ALPINE TOWNSHIP, Mich. (WOOD) — High school has changed a lot since Spencer Vanderheide was a student. Back then, a student could put on a brave face during the day and then go home and be themselves and not worry about what their friends were doing.

Now, they’re connected all the time.

“High school students now have a 24/7 popularity contest,” Vanderheide said. “What they’re seeing every single day is, ‘Oh, wow. That person has a bigger house than me, a nicer car than me… Oh, I thought that was my group of friends but they didn’t invite me there.’ … They more they tell themselves the lies of ‘I’m not all of those things,’ their inner critic just becomes louder.”

As the head of the Career Readiness Department at Kenowa Hills High School, Vanderheide wants to help the next generation silence that inner critic, rewrite the tapes and break the cycle.

Even before the pandemic hit, exacerbating the problems, he had proposed a new course focused on social emotional learning. Despite the challenges during shutdowns and virtual classrooms, the course had four sections with 30 students each when it opened in 2020. Two years later, it has expanded to 10 sections of 30 students each and has become Vanderheide’s full-time responsibility.

Vanderheide sees the younger generation as primed to take on a class like his and make it count. He thinks they’re ready to set aside old ideas of wearing a smile and pretending that everything is good even when it’s not.

It’s nearly impossible to measure vulnerability or empathy, so creating the course was a challenge.

“It’s different than a math class or a science class,” Vanderheide explained. “We know it all very well. We know what shame is. We know what belonging feels like and we know what feeling left out feels like… I think the biggest takeaway my students get is that they’re not alone in feeling that way.”

He believes being able to put themselves in others’ shoes every day has led to a more understanding group of kids.

“I love seeing the culture and climate shift not only in my classroom, but in the hallways,” he said. “People are looking out for each other. They’re looking at their classmates through a different lens, rather than competing. They’re on the same team and they’re rooting for each other, which the past three years have been difficult for everybody, so we need each other now more than ever.”