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The benefits of SEL for teachers


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There is strong evidence how transformative social-emotional learning (SEL) can be beneficial for both teachers and learners. Effective implementation of SEL transforms the inner life of teachers, forcing them to reflect on and hone their own social-emotional skills, promotes teacher well-being and there is evidence that SEL changes teachers’ views of their profession.

Vicki Zakrzewski, Education Director at The Greater Good Science Centre at UC – Berkeley, offers research-based resources to improve the social-emotional well-being of teachers and children. Vicki originally published the following article on how social-emotional learning transforms classrooms on the Berkeley Blog.

She discusses how research clearly shows that integrating social-emotional learning into the classroom is good for both learners and the teachers who work with them. What research hasn’t captured, according to Vicki, is how powerfully transformative practising SEL can be for teachers. 

At COOL TO BE ME, we believe that SEL is a three-way conversation involving teachers, learners and parents and share the views of the writer that everyone benefits from programmes designed to improve social and emotional skills. Supporting social and emotional growth leads to academic improvement too.

In the first of our two-part series we share Vicki’s views on how SEL transforms the inner life of teachers and promotes teacher well-being. The second part focusses on how SEL enriches the student-teacher relationship and transforms student relationships.

SEL transforms the inner life of teachers

When educators begin using SEL in the classroom, sometimes the most surprising outcome is how they personally change. Unless a teacher is an automaton, teaching students emotional and relationship skills compels a teacher to reflect on his or her own social-emotional competencies—sometimes both in and out of the classroom.

Elementary educator Patricia Morris found that she had changed significantly as a result of using SEL in her classroom. “I’m calmer, more patient, kinder, and far less controlling,” described Patricia. “I’m more focused and able to let little things go that before would’ve made me crazy. I’m also more willing to look for the reasons behind things that happen. And I’ve become more optimistic, so when anything terrible happens, I try to see what good might come out of it.”

Lora Bird, a Kindergarten and music teacher discovered that SEL rounded out her personality. “I’ve become a much broader, more grounded person by becoming the person that my students need me to be,” said Lora. “At the beginning of my career, I identified as a sweet, nice, kind person, so it rubbed up against my self-concept when I had students who needed an assertive and firm teacher. I had to learn how to be really firm and assertive while still being kind and true to myself. I quickly discovered how much I needed that firmness in every area of my life!”

Cultivating social-emotional skills within themselves helps teachers model these skills for students—a critical factor for successful implementation of SEL. For example, one study found that teachers who were required to teach an SEL program, but didn’t buy into what they were teaching, actually worsened their students’ social-emotional skills. But research has also shown that teachers who were required to teach an SEL program, but didn’t buy into what they were teaching, actually worsened their students’ social-emotional skills. But, other research shows that teachers who do develop these skills reap the rewards of greater mental health and more effective teaching, both of which have a huge impact on students’ success in school.

Mandi Ruud, a middle school teacher, not only modelled SEL skills for her students, but also asked her students for help in cultivating these skills:

“SEL helped me realize that I needed to improve my social-emotional skills, too. So I told my students that becoming socially-emotionally intelligent is a lifelong goal and that perhaps we could work on these skills together—help keep each other in check. And they really do call me out sometimes. If I’m getting a little frustrated, they’ll say, ‘Ms. Ruud, you don’t get to talk to us like that because that’s not nice.’ And I tell them, ‘You’re right. That’s not fair of me.’ So we work on how we talk to each other and our general empathy towards others.”

SEL promotes teacher well-being

Well-being is one of the major outcomes for educators who cultivate their own social-emotional skills. With the high attrition rate of teachers—a whopping 50 percent who leave the profession in the first five years— teacher self-care is crucial, if not imperative, for the profession.

The efforts of the Oakland Unified School District (OUSD) to make SEL and teacher care a priority before implementing SEL in the classroom shows an extraordinary understanding of “we can’t teach what we don’t know.” In other words, OUSD has realized that teachers who don’t take care of themselves by developing their own social-emotional skills will have a hard time helping students to do so. Associate Superintendent Brigitte Marshall articulated this understanding along with her role as a leader in promoting teacher self-care throughout the district:

“I’ve been given permission by the district to prioritize my own well-being and my understanding of being in relationship with people. The direction given by the district is that these things matter and will actually make you more effective in doing what you care about. But we constantly need reminders when the work becomes urgent to take care of ourselves–so that we come to work ready to do good work as opposed to fatigued and exhausted. To have the district institutionally name that this is important makes a huge difference, which is why I took my role as an ambassador of SEL throughout the district very, very seriously. If this is to permeate the district, then leaders have to take it seriously and lead in a certain way. Knowing this was the expectation of me I could not be hypocritical and talk about work-life balance and improving interpersonal skills without focusing on improving these things for myself.

SEL changes teachers’ views of the profession

Even though the job is tough, teachers do the most meaningful work in the world: shaping the lives of human beings. And, according to research, people who find meaning in their work have higher levels of job satisfaction, motivation, and performance. But oftentimes the stress and demands of the profession cause teachers to lose sight of this meaning—which can lead to burnout and teacher attrition. SEL helps to restore this meaning.

Middle school teacher Katherine Shea found SEL to be career-changing. “Last year, I resolved to not yell at my students,” she said, “and it turned out to be the best year I’ve had as a teacher, with the best relationships I’ve ever had with my students. SEL completely changed the way I taught and it made me more excited to go back this year.”

Meena Srinivasan, program manager for OUSD’s SEL and Leadership Team and author of Teach, Breathe, Learn: Mindfulness in and out of the Classroom, found that SEL renewed her love of teaching:

“Before I started working with SEL, sometimes I got so stressed that I lost contact with my original intention for becoming a teacher. SEL has rekindled that light inside of me. It’s the light of why I became an educator in the first place—to help students connect with their dreams and aspirations and become better people who contribute to the world in a positive way. That’s the power of the SEL lens; it fosters purpose and meaning and deep connection.”

The next blog focusses on how SEL enriches the student-teacher relationship and transforms student relationships.

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  1. […] week we shared information published by Vicki Zakrzewski on the transformative value of social-emotional learning for teachers. In this blog we focus on Vicki’s views about how SEL enriches and transforms student-teacher […]

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