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How Can Districts Help Teachers Develop Social-Emotional Skills?

Michael Gallagher

Teachers and staff in the Sunnyvale school district in California have been exploring the relationship between the social-emotional well-being of educators and their students for the past five years.  District leaders have learned firsthand that in order for teachers to be effective for their students, they must take care of their own social emotional well-being. 

We've implemented many changes, including a robust teacher wellness program, partnerships with local universities to support preservice teachers, and professional development opportunities that reflect a commitment to social-emotional learning at all leadership levels. As one of the leaders of our districtwide commitment to prioritize educators' well-being, I have a few recommendations for how teachers can contribute to a school environment that supports their social-emotional skills:

Share with staff and school leaders what you know about the relationship between social-emotional well-being and student achievement.  Research on social-emotional learning emphasizes that this focus is no longer considered an "extra."  It is essential to student success, not only in high-poverty environments, but also for all students who face stressors or simply need to build resiliency to approach challenging work in the classroom. A logical place to begin conversations about the academic benefits of social-emotional learning is with your grade level or department team.  Ask to start a teacher support group on campus moderated by a counselor, social worker, or skilled colleague, or identify readings to share with your colleagues about teacher wellness and work-life balance. Once you decide the strategies you would like to apply to your school's unique environment, talk with your principal about how he or she can support social-emotional learning at the classroom level.

Explore how your own social-emotional well-being impacts your students. As professionals, we all do our best to keep the stresses of our personal lives out of our professional lives, but there is no question that life events, including births, illnesses, aging parents, and issues with our own children can impact how we feel at school and how we respond to students. Add to this reality the fact that there are unique challenges to our resiliency and effectiveness in every classroom. Teachers in Title I schools, for example, observe the impact of trauma on students they care about deeply, while teachers in more-affluent school communities are often confronted with a variety of high parent expectations. Take time to reflect on how these challenges may be affecting your teaching and be appropriately honest with students when you are having a tough day.  

Take time to listen to colleagues with a supportive ear. In Sunnyvale, we offer teacher support groups that focus on appreciating the unique challenges of each classroom.  Blowing off steam can be productive if focused ultimately on positive outcomes for all students. After discussing challenges, share solutions for building teacher resilience. Start team meetings with a mindfulness exercise.  Encourage colleagues to do activities they find relaxing outside of work, such as a long bike ride, going to the theater or a sporting event, or cooking a meal with friends. In other words, encourage your colleagues to take time for themselves.  

Just as an emphasis on the whole child consistently yields higher academic outcomes, happier students, and increased positive behaviors, we have seen that attention to the social-emotional needs of adults leads to productive, happier teachers who enjoy their colleagues and their time at work.

Michael Gallagher is the deputy superintendent of human resources for Sunnyvale school district in Sunnyvale, Calif. The district serves 7,000 Pre-K-8 students.

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