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3 Ways to Keep the Heat Off Teachers Implementing Social and Emotional Learning

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By Christopher Poulos

As a teacher for the past 18 years, I know as well as any educator that new school initiatives bring with them the potential for teachers to feel overwhelmed. Where will we find the time to slot this new project into our already hectic schedules? Will we get any kind of support in making it happen? And hey―don't we do this already?

These are exactly the kinds of questions that my fellow teachers at Joel Barlow High School in Redding, Conn., had when we started implementing our social, emotional, and academic development initiative over the past few years. They are important and valid questions, and I think every school and district that wants to get serious about social and emotional learning has to be proactive about answering them upfront, as we have.

Our unique, collaborative team of eight teachers and administrators―called the EQ8―is constantly assessing and planning new ways to support teachers, making sure they feel heard, and ensuring that they have enough time to do what they are being asked to do. That atmosphere of collaboration and the sense that we're in it for the long haul has been critical to our success. Acknowledging that this work takes time and that the school is truly committed takes a lot of pressure off of teachers and makes them more receptive to changes.

I'd like to share 3 specific steps we've taken to ensure that our teachers aren't overwhelmed:

1)    Integrate social and emotional learning into Student Learning Objectives (SLOs)

One of the first big projects for the EQ8 Team was writing opt-in SLOs that weave social and emotional skills into academic instruction. These objectives, which Connecticut teachers are required to prepare annually, are critical parts of how we evaluate students, teachers, and entire schools, so this is no small task―and we recognize that it might carry risks!

The trade off, however, is that we have SLO time built into our academic calendar for teachers to collect data on their students' emotional intelligence and other indicators; to collaborate with other teachers on what's working and what's not; to get feedback from administrators; and to improve teachers' social and emotional skills throughout the year. We've gained all that time for our initiative by prioritizing that social and emotional learning is formally embedded in our daily practice and professional growth plans.

2)    Take advantage of community partnerships

We have the great fortune of having the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence right in our backyard and have cultivated a partnership with them so that we can better implement our social and emotional learning initiative. Experts from their team come to Joel Barlow every so often to meet with the EQ8 and point us to the best research-based practices and policies for supporting the whole child.

Early on, we needed a diagnostic tool to measure our students' emotional intelligence. Instead of spending time searching for one ourselves―and not knowing if it was backed by the latest science―we just worked with Yale's researchers to find the best tool for our needs. Our relationship with Yale is just one example of the ways schools can leverage their communities to support students' social and emotional development.

Staff.JPG

3)    Explore ways in which teachers are already integrating social and emotional learning in their work

A few years back, Joel Barlow's teachers evaluated and revised our school-wide learning expectations. Since that time, we revisited those expectations in light of our social, emotional, and academic development initiative and noticed a correlation: the language of social and emotional learning is implicitly and explicitly interwoven throughout the indicators and performance descriptors of our expectations for students.

This shouldn't be surprising! We know as teachers that part of our job is creating balanced, rounded learners and building our students' social and emotional skills. Sometimes it just takes the extra step of recognizing where teachers are already incorporating social and emotional learning, holding it up, and formalizing it.

There's a reason we're spending the first two years of our social and emotional learning initiative just on building teachers' confidence and competencies and getting them on board: teachers are busy. But by meeting teachers where they are, schools and districts can make the work of supporting the whole child manageable, productive, and rewarding.

Photo: Staff at Joel Barlow High School participate in a professional development workshop. (Courtesy of Christopher Poulos)

Christopher Poulos, Connecticut's 2007 Teacher of the Year, currently teaches Spanish and serves as Instructional Leader for the Humanities at Joel Barlow High School in Redding, CT. He is a National Board Certified Teacher and currently serves as the Immediate Past Board Chair of the National Network of State Teachers of the Year. Poulos is a member of the Aspen Institute National Commission on Social, Emotional, and Academic Development's Council of Distinguished Educators.

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