Social and Emotional Learning Must be Embedded in “Great Teaching”

“I came into teaching because I wanted to inspire kids like mine, kids who don’t have access to a quality education. I am doing anything but that right now.”

This is a quote from a new teacher I coached last year. She leads a cast of teachers whose experiences led me to believe that placing an emphasis on Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) is critical for our students’ futures. For this to be successful it must be embedded in teacher practice, rather than a curriculum for students.

SEL is increasingly pointed to as a missing piece of current reform initiatives, and with good reason. Among the many benefits of building students’ social and emotional skills, it is associated with significant improvements in students’ academic performance and attitudes toward school, and it prepares young people for success in adulthood. The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) has defined five core SEL competenciesincluding self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills and responsible decision-making.

While some believe students can meet these competencies when we make small changes to curriculum, or when we implement one-off programs in schools, I believe we will see greater student outcomes when an SEL philosophy is paired with reflective teaching. SEL has a greater impact when the skills are embedded in daily instruction, when it becomes a part of “good teaching” and “best practices.”

If a teacher doesn’t have a strong sense of his/her own social and emotional competencies, how can he/she pass these competencies along to students? That’s like someone who doesn’t understand how to play basketball coaching a team. It wouldn’t be allowed, and yet, there are many teachers out there who are not self-aware and struggle to manage their emotions. They have yet to adopt a philosophy that values and truly understands these competencies, and subsequently will be less likely to effectively teach the skills necessary for students to problem solve and persevere, and to handle the social and emotional hurdles that often get in the way of learning.

Case in point, the teacher referenced earlier is teaching in a challenging school in the Englewood neighborhood of Chicago.  During our first conversation she told me that she was a “good student” and a high achiever, and she didn’t understand why her students didn’t care about their grades or their future.  She told me that many of her students came from challenging homes and varying levels of academic ability and motivation. During our conversation she also shared that she had extensive commitments outside of the classroom. Her goal was to be a principal or work in school policy, and she viewed teaching as a stepping-stone to get where she wanted to be.  I offered to come in and observe the classroom, and we decided that my focus would be on the students.  Of course, I had other ideas.

The observation

As I entered the classroom, the teacher was walking around the room reading “A Lesson Before Dying” aloud to the students. Some students were following along, some students were quietly talking, and some students had their head down on the desk. She stopped at several points to ask questions. The same five students discussed each question with her.

As she walked past the desks of the students who were not actively engaged in reading along she would look at them and keep moving. There was no attempt to redirect them or get them back on task. It appeared that she had given up on managing the room.

She wasn’t pushing her students to succeed. She was doing what many new teachers do; she was letting the students dictate her expectations for their performance.  She was also taking on most of the work for herself (planning, reading aloud, discussing, assessing, etc.) and her students seemed to be just fine with that arrangement.

The debrief

“Like we always do when we debrief a lesson, let’s begin with what went well,” I said.

“It was horrible,” she said, bypassing my question.

While we looked together at the data I captured about student engagement, I asked, “Why do you say that?”

She went on to tell me that she was very frustrated that she had to read aloud to high school students because they were unwilling to do it themselves and that no one cared about what they were reading even though it is such a great book.

I saw this as an entry point to help her uncover how building her self-awareness and other social and emotional skills could translate into better teaching and connections with her students, as well as a better quality of life.

“So, you’re a first year teacher, you are in a masters program in another state, you have other commitments to family and relationships. Do you feel like your high personal expectations and all the commitments you have outside of the classroom impact your performance as a teacher?” (Self-awareness: I wanted her to hear aloud all that she is attempting to take on.)

Teacher: “I never thought about it.  I just get things done… that’s a possibility.”

Me: “I just want you to think about that and see what you come up with. Let’s take a look at your lesson today. Talk to me about why you chose to read aloud to your students?”

Teacher: “They won’t do it on their own, so I make them do it in class. I read aloud sometimes because it goes faster that way and I know that reading is happening.  Plus, the kids like it.  They ask me to read all the time.”

Me: “What do you believe the students gain from you reading aloud to them?  Why do you think they like it so much?”

Teacher: “I’m not sure what they get from it. I do know that reading is happening. They say that they like the way I read, but I suspect that they just want someone to do the reading for them.”

The breakthrough

It was apparent to me she hadn’t allowed herself the time to reflect on what was happening in her classroom, and she wasn’t quite aware of the impact of her own experiences, commitments, and biases. She was coming to the realization that her frustration was coming from what came naturally to her, work.

She acknowledged that she was reacting to the students based on her past educational experiences and her own highly-motivated learning style. Viewing her students through this lens was causing her frustration, and she dealt with it by working more hours and pushing students harder. Once she understood this, she looked at the students more as partners in the learning process and she was more open to what would be most engaging and meaningful in their learning.

While this was a single observation and debrief, it was a topic we returned to in future interactions in addition to other instructionally-focused areas. I saw first-hand how this brief interaction pushed her toward a new level of thinking, reflection, and teaching that new teachers are unlikely to stumble upon on their own.

My colleagues and I at New Teacher Center know new teachers will be most successful in advancing the learning of all students when they have a positive and reflective mindset. That is one of the 7 core capabilities and 3 dispositions of highly effective teachers and of future teacher leaders, and an outcome of NTC’s mentoring model – helping new teachers hone not only their ability to plan and deliver engaging lessons, but to also maintain a compassionate strength-based approach in working with students. The development of this approach begins with looking within and examining personal experiences and perspectives.

Social and emotional learning is a key component in helping teachers develop a positive and resilient mindset, which will in turn open up the ability to do just what my teacher wanted to do: inspire kids and give them access to a quality education.

Kyle Miller is in his eleventh year working within Chicago Public Schools, in various capacities. His experiences include teaching 3rd grade, 7th grade, and 9th grade. Kyle also spent two years working as a Professional School Counselor and three years as a New Teacher Coach. In his current position as a Lead Mentor at the New Teacher Center (inChicago), Kyle has authored and facilitated various professional development sessions focused around Classroom Management and Social Emotional Learning.  

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