by Kristina Scott, Ed. D.
Social-emotional learning (SEL) has recently been a focal point in preK-12 education with states beginning to establish SEL competencies to go alongside already established academic cognitive standards (CASEL, 2013). Despite this push for SEL to take place alongside academic content knowledge, teaching social and emotional competencies was not a focal point in most teachers’ pedagogical training. A teacher’s well-being, stress-management strategies, and resilience are very rarely specific skills taught or measured in pre-service teacher preparation programming or in district-wide professional development. This may be one of the reasons that 46% of our nation’s teachers report high-levels of daily stress, and why 40-50% of new teachers leave the field within the first five years (Alliance for Excellent Education, 2014).
Teachers often leave the field in the first five years due to burnout. Burnout has three key dimensions associated with it: emotional exhaustion, depersonalization, and reduced person accomplishment. All of these factors result from chronic emotional and interpersonal stressors in the work environment (Maslach, Jackson, Leiter, Zalaquett, & Wood, 1997). It is interesting that this is exactly what SEL competencies are focused on building resiliency in—how to cope with emotional and interpersonal stresses and challenges.
Perhaps, before we focus on adding SEL skills for our school-age children, we need to embrace SEL development in our teachers. There are five main competencies of SEL: self-awareness, self-management, social-awareness, relationship-building, and responsible decision making (CASEL, 2013; Durlak, Domtrovisch, Weissberg, & Gullota, 2015). Many of these SEL skills can be linked to emotion and stress management. When teachers have difficulties managing their emotions or their stress they often become frustrated with the teaching profession and leave (Darling-Hammond, 2001). The other reason many teachers are leaving the profession is the inability to cope with student behaviors, which can also be linked to the social-emotional learning (Ferguson, Frost & Hall, 2012).
Past decades of schooling have not addressed the stress our teachers face—often leaving it as “the elephant in the classroom” and placing the burden to “de-stress” on the educator, themselves. This needs to change if we want to keep skilled individuals in our classrooms, avoid teacher turn-over, and promote student learning and development. Let’s look at how we can promote healthier development in each of the SEL skill areas in pre-service preparation and in on-going professional development.
Individuals who are self-aware can accurately assess their own feelings and know their own strengths. When a teacher knows their own strengths, and can advocate and work in these areas of strength they have a higher self-esteem and they have higher self-efficacy (Reilly, Dhingra, & Boduszek, 2014).
Developing one’s own self-efficacy as a teacher can begin in teacher preparation. It can begin by teaching our pre-service teachers to have a voice and learning how to advocate for themselves. This can be done through required objective journaling and reflection on classroom experiences. Reflective journaling can continue throughout a teacher’s career because they have the foundational skills of self-awareness—the ability to look at experiences objectively and either ask or provide help to others as necessary from here.
Self-management skills focus on regulating emotions, which can be seen in how individuals handle stress, expresses emotions, perseveres, and sets and monitors progress towards their personally established goals. A teacher’s ability to regulate their emotions affects how they regulate stress and is related to teacher burnout (Brackett, Palomera, Mojsa Kaha, Reyes, & Salovey, 2010). If teachers have not been taught how to regulate their stress in productive ways, this stress is going to accumulate and over time will cause teacher burn-out. Pre-service teacher preparation needs to begin teaching pre-service teachers how to manage their own stress, control their own impulses, and become self-motivated learners. One easy way to begin to target this is through having pre-service teachers create short-term (mid-semester) and long-term (end of the semester) personal and academic goals. Pre-service teachers will report on goal attainment at regular intervals noting what obstacles may have surfaced and how they coped with these obstacles, as well as overall how they felt about their ability to reach the goal along the way. When a pre-service teacher has difficulty with coping, strategies can then be presented to this individual—such as, healthy ways (through exercise or meditation) to cope with stress, how to prioritize tasks, and how to make progress on goals through specific time-management methods, like the Pomodoro technique. This same strategy can be taken into the work environment. In schools, teachers are often asked to construct SMART goals for themselves at the beginning of each school year. Some schools require a reflection on this at the end of the year, but to really highlight how an individual teacher is doing with self-management more regularly schools could create a culture of sharing honest reflections at regularly timed intervals on goal attainment.
Taking other’s perspectives, being able to empathize, showing respect, and appreciating diversity are all components of social awareness. When pre-service teachers have training in this area, they have more positive perceptions of student-peer relationships, and in classroom management and environment (Barr, 2011). In pre-service preparation these skills can be worked on through teaching culturally responsive pedagogy and having pre-service teachers apply these pedagogies to case studies and classroom experiences. These cases can ask pre-service teachers to take on multiple perspectives and present the case or situation from various viewpoints as they try to understand the needs of the individuals involved. It can also be shaped through educating pre-service teachers about the school, as an organization, and how politics within this organization work.
When teachers are employed in schools this development of social awareness needs to be done by district leaders who clearly and openly set healthy school climates and norms for social interactions. Beyond this school climate, a direct explanation of the organization and its political nuances in decision-making processes needs to be communicated with all staff. This is the foundation needed for teachers to begin to see decisions and actions from multiple perspectives.
Often in schools we expect colleagues to work together and to innately know how to do this. Working together and building relationships, however, requires being able to respond and actively listen in conversations, negotiate with others, manage conflict, and both seek and provide help when needed. It requires a level of trust that does not innately happen on day one.
In pre-service teacher training this active listening can be done in open discussions through requiring students to paraphrase and then add to another’s thoughts. Relationship building can also be done in pre-service preparation through establishing a cohort and working on building trust within this cohort through group building exercises over multiple semesters—teaching students to rely on one another to work through and solve problems as a unit, rather than individually.
This same cohort building needs to be done in our schools. This can be done through allowing time for conversations and intentional pairing of teachers. If we start the conversation between individuals and find common ground first the results of teaming would be more beneficial to both the teachers and the students they work with.
The ethics associated with the teaching profession is part of responsible decision making. In pre-service teacher preparation we can begin to hone responsible decision-making skills through case study analysis. In this activity, instructors ask pre-service teachers to first identify the problem, and then analyze the situations from multiple perspectives (with guidance from the course instructor, as needed). From here pre-service teachers need to generate possible ways to solve the problem and analyze the pros and cons associated with each of these solutions, and can then start to present their own case dilemmas they are faced with in their field-experience and go through this same process. By doing this in an open-discussion format, it also teaches our pre-service teachers to rely on peer/colleagues and not take on every issue as a martyred individual.
To continue to carry responsible decision-making professional development into the school environment teachers need to be given the opportunity and authority to make responsible decisions. Administrators and colleagues need to value individual’s voices in decision-making processes. When teachers have a voice in the day-to-day operations of the school, they are more likely to take responsibility for the consequences of their actions, the well-being of others (colleagues and students), and the well-being of themselves
If social-emotional learning is an important life-long skill that we work on with our preK-12 students, it also has to be an important skill we continue to develop in our teachers. To keep teachers in the profession we must focus on their SEL development. The foundation for self-reflective social-emotional learning for teachers should come as a pre-cursor to working with students in developing these skill areas. Teachers with this training will be better equipped to address academic, behavioral, and social-emotional challenges that their students present them with in the classroom (Schonert-Reichl, 2017).
About the Author:
Kristina Scott Quinlan is an Assistant Professor of Special Education at Salem State University in Salem, Massachusetts. She has eight years of K-12 special education teaching experience, and six years of teaching in higher education teacher preparation. Kristina is the State President of the New Hampshire Learning Disabilities Association. She is also the committee co-chair for the Education Committee of LDA. Kristina often presents and consults at state, regional, and national conferences and schools on topics including: social development, social and emotional learning, behavior as communication, universal design for learning, and creating smooth transitions for students as they exit the high school setting. Kristina holds a doctorate in educational leadership, a master’s in special education, and undergraduate degrees in English and exercise physiology. When not working, you can often find Kristina out running, cycling, or playing golf.
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