NTC’s 16th national Symposium on teacher induction offered up brain science and research to support what highly effective educators hold true: lasting learning engages both hearts and minds; learning is fundamentally a social exchange; emotions have the power to freeze or free cognition; students must feel safe in order to learn.

As a former teacher and mentor in Chicago, I have witnessed the positive impact of strong relationships and school climate on student motivation, and felt the urgency of developing in students the problem-solving and decision-making skills they need to engage in higher order thinking, as well as the abilities to recognize and manage emotions in order to persevere in school and stay safe in their lives. With this knowledge and experience, I was keen to take a deeper dive into SEL at this year’s Symposium.

A day-long pre-session established a foundational understanding of what SEL looks like as parallel processes within a school community of administrators-mentors-teachers-students.

The session introduced NTC’s new Social and Emotional Learning Framework, adapted from the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) and co-created by NTC and Acknowledge Alliance. The elements of SEL are: self-management, self-awareness, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision making.

“We need to develop these competencies in ourselves so we can be there for our students,” said Julie Norton, Resilience Program Director for Acknowledge Alliance.

The notion of “self-compassion” struck a chord as a strategy for preventing burnout in teachers and mentors. Heads nodded in agreement with the view that the time and energy these professionals expend supporting others often leaves little time for their own emotional health.

A session entitled ‘The Emotional Art of Teaching: Mastering Classroom Social and Emotional Dynamics to Promote Learning’ led by Patricia Jennings, Ph.D., associate professor of education at University of Virginia, picked up on this theme.

Beginning teachers often find themselves in what Maslach labeled in her Burnout Inventory a “burnout cascade” marked by emotional exhaustion, depersonalization, and feeling a lack of accomplishment.

“It’s like driving with your foot on the brake and the accelerator at the same time,” Jennings explained. “When we are under stress, we go into default mode and revert to learned behaviors. It’s important to learn strategies to keep your lid on. When we’re in a tizzy, we are modeling being in a tizzy.”

Jennings shared research by Barbara Frederickson on the biological signatures of positive emotions that help overcome negative emotions, such as mindfulness-based stress reduction strategies. Social and emotional learning can support teachers and students by promoting flexibility and self-reflection, enhanced memory and increased brain function in areas that support emotional regulation.

 “This is not part of the teacher prep curriculum even though social and emotional learning capacities must be higher than any other profession,” she noted. “We need to prepare our teachers for this by training them in these skills.”

Jennings is one of the program developers of CARE (Cultivating Awareness Resilience Education), For Teachers which is training cohorts in several districts. Compared to a control group, CARE trainees showed significant improvement in emotional regulation (increase in reappraisal, reduction in suppression) and higher efficacy in teaching in terms of instructional efficacy and student engagement; lower feelings of time urgency and burnout.

Similarly, Jodi Freedman and Julie Norton’s Cultivating Resilience session provided time to practice some of the CARE curriculum, including setting an intention,breath awareness, mindful listening and body scan. And in the final Tuesday afternoon session, Reflecting on SEL: The Intersection Between Personal Growth and Professional Practice, with school psychologist Denise Hildebrand and teacher Karla Hildebrandt Kroeker, who also happen to be sisters. (There’s a story about why their family surname has two spellings!). They shared results of a PLC that used reflective journaling to build teachers’ social and emotional competencies.

What was confirmed for me was that the powerful thing about SEL is you can start right now (especially if you are having a tough day). Breathe. Set an intention. Take time to truly listen, to empathize. Practice self-compassion. These perspectives and models are often lacking in the hardscrabble schools we serve, and so sorely needed.

And it would appear teachers and schools are not the only ones in need of such strategies and models The same week I was at Symposium the cover of Time Magazine read: "The Mindful Revolution: The Science of Finding Focus in a Stressed-Out, Multitasking, Culture“. This confirmed that learning more about SEL is essential.

Other sessions were focused less on SEL parallel processes for teachers and students or the need to establish the social and emotional well-being of the teacher and instead more on an exploration of successful school models dedicated to SEL.

In Leading with Empathy: How to Help New Teachers Build Their Own Social and Emotional Skills, we heard from: Zoe Duskin, principal of the Inspired Teaching Demonstration School in Washington, D.C., dedicated to building student competencies in intellect, inquiry, imagination and integrity. Her school posted the highest gain in standardized test scores of any school in the city in 2012-13.

Laura White, Changemaker Schools Manager for Ashoka in Arlington, VA, shared a list of strategies schools can promote to cultivate SEL skills in teachers: create a safe space, develop emotional literacy/competency, lead by example; group play, storytelling, immersion, collective problem solving, identify shared values and differences, instill courage, enable action. White noted that fostering SEL could involve something as simple as a “gratitude board” or wall in a school.

Vicki Zakrzewski, education director of Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley said new views of human development show that the learning process is 50 percent social and emotional, 50 percent cognitive. The testing and “value added” trends in education create a clash with the “make a difference mindset” most beginning teachers bring to their vocation. She identified teacher competencies in SEL of: warm supportive relationships; positive classroom climate; classroom management; stronger relationships with colleagues.

Zakrzewski is also the author of an article on integrating SEL into Common Core.  

SEL and CCSS were also connected in a video example in the pre-Symposium session. The video showed how a master teacher incorporated elements of SEL into a Common Core-aligned social studies lesson about famous historical figures who overcame obstacles. Students demonstrated SEL in their respectful feedback to each other, in identifying character traits of their famous figures, and connecting those traits to their own selves and life situations.

Massachusetts mentors shared SEL strategies such as surveys to bring student perspectives into mentoring conversations; facilitating problem-solving groups and sharing best practices in classroom management. These examples demonstrated how authentic practice around SEL embeds its elements in the curriculum.

Alison Kreider, NTC associate program consultant, joined Alison Ball and Tierre Mesa from Urban Promise Academy (UPA) in Oakland, CA., to share how that school’s integrated SEL focus, engages students and adults and extends to families. A quarter of the school’s 325 students receive individual or group counseling to address the effects of trauma due to family and community violence. SEL priorities for UPA’s students include ongoing processes to develop strong, personalized relationships with adults, a safe learning environment, collaborative learning community that resolves conflict cooperatively and promotes ongoing reflection on behavior and its impact on the school community. At UPA, students lead conversations with parents around their academic progress. A video of students on a wilderness outing to the seaside was nothing short of inspirational, demonstrating the importance of safety to learn, take academic risks, and just be kids.

Social and emotional learning reminds us that the heart of teaching beats strong in knowing our students, building their capacity for empathy, and in fostering strong relationships and resilient, persistent learners. “We need these skills to all work together,” said Kyle Miller, an NTC associate program consultant and former high school counselor. “It can’t be something we do two days a week at a certain time.”

Leaving Symposium, I was more convinced than ever before that attending to the social and emotional needs of students and their teachers is foundational for academic success. As for any skeptics out there who still might be thinking that SEL is just yet another initiative being thrown at teachers I urge you to heed the words of keynote speaker Ed Dunkelblau, director of the Institute for Emotionally Intelligent Learning. “Social and emotional learning is not something else on our plate. It is the plate.”

I, for one, am going to continue to advocate strongly for embedding SEL into curricula for mentors, teachers and students and I am proud to be part of an organization that is leading this charge.


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