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Fitting Caring In: On Professional Development, the Curriculum, and External Pressures

This post explores how social-emotional learning can be taught, developed, and assessed.

By Michelle Hughes

Michelle Rosenfeld Hughes was born in 1960 to two public school teachers, grew up in New York City, and attended public schools. She spent the first twelve years of her teaching career as a progressive public middle school teacher in Red Hook, New York. In her twelfth year of teaching, No Child Left Behind policies took hold and, after struggling to find ways to continue real teaching and learning, like many, she found it impossible to remain teaching in the system. She left public education to begin the middle school program at High Meadow School in Stone Ridge, NY, in 2001 and assumed the headship in 2010. High Meadow is an independent not-for-profit progressive school serving 165 children from Nursery to 8th grade. In addition to her work in schools, Michelle is a writer of fiction and essays on education. She received her BA in Visual Arts from SUNY New Paltz and her MA in Elementary and Museum Education from Bank Street College of Education.

January 10, 2014

For a recent New York Times Magazine article, Can Emotional Intelligence be Taught?, Jennifer Kahn traveled the country observing different social-emotional literacy programs and approaches in schools, asking the questions, “Can emotional intelligence be taught?” and “If it can, then can it be assessed?” Most of the programs Kahn cites come to the schools pre-packaged with trainings and materials to support them. Some of the SEL programs cited in Kahn’s article are stand-alone and come with established principles and lessons to explore and reinforce these ideas in the classroom. These are adopted by schools and come with “how-to” teacher trainings and lend themselves to assessment as they often come with discreet goals and benchmarks for the classroom and the school. Programs are often expensive, but easier to front-load, as they take little innovation or interpretation on the part of the teacher to be implemented.

While the article was informative, there was a noticeable shortage of teacher voices represented in the conversation, so it is hard to know how they are integrating the principles of these programs into their classroom practices. Interestingly, in my discussions with school leaders and educators, I found that they tended instead toward using approaches--such as Responsive Classroom and Mindfulness training--which lend themselves to adaptation for place-based needs and values more than pre-packaged programs; they are expected to be interpreted and conveyed in ways that are authentic to the teacher and the setting.

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To maintain a commitment to caring schools and social-emotional literacy, ongoing teacher training and curriculum development is necessary. Our school leaders and teachers felt strongly about the need for ongoing professional development and saw a direct connection between this work and the harmony in their schools, as well productive learning. Therefore, one Brooklyn principal spends a lot of time cultivating relationships with professional development leaders who can support this ongoing work with teachers. She has no choice but “to go out on a limb to protect these social-emotional objectives of education, despite the pressures of the standards movement.”

A Dallas principal I spoke with began MindUp training three years ago, “which allowed for a common vocabulary and explanations for the impact of how the mind works, and how emotions can hijack your mind and actions if you are upset...this speaks to self-awareness.” She explains further, “ All of our classrooms have a practice of mindful breathing exercises three times a day. If you have a kid who is completely dis-regulated you can forget about academics. Once children can have some agency over their emotions they can participate effectively in learning. We have many visitors in our school and they always note the happiness and excitement of the students. Our teachers had strong feelings about the support or lack of support they and other teachers and service providers received for the SEL work they do with children.” In addition to training in Responsive Classroom and a variety of mindfulness approaches they cited school-wide programs and initiatives that support caring, such as “Banana Splits.”    

When implementing any new curriculum, there is a real difference for the teacher who has had a chance to make it their own. But it is particularly important with social-emotional literacy programs, because as other curricular pressures crowd in, they remain committed to fitting this highly personalized and important work into the life of the classroom. As we have discussed earlier in this series, time management, goal-setting, and classroom materials are currently largely pre-determined by mandated curricula, so teachers are called upon to be creative in how they fit caring in to the daily life of the classroom. This extends to analytical teaching practices that address the individual learner, such as differentiation of teaching and goal-setting. These practices are also critical to creating a caring classroom, as it makes space for all learners. Two teachers describe the impacts: “External pressures are now driving the curriculum to the point in which everyone is to be teaching the same thing at the same time, which makes differentiation and integration almost impossible.” And, “Daily aligned teaching stops differentiation and stops the ability for the teacher to move ahead when the kids are getting it or stop and reteach when a kid is just not getting it. What happens to the kid who does not have the opportunity to get help because they work, take care of younger siblings, or have parents who cannot help?”

Even those who work in supportive educational environments struggle between meeting requirements and tending to the needs of students. A third grade teacher talks of the time pressures, “Coming back from PE I see that the class is upset about lack of sportsmanship in the game that was played. I have a math lesson that I am ready for and that I really need the full 50 minutes for. Will it really be time well spent going on with Math or will most (if not all) of the students be preoccupied in trying to process what happened on their own? I know of many teachers who would march on with the lesson, only having to come back days later as the class was not on task with it and missed most of it!”

But as our fourth grade teacher explains, sometimes they can find the answers in the problem, “Believe it or not, the modules that New York State has developed to teach the Common Core have lots of built in time for students to work with partners and groups in which all students share and are acknowledged.” Another expands by pointing out that, “Teachers must walk the walk, understand and appreciate differences, know every individual. It takes longer, but not really if you work it into the practice.”

One school leader makes the case that this is not a zero sum game, that in fact, children learn better, feel better, and perform better in caring environments. Her school has developed a multi-pronged approach to strong social-emotional literacy through focused programming, curricular integration, and parent involvement. And, “Although we are not required to do it, we do the state testing to have an apples to apples comparison of our data to the local public schools...we believe that if you have quality teachers who teach creatively and responsively and cultivate critical thinkers, then you will have kids who do really well on the tests through an authentic curriculum. The teachers are clear, and the assessments are performance assessments, the curriculum is brained-based and the kids see themselves as scientists, authors, and artists. They have agency over their learning. This translates to engaged learners.”

Education movements such as No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top, and the National Common Core Standards, do not include social-emotional literacy in their standards. But as the maxim goes in education, we assess what we value and we teach what we assess. The New York Times article was largely focused on how SEL practices could be assessed, and if so, what are we actually looking for? It is much simpler to measure for the more superficial layers: attendance, increased test scores, and decreased disciplinary referrals, than it is for the deeper layer: a future productive life. As a means for supporting the whole child principles implemented in her school, one of our principals I spoke with tracks students for eight years after their fifth grade graduation. The data measuring high school completion, college attendance, and general well-being is used to compare their students’ progress to outcomes of other schools of similar demographics.

The ability for schools to prove that their students can perform well on the testing associated with these standards will determine the child’s path in school, and the evaluation of that child’s teacher. In New York, for example, the  Annual Professional Performance Review ties teacher evaluation to testing. The fear attached to this system does much to undermine schoolwide attention to the social and civic development of children and collaborative climate of the teaching community. But creating professional development opportunities that teach educators how to build social-emotional learning into the curriculum ensures that teachers are not feeling torn between academic and affective learning, but feel confident that their curriculum supports both kinds of learning. Literature and history are full of opportunities to “feed two birds with one seed.” What this cohort of educators have done is made use of the professional development opportunities for building their palette of approaches to cultivating caring classrooms. When these have not been available, many of them have researched and developed their own approaches. But they have also probed their academic curriculum for opportunities to reflect, build civic responsibility, and develop empathy and self-awareness.

I would contend that this is much harder and deeper work than meeting academicstandards, requiring a level of introspection on the part of the educators that is challenging to achieve. It takes leaders willing to hardwire it into the school culture. As one teacher said about collaborative culture, “setting the expectation and working it into the schedule ensures it happens.” In David Levine’s work with teachers and students he offers an authentic culture-building process as opposed to another curriculum to cover, and the feedback he gets from building leaders and teachers is that “the school feels transformed!”


This is chapter 5 of a six-week series on social-emotional learning programs, researched and written by Michelle Hughes. See chapter 1, chapter 2, chapter 3, and chapter 4.