How Opening Up to My Colleagues Made Me Realize Social-Emotional Learning Isn't Just For Students

Sep 12, 2018 12:00:00 AM


Faculty meetings. What comes to mind when you hear those two words? Earlier this year, I experienced an extraordinary faculty meeting at my elementary school, a game changer. And it taught me that the social-emotional learning we do with our students is just as important for adults. Two of our administrators read the book, “ If She Only Knew Me.” It’s written from the perspective of a child who has a really tough home life. It includes statements like, “If she only knew that I had to get my little brother up and ready for school this morning, she wouldn’t have to fuss at me for being late.” Or, “If she only knew there’s not much to eat at home, that’s why I want two breakfasts.” It was a simple but powerful exercise. At the end of the reading, the room was silent, heavy with contemplation. Then, one of our assistant principals asked if anyone in the room would like to share their own “If she only knew.” No one moved. No one even spoke for a few moments. But then, slowly, one brave teacher spoke up about her relentless battle with depression and the challenges she faces every single day, and the floodgates opened. Just like that, we began to share. We shared about ourselves and our family members’ mental illness, battles with cancer and abuse and neglect, just to name a few. For me, the most powerful moment came when I shared that one of my sisters is an alcoholic. She had a child she could never take care of, so my single mom, now 70 years old, is raising Payton, my niece, on her own. One of my colleagues was actually Payton’s fourth-grade teacher. As I spoke, our eyes met across the room because she knew how hard everything about the situation is, just like I did. [pullquote]Empathy was coursing through our veins as we listened, learned and appreciated each other’s difficult truths.[/pullquote] And for a few weeks after that faculty meeting, our school felt different, the ground floor of our building stronger. People stopped and chatted with each other more. They listened, they smiled, they offered a touch on the arm, they gave people a pass when they needed one. I know I lingered more in hallway conversations, giving people more time, with intention. We had listened to each other’s stories, noticed and not judged, but instead empathized and related. We were changed. And we did exactly what we want our students to do every single day, engage in social-emotional learning. Social-emotional learning is the ground floor of the building, the foundation of the schoolhouse. Without it, the institution crumbles.

Rubber Bracelets

About three months later, my third-grade class and I were in our morning meeting, when a teacher burst angrily into the room. Now, I enjoy working with her and think she is very funny. But in that moment, we were in a difficult place. She was upset about a student, expressing anger and frustration around something I had done while trying to help the student cool down. We started to engage in a heated conversation—right in front of my students. I knew this was bad. I knew my students were watching, and I knew I had to get my social-emotional house in order, fast! After a couple of minutes, we ended our conversation, but the issues were unresolved. When I shut the door, I didn’t go back to morning meeting. I couldn’t, not the way my emotions were at that moment. So, I walked over to a small basket that holds red, green and yellow rubber bracelets. We all put one on every morning to share how we are feeling without words. I took off the green one I was wearing and put on a red one, while 20 pairs of student eyes bored into my soul. Then I walked over to our cool-down area. I sat down and said, “Boys and girls, please continue with morning meeting, I need to cool down.” While the students continued their daily shares and questions, I sat and breathed. As the meeting progressed and I continued breathing, the red left my cheeks and the heat slowly dissipated from my body. [pullquote position="right"]I was getting back to a place where I could do my job.[/pullquote] After the meeting was over, they asked, “Are you OK?” More than a few students gave me a hug. Caring, kindness and empathy were all in the air as they took care of me. When I was ready, I walked over to the bracelets, took off the red one, put on a yellow one and went back to our day. Later I wrote an honest note to the other teacher expressing my feelings about what happened. We laugh about that day now. But I owe her an incredible debt of gratitude. She allowed me to show my students a way to manage difficult emotions when they rise. That is a gift.

What’s the Weather?

Haim Ginott, a teacher and child psychologist in both Israel and the United States, once brilliantly said, “I have come to a frightening conclusion. I am the decisive element that creates the climate. It is my daily mood that makes the weather.” Our students know, feel and understand the weather the minute they walk through our doors. When weather is stormy in our classrooms, we know what happens: Students take cover. And that holds back their learning. When we engage in social-emotional learning with our students, we ask them to be self-aware, use social skills, have empathy and regulate themselves. What if, as teachers, we did this, too? What if, as leaders, we leaned into our own social-emotional learning, with intention, and actively worked to strengthen our competencies? Would more teachers stay in their jobs longer if they had higher emotional intelligence? Yes! Higher emotional intelligence increases success because people have self-awareness, social skills, more empathy and can regulate themselves better! They are also more resilient and navigate conflict better. Doesn’t that sound like a win for teachers? Especially with all that we have on our plates! Blazing the trail with this work, [pullquote position="left"]strengthening educator emotional intelligence, will lead to higher teacher retention.[/pullquote] We lead every day when we make social-emotional learning as important as academic learning. We can grow our own emotional intelligence and help our colleagues do the same. Would the weather be better for students? For us? For parents? Again, I say yes. Can you make your next faculty meeting as powerful as the one I described?  Can you model the habits, mindsets and skills you want to see in others every day? Can you change the weather in your school, in your district? We need you. Teacher leaders must forge ahead with this critical work. The time for active, intentional social emotional learning by the adults in the schoolhouse is now. And it starts with you. What everyday moments will transform your thinking about social-emotional learning, and what will you do with them? Share your stories! We can’t wait to hear them.

Wendy Turner

Wendy Turner teaches second grade at Mt. Pleasant Elementary School in Wilmington, Delaware. She is passionate about connecting learning in the classroom to the real world. Deeply committed to social-emotional learning, she guides her students to embody respect, empathy, citizenship and growth mindset through dynamic classroom experiences. She advocates for educating the whole child, trauma invested learning, and equitable school breakfast practices. She is a 2016 Presidential Awardee for Excellence in Teaching Science, the 2017 Delaware Teacher of the Year, a 2018 NEA Foundation Excellence in Education Award Recipient, a 2019 NEA Foundation Global Fellow and a No Kid Hungry School Breakfast Fellow.

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