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Teacher in a Strange Land: Social. Emotional. Learning.

What a difference a few years—and a pandemic and an insurrection—make.

Remember when a ‘growth mindset’ was all the rage among reformy types?

In addition to teaching kids about malleable intelligence, researchers started noticing that teacher practice has a big impact on student mindset, and the feedback that teachers give their students can either encourage a child to choose a challenge and increase achievement or look for an easy way out. For example, studies on different kinds of praise have shown that telling children they are smart encourages a fixed mindset, whereas praising hard work and effort cultivates a growth mindset.

Speaking for all the experienced teachers who were introduced to the ‘growth mindset’ concept and its promotion as silver bullet teaching practice: Would that it were so easy. And researchers are just now noticing that teacher practice has a big impact on what students are thinking? Seriously?

And what about grit? The desirable persistence, an ability to pursue goals in the face of discouragement, the thing that underachieving slackers in public schools didn’t seem to have inculcated? They weren’t dumb (or hungry, scared, exhausted or neglected). They just lacked grit. Right.

Both of those things, packaged as programs, were embraced by professional developers, as part of a suite of soft skills that could be used to enhance student performance. There are plenty of other terms veteran educators have run into: Character Development. Restorative Justice. Conflict Resolution.

They all fall under the general category of encouraging the social and emotional welfare of students, giving them tools to manage their emotions and relationships—so they can learn. Also: (unspoken but obvious) so their test scores will go up.

Social-emotional learning (SEL–the reality, not any official program) is just a rather random collection of ways that school staff has always made students (who have all kinds of reasons for feeling anxious and off-balance these days) comfortable enough in a school setting that they can settle down to learn.

Different SEL programs have different foci: Positive behaviors. Making friends. Sticking with tough tasks. Being more thoughtful, less aggressive. Every time you hear a teacher say ‘Use your words’ or ‘What would you like to say to Jason?’ or ‘Take a minute to calm down’—they’re riffing on SEL ideas.

In a good column at CurmudgucationPeter Greene says that SEL is a real thing, all right, but he can’t defend SEL programs which are now taking a beating from parents. These are, one has to assume, the same parents who thought grit was just the ticket for kids who were living in their family’s car, or that telling certain kids they were smart could cause their heads to swell and spoil them for the workforce.  

A whole lot of the murkiness around what SEL is, and how it relates to Critical Race Theory (CRT)—spoiler: it doesn’t—comes from masterful manipulation of language.

A year after a terrible incident at a local HS, where students of color were put ‘up for sale’ on Snapchat, some parents here still think that systemic racism doesn’t exist here in Traverse City. Some of them saw the incident as simple bullying, no big deal, and others thought it was a matter to be handled by police rather than the school board, although the idea started and was centered among HS students. All of them seemed to think addressing it would cause even more divisiveness.

Why wouldn’t you want teachers, using developmentally appropriate strategies and language, to address emotionally sensitive issues? If students don’t have these conversations in school, under the watchful eye of an adult (especially an adult with the skills to help them process their feelings and social challenges), where will they learn to keep a lid on? To distinguish truth from foul lies? To learn the art of cooperation? Restraint? Respect?

Where will they learn to use THEIR words, instead of picking up a gun?

The interesting thing to me is that none of this is new. Twenty-odd years ago, I was recruited to be part of a video series produced by the Annenberg Foundation, called The Learning Classroom. I had a film crew in my classroom (and my office) for an entire week, capturing footage around how I used social-emotional learning to teach more effectively.

I prepared lessons designed to engage my middle school band students emotionally, by learning Ashokan Farewell, the music Ken Burns used to great effect in his Civil War series, then tying the plaintive tune to the letter that Major Sullivan Ballou wrote to his wife in 1861, a week before being killed in battle. We talked about how many of the recruits at the end of the Civil War were no older than the boys sitting in the band room, how bloody the war was, dividing families.

The filmmaker wasn’t looking for a lesson that used emotion to drive home learning (something that teachers do all the time, by the way, from reading great literature to the exploding mysteries of the baking soda volcano). She wanted to see stormy outbursts from middle schoolers.

Your classroom is like Mayberry, she told me. Everyone is friendly and nice. I desisted from telling her how long it took (speaking of grit) to build a community of 13 year-olds who worked together. I did not say that there were, in fact, days when the emotional temperature of the room was not so pleasant.

While the film crew was there, one of my students returned to school from a month at home recovering from surgery and treatment for testicular cancer. The other kids were happy to see him, and the film director asked me where he’d been. Oh, wow, she said, when I told her. Let’s use this in the episode.

I was aghast. Absolutely not, I said. Not everyone knows why he’s been out—only that he was ill. It would be a terrible violation of his personal privacy. He would never trust me again. He is so fragile right now—how can you even suggest something like this?

The next morning, the film crew was gone, two days earlier than planned, leaving my office filled with dirty coffee cups and discarded papers. I didn’t hear back from the production company, and never got the complimentary set of videos I was promised—so I never saw myself trying to teach using social-emotional learning. Whatever that is.

Last week, when I was doing some reading on SEL, I accidentally found the Learning Classroom series, and the video where my students and I were featured. If you’d like to see it, our part starts about 15 minutes in.

Seeing the video again made me realize that my students displayed more emotional intelligence than the filmmaker. There’s another lesson there.

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Nancy Flanagan

Nancy Flanagan is a retired teacher, with 31 years as a K-12 Music specialist in the Hartland, Michigan schools. She was named Michigan Teacher of the Year ...