“Now that I know better,” I believe that there was a fundamental void in my teacher preparation, and that gaping hole corresponds to Social and Emotional Learning. While I knew about Bloom’s Taxonomy and Vygotsky’s Scaffolding Theory, I did not yet know how to teach a student the words for her feeling of betrayal when her friends didn’t want to work with her on a group project I had assigned. Additionally, I didn’t know how to handle the defiant child who refused to pick his head up off the desk because his parents were getting a divorce, and there was nothing he could do about it. Emily Dickinson analysis skills could not help me there; nor could I say, “I see you are stuck on the third level of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Sorry that you don’t feel a sense of love or belonging right now.” I wanted to fill this void I saw so badly, but the part that I was missing was the how. “Now that I know better, I do better,” and what is “better” is that which emanates from my understanding of Social and Emotional Learning. While there are several different models that offer guidelines on Social and Emotional Learning out there, most have two intentions at their core: to help students know themselves and others. Students’ ability to know themselves is the first step to the learning process. Self-reflection, metacognition, self-assessment, collaborative learning, and conflict resolution, for example, all stem from a student’s understanding of the workings of his or her own mind, personality, and behavior.
SEL should be a fundamental tenet in all teacher preparation programs. When teachers develop strong social and emotional competencies, they can better guide their students on how to “know themselves and others,” with more effective classroom management skills, while also setting the foundation for students’ social and emotional well-being, critical thinking skills, and academic achievement. I will venture out there and say that social and emotional competence is crucial for any teacher who wants to not only connect with his or her students, but also cope with the pressures that come with the job. Reading an email from an irate parent three minutes before your prep is over, managing the stress of finding out that a last-minute meeting has been scheduled when you had planned on finishing up your grades, or maintaining composure when the fire alarm goes off in the middle of your introduction to moon phases all require you to have a well-developed sense of self. This, to be completely honest, was NEVER mentioned in my education courses; yet I believe it is the most important topic of discourse that we should have in order to best prepare teachers for the reality of the school day. If students require self-awareness to succeed, then teachers, in their positions, need it tenfold. Such an asset allows one to connect with those around him or her which, (cue Vygotsky!) opens up pathways for all that social learning to happen! The bottom line is this: both students and teachers need to be trained in how to respond, not react to the everyday happenings of a school environment, and these skills begin with knowledge of the self.
When I was a beginning teacher, I read several books that offered advice on how to establish an aura of authority in the classroom: “Be sure to post your rules in a visible place in the classroom--and give no more than three” or five, or seven depending on the book you were reading. And so I wrote my rules, modeled after a combination of my chosen books, laminated them in the school library, and had all of my students sign contracts that would put forth rewards and consequences should they “choose” to obey or break a rule. When a disruption would occur, I would dictate the consequence, and it was understood that the student had somehow “chosen” to perform this option. After teaching for five years, however, I started having discussions with these students, asking them a simple question: “Why?” Rarely, would a student would say, “I don’t know.” Most often, upon establishing the idea that I was genuinely interested in what they had to say, the student would begin to reflect on his or her behavior and begin to ask him or herself the same question: “Why?” This simple word is the open door to self-awareness. I began to think about my previous practice of utilizing a system of “choices,” “rewards,” and “consequences,” and I began to ask myself: Why am I the one who is coming up with “solutions?” Now I take a different approach. I no longer have “rules” but “agreements” that my students and I formulate as a class. We talk about the importance of maintaining a classroom environment that is kind and respectful, and the role that each individual plays in maintaining this environment. When an issue occurs in class (and don’t get me wrong, it still does!), the problem is not, “What is this person doing to get the teacher mad?” but instead, “How are my actions affecting those around me and impacting the classroom environment?” I no longer dictate a “rule” and a “consequence.” Instead, I say to the students: “Who knows how to solve a problem better than you?” Using this approach allows teachers to teach so much more; in one moment, we can teach skills such as responsibility, accountability, empathy, conflict resolution, and consequential thinking to name a few. Students are excited to solve their own problems and gain confidence when they realize that they can. Not to mention, on a personal note, I have found greater satisfaction in my role as an educator as well.
Notably, It took me five years to figure out that Social and Emotional Learning is the foundation of critical thinking skills. The phrase “critical thinking skills” has almost become a buzzword in the field of education, along with words like “21st-century learners,” “global awareness” and “responsible leaders.” Any school district mission statement, set of Common Core Curriculum Standards, or state test is going to claim that the goal is to foster “critical thinking skills,” yet none of this can happen if a student does not possess the social and emotional skills that underlie such goals. I recently had my students read a nonfiction article on Syrian refugee children who had spent most of their childhoods living through war. They completed multiple-choice questions, answered the short answer paragraph question on the challenges facing these children, and showed me the graphic organizers they used to organize their answers. And then I had them write a “Poem for Two Voices” in which they cited specific experiences that they share, as well as those that my students can only begin to fathom: starvation, disease, constant blasts and artillery fire outside their homes. When I asked them the multiple choice and short answer questions a second time, their answers showed incredible depth, contemplation, and self-reflection. Beginning with social and emotional learning enhances academic learning; it honors the process, and it honors that which is so precious in the next generation: their humanity.
As practitioners in the field of education, we owe it to the next generation of teachers to follow Angelou’s words. Now that we “know better,” we need to “do better.” Teachers need to be trained not just in pedagogy, curriculum, and assessment, but also need training that fosters their social and emotional competencies, anchored in self-awareness. They deserve to have access to the most current research in neuroeducation today--studies that prove the beneficial effects of being competent in social and emotional learning. Such cutting-edge research not only can enhance our ability to connect with students; but also can increase the relevance of our lessons as well.
Lindsey Neves is a full-time Middle School English Teacher in North Attleborough, MA. Lindsey is also a Freelance Writer, Editor, and SEL Advocate; she is an active member of the Social and Emotional Learning Alliance of Massachusetts (SAM)!