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Episode 99: HHS Teacher David Kozlowski Talks About Teens and Social Health

He is a former University of Utah football player not afraid to tackle any topic or issue when it comes to teens and improving social health.

On this episode of the Supercast, we sit down with Herriman High School teacher and licensed marriage and family therapist David Kozlowski. Find out about a class Mr. Kozlowski created at Herriman High called “Level Up,” which is getting statewide recognition and helping students improve their relationships with family, friends, teachers and others in their lives.


Audio Transcription

Anthony Godfrey:
Hello and welcome to the Supercast. I'm your host Superintendent Anthony Godfrey. He is a former University of Utah football player, not afraid to tackle any topic or issue when it comes to teens and improving social health. On this episode of the Supercast, we sit down with Herriman High School teacher and licensed marriage and family therapist David Kozlowski. Find out about a class Mr. Kozlowski created at Herriman High called 'Level Up', which is getting statewide recognition and is helping students improve their relationships with family, friends, teachers, and others in their lives.

We are here at Mountain Ridge High School with David Kozlowski, who just spoke with all of the administrators in the District for our Administrative Leadership Conference.  I couldn't let him get away without stopping to talk with him about some of the ideas he has for connecting with teens and with each other, and just to share some of his insights with our listeners. Thank you for joining us, first of all. Thank you for the message you have to share with administrators today.

David Kozlowski:
It was a great pleasure for me, especially now that I'm a teacher at Herriman High School to talk to peers and people that are in the trenches. It's really cool, because usually I just talk to parents, but now I feel I got to talk to parents and professionals in education. So it was huge enjoyment for me.

Anthony Godfrey:
Tell everybody a little bit of your story and how you got to where you are, and then I want to talk about your connection to teaching after that.

David Kozlowski:
I never once in a day in my life woke up and said, 'I think I want to talk about feelings for a living when I get older." I was trying to go the macho route.  I have two older brothers that played in the NFL. Well, I was adopted, it's a long story. My grandmother adopted me. She raised me with her kids and her new husband. So I was raised by my half uncles and aunts as my siblings basically. So I thought I wanted to be a sports athlete like them. I was fortunate enough to get a scholarship to the University of Utah to play football, but I really didn't love football. It wasn't really like the thing I loved to do, and I had a lot of problems in college.  I just got done talking about it here to the administrators, but to make really long story short, I had a very serious suicide attempt. I'd had a bad relationship breakup with my girlfriend, fiancé at the time, and been told that I could never play football again because I had concussion problems. I was in a coma for two days from an accident. So it was like a really bad, traumatic brain injury, with a speech impediment and everything. I started going to a therapist and a counselor and one thing led to another. I was like, "so you just listen to people, talk about their struggles, you ask them questions to help them express himself and they feel better?" He's like, "Yeah", I'm like, "that's a cool job. I want that job." So I graduated from the University of Utah, went to graduate school, to become a licensed marriage and family therapist and I've been in mental health for 22 years.

That kinda got me up until recently, and then with becoming a teacher that was not even a plan thing either for years. I just saw this pattern working with teens and kids. You know, when you see a pattern in something you try and make sense of it first. Then after you see it over and over for years, then you start to go, oh, wait a second, maybe we need to talk about the problem completely differently. It's called an orthogonal approach. Right? Einstein was famous for that, he looked at what other scientists did. He's like, "yeah, I'm not interested in that. Do something totally different just to kind of think outside the box." So for years I've been telling school districts and people that I have this idea for a curriculum that was based upon what I saw with private practice. I put on free social support groups for teens and here in the Herriman community for 11 years. So these kids freely are coming every week and I'm just taking notes. It felt like that guy who lived with lions in Africa for like 10 years, they came back to see him, they accepted him.  These teenagers forget I'm even there because I look like I'm 12 still, right? I wear vans and I look like an adolescent.

Then I just figured out all these unique things that really led to their problems and all the things that were connected to their solutions. It was pretty simple. The ones that had bad relationships, family, friends, relationship with themselves, always had issues with mental and emotional health. The ones that didn't have bad family or friend relationships, they happen to have a different type of health that fortified them when things got tough because they had support, but they knew how to ask for it, and they also knew how to get it. For whatever reason their parents, teachers influential people in their life, modeled this for them. They pick up on it.

The families that were really struggling when they started come in with depression, anxiety, suicide, all these issues, I started to see that these issues were all connected to relationships. So my curriculum that I came up with a long time ago was a social health curriculum. It just so happens, when I started thinking about this, about 10, 12 years ago, a bunch of research had been happening simultaneously that I didn't even know about. This research was showing that our social brain actually learns better than our analytical brain. When we are socially, like when we're curious, that's a social trait, right? Because curiosity leads to adventure. Adventure leads to discovery. Discovery leads to people need you around. You matter if you're a person that invents things. Right? 

So in this curriculum, I just started thinking, man, we need to focus on the social health of our adolescents as equally, arguably equally, as important as math, English, and science. With the suicide epidemic, with the depression, and self-harm going up, I'm like, we need to have social health, meet it and like capture it. So we don't try to save all these kids that are dying. We get to them long before they can get that point. I just happened to mention my idea on a podcast. I was actually kind of disheartened because I talked to a couple of the schools that looked like they were going to do it and it never worked out. I mentioned it on my podcast, it just so happens, one of your vice principals, Julie Scherzinger, love her to death, man, that woman was a pit bull. She heard it on my podcast and she started blowing me up. So I call and she's like, 'we need to talk about this. Can we do something here?" Then everything fast forward through the pandemic or before the pandemic?  I said, yeah, I have it all outlined put together. I just put the finishing touches on it. Pandemic year, oddly enough, that was the year we tried to help kids connect socially wearing masks. And man, we found out that their social health is a serious issue.  I mean, think about you only get better at what you practice. If you're staring at a phone all day long and texting and messaging, are you getting better at reading social cues? Are you getting better at facial expressions, understanding if someone didn't like, didn't say something to you because they didn't like you or because they're in a bad mood. Was that person hating you? Or did they have a bad burrito at lunch? And they have an upset stomach. They can't really tell the difference.

Anthony Godfrey:
There are lots of ways to escape having t
o figure those things out and having to actually engage with others around us.

David Kozlowski:
Exactly. So that's just the nuts and bolts of it. Thanks to Julie and Quarnberg at Herriman, by the way, I don't own this whole social thing. I don't own this. I don't try to own this. I just created a course. I think that social health, and that's what we're working with right now with the Orrin Hatch Foundation, I think social health should be a curriculum and a course. Very similar to how we introduced physical education into academics. If we're not getting better, at face-to-face negotiation, communicating difficult conversations, what example are we as a country in society showing our kids? Last time I checked when parents drop off their kids kindergarten, first, second grade, whatever it is, they're not sitting there going first day, I hope they do get a math today. They're saying, I hope they make a friend. I hope they don't get bullied. I hope they're not the bully. Right? Like you're so worried about their relationships. I hope their teacher likes them. 

Anthony Godfrey:
Great point. That's the focus exactly. When you say that, it's exactly my thought every time my kids start school.

David Kozlowski:
Right? And so in my mind, I'm like, this is too basic. This is too simple. Fortunately, doctors like Matthew Lieberman from UCLA, Harvard trained psychologists, a lot of other great doctors out there, did the research to back up that our brains have evolved, become more social. If you are not good at social, it doesn't matter what you're selling. It doesn't matter what you're trying to convince people to do. No one's going to buy it. No one's going to connect with it. They have to feel like there's a relationship. Hence the root of the word relationship is relate. There's gotta be some sort of connection there. So when I saw his work, when I took my experience and I was started working with kids in schools, I just figured we got to put this in curriculum somehow. So I've been doing a slow, this isn't like a sales pitch, this isn't like, oh, we know exactly what schools need. I'm a teacher now because I didn't want to create a curriculum without teaching it because how would I know what teachers need? 

Anthony Godfrey:
What are some of the things that you have found have worked in that class?

David Kozlowski:
So what I found, first of all, by listening to other teachers, listening to students before I even created this. I've just listened to parent's complaints, teacher's complaints, student's complaints. Then I turned around to solutions, because everyone can complain and point fingers at who's not doing what they're supposed to be doing, but where's the solution at? So one of the things I found out, um, well, I'll use it. It was specific to this last year, but I think it bears repeating, is the masks showed us a really big blind spot is in human beings of how we communicate. Kids were so used to communicating digitally that when all their communication was only digital kids started to get really uncomfortable with it. They were nostalgic for the days where they could just hang out with their friend. They could sit in the class.  I'm not saying, I've got to be careful when I say this, when kids get bullied in class, it's not good, but I had some kids come talk to me. They would tell me they would be okay with feeling uncomfortable in certain classes, around certain kids, for the payoff of getting to see their friends, getting to connect and getting to ask a teacher questions.  Where over Zoom they felt so much more disconnected and were scared to do any of those things. 

Anthony Godfrey:
So they were ready to take the good with the bad just to have some level of connection.

David Kozlowski:
But because they came back to school with masks, they were all like, something's wrong. Giving kids a real life experience. You take away a super power from them. Their ability to read people's body languages. They were lost. They were scared. That's why we're seeing as the results come in, it did not get better mental and emotional health with young people over the pandemic.

Anthony Godfrey:
Stay with us. When we come back more with Herriman high teacher, David Kozlowski.

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Anthony Godfrey:
You said in your presentation that after over two decades in mental health and social health, coming in as a teacher, you learned a lot quickly that you hadn't learned over those decades as a social and mental health specialist. Tell me some of the things that you learned coming into the classroom.

David Kozlowski:
I learned that kids are far more scared of school than I realized, and they're not scared of the book. They're scared of the social. The most important thing in school, I'll explain this after this, I'm a school teacher, and like I say, the most important thing in mental health is helping people with their social health. The most important thing in school for students has always been social. But what I learned, to answer your question, what I learned with these kids, their fear is extraordinarily real. Their stress is extraordinarily real, and it can change in a heartbeat from one class to another. They can be confident in one social class because that teacher established that place. 

I call my classes, it's Switzerland. We don't bring politics, we don't bring religion, We don't bring any of those things here because those cause differences. At the end of the day, hurt and pain, fear, these are all natural connectors with people. We're all scared of something. Okay, well, we can connect on that. We'll feel less than at times. Okay. We can connect on that.Once we start to connect in my classes, I have these kids do these highs, lows, and who knows? So to start off the day, they'll say their name, they'll say the high for me this past week or over the weekend was "hung out with my friends". The number one high reported is I spent time with my friends. Then number one low that was reported is drama with their friends or their family members. After that, if they're unsure, like one of the things they're unsure of, like, I'm dating a girl that I used to date and we got back together. So that's a "I don't know".

Our brain can really do a good job of saying, I know this, I don't know that, and this isn't an unknown. Those three categories, with their name, saying over and over. I'd see kids walk up to another kid and say, "Man, you have a problem with your dad too. Like when you were talking about your dad, I thought you read my diary. That's just like me." They make connections without us having to force the connection. They just have to have a safe place where they can feel that they can talk about things that aren't going to marginalize them. They can talk about things that are going to bond and connect them.

Anthony Godfrey:
Finding o
ut that there were other kids who may have the exact same struggles, creates a connection all its own. And if they don't talk about it, they know someone else is in the same situation and it validates theirs

David Kozlowski:
You hit it right on the head.
The nicest kid can be mean and quasi bullying if there's enough kids in a group talking bad about another kid. All it takes is one kid to say, "Hey, that kids actually pretty cool. I liked them." They'd all go, "oh, whoa. We're not saying we didn't like them." They pull back really quickly. But sometimes kids say, "I'm not brave enough to stand up." I said, "you don't need to stand up, you just need to speak out."

Anthony Godfrey:
I've never been in your class, but I walked in one day to Herriman High School. I saw kids running around, pairing up, stopping suddenly. It looked like chaos, but it looked like pretty exciting chaos, very engaging chaos.  I'm just having a conversation with an Administrator, and I said, "What's going on?" In a positive way,  because I'm thinking these kids are engaged in what's happening. And he said, "Oh, that's something David Kozlowski put together. It's a way to get kids connected with each other." I mean, these kids, these are high school kids that can sometimes be very difficult to engage. They were at a full sprint to get to each other in whatever activity it was. And they were obviously connecting in a very meaningful way. So it was fun to see that. And you obviously are transferring the energy that you have for improving social health to those kids that you're working with.

David Kozlowski:
Well, I thank you for that, and I definitely can't take credit for all of that. What you saw was probably a specific thing.  Those group of kids were going around doing that. But basically what it is is that the school, the fact that I'm even there trying the curriculum, let's face it hurt and pain is the connector of all human beings. What Herriman went through in 2017, I think we can all say that was not something any school wants to even be remotely associated with. There's two different approaches. We either sweep it under the rug, pretend it didn't happen, or we just go, hey, we've got to make this better. And we just come full out there, and that's what they did. So by bringing me in, I just happen to have these cool Jedi mind tricks with teenagers. I call them Jedi mind tricks. It's like, "Get off your phone you will." "Respect your teacher you might", because what happens is you guys put curiosity in your slogan right now. I can't tell you how powerful curiosity is, not to just human beings, but specifically to teenagers. They're the most curious human beings on the planet. But they're also human beings that want their own autonomy. They want to break away and they have really bad habits of being taken care of and given everything they want when they want it. So this is a really tough bridge to cross with them. I want everything done for me, but I want all the freedom to do what I want to do. 

Anthony Godfrey:
You hit that on the h
ead. that is a big frustration.

David Kozlowski:
Certainly. Yeah. And so they're really semi-professional adults. They have all  the desires of adults. They have intelligence, they know how to like download an app. Like they can do adult stuff better than some adults can, but they're not quite good enough at the relationship connection and realistic expectations where they can be professionals at it. No one's going to pay them in a job to show up as an adult. So when we're working with them at the school, those are the things I taught them. I only got that information because of 22 years of working with the most intense situations with teenagers and kids. Life-threatening, horrible parents in jail and stuff like that. You have to learn how to think on the fly. You can't go to a book and say, "so how does this make you feel" to a kid that just told you they're suicidal. And they're like, "I just told you how I feel like, were you not listening?" Right. So what I figured out throughout all these years were things that everyone does that lands perfectly get someone to put down their guard, sparks their curiosity, because if you can spark a curiosity in a teenager, good luck getting them to pay attention longer than three seconds because that phone has a whole lot of things that sparks their curiosity. You're competing against a phone. 

Anthony Godfrey:
Well, I'm so glad to have you at Herriman High School.

David Kozlowski:
And I'm glad to be here, really glad.

Anthony Godfrey:
I'm glad we had a chance to hear from you and that teachers will have a chance to tap into these ideas. Stay close, we need you, and we appreciate all that you're doing for our kids. 

David Kozlowski:
Well, thank you. I appreciate the opportunity to be on the podcast. I appreciate the opportunity to speak, to teach. You know, if all my wishes come true, I would like social health to be a curriculum in every school from kindergarten to 12th grade. Just as a way to develop skills, but more importantly in middle school and high school. And it just be a curriculum where everyone, all the social and emotional learning out there, there's a lot of great curriculums out there. The problem is there's no lane. They're all like standalone.

Anthony Godfrey:
It's a little bit here and there.

David Kozlowski:
It's here and there. So if we create one curriculum, which is called social health, my classes Level Up. I just want to compete in it like in competition. Let's see how we can be the best version of helping our kids learning social skills. We need competition. So just to be clear to any listener, I'm not like "I invented it, I own it," I want everybody that has this ability to meet those standards. We're creating the standards and for it to be a thing. Now, if it never turns out to be that way, I'm going to give it my best shot. But, you know, I appreciate the opportunity.

Anthony Godfrey:
Well, I love that this is an added layer to taking care of kids at Herriman High School. I love that you're there and that we got to hear from you today. And I really look forward to what's ahead. So thank you so much for spending time with us. Thank you.

You can hear more about David Kozlowski's work on improving social health for teens, by tuning into his 'Light the Fight' parenting podcasts. Thanks for joining us on another episode of the Supercast. Remember education is the most important thing you will do today. We'll see out there.

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