Making Social Emotional Learning (SEL) Last in Education by Dr. Alan Harris

Education is infamous for fad chasing. When I began teaching in 1993 and was at my first return to school “PD Day” I was excited with pen in hand to take notes on the new district initiative. A veteran colleague next to me, tapped my elbow, calmly and gently said, “Don’t get too excited. It will be gone in a year, three max.” My instinct was to see this teacher as tired and cynical. Over the next three years as I watched this teacher teach and received the mentoring from them, I realized they were anything but tired and cynical regarding teaching and students. They were all in. This teacher was fully invested and believed in making a difference for every student. Twenty-Five years later, having been both receiver (teacher) and giver (principal) of these fads and initiatives I better understood this colleague. They were realists. I want to talk about social emotional learning in this light.

There is no escaping the harsh reality that in education, not much sticks. Or more accurately what does stick, has always been and just gets rebranded every decade. There are some truths that endure. Students learn when they are engaged. Respect is given. Trust is earned. Students must know safety before a challenge. Learning comes from healthy challenges. The mentor I noted above, and most teachers in this glorious profession, do all this every day. And these days with masks and quarantine and “learning loss” and no substitutes, it takes more than it ever has to show up for the young scholars and be the difference maker. The master teachers right now already feel the pressure and know the priority. They know that students need more relationship time, that some days more time may be spent processing personal struggle, relearning school relationships, problem solving conflict or building resilience than the language arts, math, or science lesson. Those master teachers like my mentor in the 90’s understand academics don’t help a student much if you don’t develop the whole person, teaching them how to learn in life is equally important to the academic curriculum. So, when teachers hear we are going to start social emotional learning (SEL), it is no wonder it lands hard. When we hear teachers say, “What the SEL? Not another fad. Not now!” They are being realists.

We do need to get real. Now more than ever we need to listen to students and the teachers who teach them. We also have an opportunity of a century to focus on the truths that have endured. If “SEL” is simply another fad, we will have missed that opportunity. If teachers experience it as “another thing” it will not happen, and frankly it should not. But if we can show the heroes in the classroom that this validates what they already do and gives them a tool to show its value then it is not a fad. It is a movement to improve learning and life for teachers and the students they serve.

If I were meeting with my mentor from the 90’s about SEL I would tell them, “SEL” is a way to validate what you have always done, to give it common vocabulary and provide you a tool to show this data obsessed profession the value in taking 20 minutes at the right moment to teach students to breathe slowly, know how to describe their attitude and have agency over their learning. I would tell them that we hope “SEL” will give them and their colleagues a common vocabulary to talk about what they see when an eighth-grade student suddenly starts using their planner and cares about their grades or when the opposite happens with a freshman. I would tell them it is a tool to explain to the principal the difference between a student who needs a trauma responsive classroom and a student who needs a therapist or other specialists to address an acute need. I would hope to tell my mentor “SEL” is not another thing for them to do, it is validation of what they have already done.

Yes, it will take some effort and time to learn with colleagues, align their vocabulary, learn some new vocabulary, adapt the lessons to meet their students’ specific needs. Yes, there will be some colleagues who may think educating the “whole student” is for someone else, but that is a good conversation to have. Those conversations help the adults, and more importantly, the system itself, learn and grow to produce school cultures, where students and the adults who serve them have agency, a sense of belonging, feel capable and know they are significant. That would be cool. It is exactly what my mentor told me they were always working toward. Finally, I would tell them, just like they do for their students, we will meet them where they are at, support, differentiate and challenge them to their best and reach their full potential. I hope my mentor would say, “I’m all in!”

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