There are five elements of social-emotional learning, according to The Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning. They are:

  1. Self-awareness
  2. Self-management
  3. Social awareness
  4. Relationship skills
  5. Responsible decision-making

Many faculty tend to be shy when it comes to incorporating social-emotional learning into their curriculum. After all, what relevance does it have to teaching chemistry, or coaching sports? However, a moment’s thought and we realize how importance it is to the success of our classrooms, whether it is a 4th grade homeroom, a middle school collaborative, or a high school discipline. Who the child is predicts their success in our classroom, and there is plenty of research to tell us that who we are has an enormous impact as well.

This is the first of two articles to explore this dynamic. The first one will look at the responsibility of the teacher to act with keen social emotional skills. The second will look at the topic from the student’s point of view.

What about you, the teacher? Consider this: one study showed that a teacher’s level of stress was reflected in her students’ cortisol levels. This study, the first of its kind, looked at cortisol levels of over 400 4th to 7th graders and related it to “burnout”. The outcome of the study was to make the idea of stress contagion a concrete concept that could actually be seen emotionally/chemically in the lives of children. The study pointed out the two sides of this coin: “Classrooms in which a higher number of students exhibit behavioral problems and disruptiveness can be a major source of teacher stress. At the same time, stressed and burned out teachers experience more challenges in managing classrooms effectively, have fewer resources to form nurturing and supportive relationships with students, and tend to be less responsive to students’ needs.”

You may not have any symptoms of burnout, although exhaustion can sometimes look pretty similar! What are ways that you and your colleagues can think practically about social-emotional skills without appearing either vulnerable or simplistic? Let’s think about this from the individual’s point of view as a teacher, and then think about it from the point of view of a faculty culture, a community of teachers.

The Individual

  • Be well: the more physically well you are, the better you are able to manage the daily stresses of teaching. So…
    • Get 8 hours of sleep a night – this is the number one mistake that adults make is to underestimate the importance of that time asleep in order to increase efficacy and efficiency during waking hours. In sleep, the body restores itself, the mind organizes itself, and knotty issues are often resolved. It is arguably the #1 way to keep your life joyful.
    • Drink and eat wisely. Not only do we go around sleep-deprived, we often go around water deprived and compensate by eating unwisely.
    • Exercise consistently – whether it is going to the gym or walking up stairs instead of taking the elevator or gardening, anything that keeps the body active is going to promote wellness
  • Seek balance: we can get pretty caught up in our teaching. There is always so much to do and always a lack of time. Still, research is pretty clear that we are better being away from something we love doing and coming back with a renewed perspective. It is not selfish to think about yourself, pay attention to your family, have a hobby, spend time with friends. It is good sense.
  • Practice gratitude: this might sound odd but we are more self-centered as a society than ever and that affects all of us. It’s interesting that university websites giving advice to their students include this idea of being grateful for what you have. It provides a sense of value (people have given to me), a sense of humility (I have needs that others can fill), and a sense of community (we are in this together). Saying thank you means we have actually recognized that we are part of a community, even if it to a random stranger who has helped us in the grocery store. There is so much fear in the headlines today, it is comforting to know that we actually do try to do good for each other. (The Psychology of Gratitude)
  • Celebrate: traditions, ceremonies, celebrations, anniversaries, religious festivals all give us a sense of groundedness. They remind us that we are part of a larger context, that we can ‘party’ without guilt, remember with joy as well as tears, and show us where we fit in the universe. They mark the passing of time and the amazement of achievement. They break up the daily routine with constant connection to family, friends, our nation, our faith, reminding us of the importance of being rooted so that we can go on new trails without fear. As Rabbi Freeman says: all that we do, we must do with simcha, with celebration, or we are just another cold, greasy, osso bucco.

The Faculty Culture

  • Learn constantly: one study with mice showed that “Learning appears to slow the development of two brain lesions that are the hallmarks of Alzheimer’s disease, scientists at UC Irvine have discovered. The finding suggests that the elderly, by keeping their minds active, can help delay the onset of this degenerative disease.” This is just one of numerous studies that show how much learning matters in keeping us engaged and productive. We are born as learning machines. If we atrophy, we become ‘less’. And the atrophy of the body and the mind are parallel. For a learning community to stay well, it must learn. If it is not learning, it loses empathy with its students who are expected to learn many new things daily; it loses humility in knowing how little it actually knows; it loses energy in its ability to adapt and innovate; it becomes less critical and more self-satisfied.
  • Practice optimism: it doesn’t matter that we did it ten years ago and it didn’t work. If it’s a good idea, we should try it again. Martin Seligman has demonstrated with some incredible research that the way we explain our situations will determine whether we become learned optimistic or learned pessimistic. That stance (popularized as mind-set) is a real phenomenon in our lives. Our explanatory framework does matter. So a faculty community that believes its students are amazing, wonderful, learning machines will get different results (real, not imaginary) than a faculty community that believes that students don’t much like learning and will do only what is necessary to get by. Be that first community! Relationships, conversations, dealing with conflict – all will improve.
  • Interrogate reality: being realistic is not the same as being pessimistic (cf. the last bullet point). Being realistic means understanding what has to happen first and sequencing without missing steps; it means not taking on three initiatives when only one can be done excellently; it means prioritizing – everything can be done and this is more important than that right now. Being real allows everyone to be authentic and to commit with a whole heart and mind. Without interrogating reality, change cannot happen
  • Eliminate “but”: as we all know, the word ‘but’ denies whatever came before it. The word “and” does not suggest that there are no obstacles to overcome; it makes the situation complex rather than binary. Faculty cultures that have taken out the binary and replaced it with the complex are healthier in accepting each other, genuinely listening to different perspectives, committed to constant learning from each other, and focused on journey. Of course, a key wellness characteristic is that we are responsible for the effect of our communication and moving to ‘and’ furthers that outcome.

Of course, there are other aspects of social emotional wellness. Hopefully, the above thoughts will provoke some internal reflection and maybe even collaborative thinking out loud. While we constantly talk about social emotional wellness for our students, it is key to remember that it begins firstly with ourselves, both individually and corporately.