity where students listed 10 figures who had major influences in world history. The answers ranged from Jesus and Martin Luther King Jr. to Stalin and Hitler. Students then looked at whether those figures used brute power or their words to gain influence.
The lesson? Power may be an effective strategy to gain what you want in the short term, but it destroys relationships over time.
“Unfortunately, we think power is leadership,” he told the class. “Power is being a bully.”
Earlier in the week, students examined relationships in their own lives — whether they were a positive or negative influence.
Students in his class spend a lot of time writing and reflecting, though if a student marks an assignment as confidential, Gallaher does not read the contents.
As students begin to trust Gallaher, fewer and fewer students mark their assignments as confidential over time.
Gallaher said it’s essential to build trust and be honest with his students when dealing with heavy topics. During the class, Gallaher touched on the rocky influences and relationships in his life.
The level of trust is something students seem to appreciate.
“He has a lot of personal stories that I can relate to,” said 11th-grader Ell Fillion.
Fillion said she appreciates the positive and welcoming atmosphere of the class and the needed privacy it can provide. She said she has learned to trust her friends more and be more honest through it. “I feel like I’ve gained the ability to be a better person,” she said.
Emmett Atenco, a 10th grader, described it as “eye-opening.”
Carter Child, a fellow 10th grader, said through the class he’s reflected and learned how to treat people better.
Across the country, student mental health took a hit during the pandemic. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 37.1% of high schoolers experienced poor mental health and 44.2% of students experienced consistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness.
Mental health-related emergency department visits among those between 12 and 17 years old increased by 31% in 2020 compared to 2019.
When students returned to a hybrid model in Eastmont last year, basic things like casual conversations and the ability to joke were still absent. Gallaher and his fellow teachers noticed a sharp decline in student engagement.
Only recently have students begun to act as they did before the pandemic.
"The students are starting to process all that has happened. They are learning how to work through the issues that happen in normal life," he said. "They are also starting to deal with the issues that were neglected during the pandemic. The hurts were there, but they didn't have the tools or the skills to be able to process and work through those problems."
Gallaher said his class is "is just one of the many vehicles the students are able to use to work through these issues."
During his class, Gallaher told students being a positive influence is challenging and may result in lost friends or job opportunities. At the end of the lesson, Gallaher touched on the butterfly effect and how simple actions can have a lasting impact.
“Reach out and touch one life, both lives can change,” he told the class, stressing that they write it in their notes. “Reach out and touch one life, the whole world can change.”