This back-to-school season is unlike any other. With many students returning after over a year away, it’s important to think about how to help them transition back to the classroom, make it a welcoming place, and build community and relationships inside.
I’m happy to welcome as my guest on the podcast today, SEL-expert Dr. Lorea Martínez Pérez. She’s the award-winning Founder of HEART in Mind Consulting, a company dedicated to helping schools and organizations integrate social emotional learning in their practices, products, and learning communities. An educator who has worked with children and adults internationally, Dr. Martínez is a faculty member at Columbia University Teachers College, educating aspiring principals in Emotional Intelligence.
Today, she’s sharing help for becoming a more culturally competent teacher, integrating SEL-focused classroom priorities and project styles, and addressing community resistance effectively when it comes to integrating new texts and difficult conversations in your classroom.
You can listen in below, or on the podcast player of your choice.
SEL in the Classroom Starts with You
SEL has become a popular catch phrase, but it’s easy to miss an important starting point. As Lorea says, we cannot teach what we don’t practice. Teaching SEL skills effectively begins with establishing your own fluency and clarity about what it means to be in touch with your emotions. It means understanding how you show up in the classroom as an educator, how you establish relationships. SEL really starts with who YOU are.
In her book, Teaching with the HEART in Mind, Lorea uses the letters in the acronym, “heart,” to establish fundamentals for SEL, and these foundations apply to adults as well as students. A key foundation is with the “H,” “honor your emotions.” So many people are not taught to honor their emotions, but rather that emotions are a weakness. A lot of the process of adopting SEL has to do with unpacking that teaching and thinking differently about emotions. As Lorea puts it, they are data, a conversation from us to us, and they cannot be ignored and pushed aside. We need to have an ongoing relationship with our emotions and understand what they are telling us about the world, and so do our students.
Building your Cultural Competency
Students have multiple identities, including their cultural identity. Cultural responsiveness means you understand and are aware of these identities. Understanding your students’ backgrounds and using them as a source of strength and enrichment in your classroom goes deeper than acknowledging the holidays and traditions of their cultures, all the way to trying to understand the worldview they are bringing into your classroom. If you can see these things as assets in your teaching and connect your instruction to your students lived experiences AND expand their horizons through your teaching, then you are truly bringing an intercultural lens into your work.
It’s important to start with cultural humility. You have your identity, made up of your experiences and background, so you bring with you a lens on the world. When you explore beyond yourself and try to see the world from your students’ perspectives, you are building a bridge and practicing your empathy. It will allow you to connect with your students on a deeper level both to understand them and to share your own perspective.
We can’t have the exact experiences of our students, but you can put yourself in situations where you can learn from their experiences as a way to strengthen your teaching and support their growth, acknowledging their full humanity.
Centering SEL Post-Pandemic
After this difficult period, Lorea recommends centering our teaching in relationships this fall. Kids will return to school having experienced adversity, stress, and trauma. They may have lost loved ones or had trouble accessing health care. Maintaining strong relationships in your classroom and social processes that help kids learn can help them transition back to school. Your classroom can be a place where students feel safe and supported and really get to know each other. For kids who have experienced toxic stress in adversity, having a positive and stable relationship with an adult can actually positively change their genetic makeup. It’s so important to lead with relationships.
Why Offering Choice helps with SEL
Our brains are wired not to pay attention to things we don’t care about. By offering students choice in the way they engage with materials or demonstrate their learning, you are giving them a chance to engage fully. When they choose a learning path that sparks their own interest, their brains will be wired to focus in a different way.
Approaching Community Resistance to New Curriculum
As many teachers integrate new books, voices and topics into the classroom to better reflect our diverse world, there is sometimes resistance within the community. Lorea offered helpful advice for approaching and overcoming this resistance.
She suggests considering your why first. Why are you bringing these topics into your classroom? When you are grounded on your purpose, you are more likely to have the tools to face the challenges you encounter with resilience, clarity and courage.
The other important thing to think about is where the resistance is coming from. There are three general possibilities, and each needs to be approached a bit differently.
- Confusion about the Facts/Data: In this case, your audience (could be parents, administrators, fellow teachers) doesn’t have enough information. They don’t understand what you are doing and why. In this case, you want to focus your energy on explaining the benefits for your students and sharing facts and statistics to help support your points.
- Emotional resistance: In this case, your audience is experiencing feelings of fear and overwhelm, shame, or guilt. If you are facing this type of resistance, you need to focus more on building relationships and not so much on the data and the facts.
- Resisting you as a Person: In this case, your audience is resisting your leadership role in some way. With this type of resistance, you need to use a combination of research and facts AND relationships to help create change.
Considering the source of resistance is huge. If parents are experiencing an emotional roadblock and the school presents an armload of data, the parents won’t be helped by that. The school may need to focus in a different way, perhaps on the benefits to students, for parents to understand and feel their humanity is being acknowledged.
Common Misunderstandings about SEL
There are three common misunderstandings about SEL these days. Let’s take a quick peek at each.
Misunderstanding #1: SEL as a Certain Curriculum
There used to be a big emphasis on purchasing and using a specific guided SEL curriculum. But SEL is really a process. Teaching and learning to practice SEL skills can’t be packaged in a curriculum. You must look at the conditions for learning and HOW you are engaging students. Are they feeling physically and psychologically safe? Are you helping them to affirm their identities? Do they experience the curriculum as challenging and engaging?
Misunderstanding #2: SEL is a Behavior Management Tool
SEL is too often being used as a behavior management tool, especially in schools that serve BIPOC students. There is a part of SEL that teaches you how to honor your emotions, navigate your feelings, and make better choices. But there are many more skills and competencies related to SEL than that, like developing positive relationships, living a purposeful life, developing empathy, and using your skills to contribute to the betterment of society. Using SEL to focus on self-management is a limited way of looking at it and it is damaging for these students when SEL is used just as a tool to control their bodies.
Misunderstanding #3: SEL is just for Kids
The importance of adult SEL is still often missed – you cannot teach what you don’t practice. We need to pay attention to how we use these skills on a regular basis. The other big thing is that teachers need to experience how it feels to be in a school that really cares about adults. What would it be like to go to a staff meeting where you feel supported and seen, invited to share your concerns and excitement about what’s happening in your classroom? Too often, schools are asking teachers to create a supportive environment for learning that they have never actually experienced as professionals in their community.
What Successful SEL Looks Like
When SEL is practiced successfully, you’ll find a classroom where students want to learn. At the core, SEL is all about being together and developing this love for learning. It starts with relationships, no matter what subject you teach.
Even if kids hate the subject, you can build relationships with kids and help kids to be excited about being in your classroom because the things that they are learning matter to them and they have choice.
Think about what emotions you want students to experience in your classroom – not just the academic outcomes. If you think about the emotional outcomes you hope for, your lessons will look different. Students can struggle productively, learning with engagement and motivation, moving away from fear and unproductive stress. Remember to lead with relationships and concern for students’ emotions, then bring the content in in a way that makes sense to students and gives them a sense of belonging in the classroom.