Many years ago, I took a stand-up comedy class. It wasn’t because I thought I was funny, it was just an effort to get more comfortable speaking in public.
At the time, I wasn’t aware that the final “class” was actually the students all performing at a local Comedy Club. I was petrified.
The instructor was amazing, though. He worked with all of us to develop four minutes of material, and was able to make my lines and even my delivery funny. I invited some friends and family, and my routine went off pretty well.
His one critical rule was, “if you’re lucky enough to get the audience laughing, never, and I mean NEVER, interrupt the laughter with the next joke.” In fact, he’d actually ask us to leave the stage if he caught us interrupting the audience mid-laugh.
Let me tell you, it is hard to stand onstage waiting patiently for the audience to finish laughing. For a self-conscious person like me, those few moments felt like an eternity.
Even so, I had to wait. Because when you interrupt an audience who’s laughing, you actually train them to not laugh. You sabotage the very reason you’re onstage and they showed up.
Educators face a similar challenge when teaching social emotional curriculum to students. They’re teachers, and so every bone in their body is telling them to teach, to get their students to understand and then master the content.
The problem is that SEL is not about content mastery, it’s about discussion, entering into conversations and topics based on feelings and emotions, and a distinct lack of right and wrong answers.
Often, when students start to really get going and the real empowerment is taking place, teachers feel the need to summarize things and move on. They interrupt the conversation to keep things on track and complete the lesson. They train the students to curb their sharing, and the most meaningful part of the lesson is truncated.
I’m not criticizing – it’s not intuitive to let students take over and run with a discussion. But that’s a core part of what allows social emotional education to work.
Never has the work of a teacher been more difficult as when we ask them to deliver the critical life skills that every child needs to live and adapt in the world. In many ways, we’re asking them to be therapists in the classroom.
Very simply, there’s no profession in the world today that’s more difficult and underpaid than that of a classroom teacher.
As the great teachers around our country begin traversing the new world of social emotional learning, we wanted to share some techniques that will allow them to switch gracefully into facilitating rather than teaching in the traditional manner.
These approaches have been battle-tested in thousands of classrooms around the country, and have been found to foster deeper student connections, a greater sense of community, better decision-making and increased academic success.
Here are 4 ways for teachers at SEL schools to help students develop socially and emotionally:
1. Connect to their Radical Self-Interest
In more than 30 years working with young people, much of our work has been driven by a fear of them disengaging or checking out, or worse, becoming a disrupting force to the other students.
To combat this fear, we developed the idea focusing on students’ radical self-interest, or RSI, which is simply another way of saying, “What’s in it for me?”
Each of us wants to be happy. We want to be successful and we want to have great relationships. We want to be respected, appreciated and yes, financially free.
All of these are within the focus of great programs at SEL schools. They’re about helping kids learn to find and create happiness, success and meaning on our own terms.
This is why these programs should be set up with students’ RSI in mind… because it’s about them.
There are no grades. These ideas are designed to not just prepare them for school, but also instill and support the qualities that will allow them to create lives they’ll be proud of.
The key is to give them a new expectation for the future, one of great value and meaning. This new expectation will then factor into the decisions they make and the actions they take in the present.
Help students understand that social emotional learning “lessons” are really just about helping them finding their authentic selves, connecting their uniqueness to their dreams and sharing it to benefit themselves and the world.
This is the start of making it relevant and tapping into their own intrinsic motivation.
2. Participate in the Process
Many teachers feel understandably overwhelmed by the idea of teaching SEL, as it can seem like one more thing they must do in their incredibly busy and emotionally-demanding schedules.
However, SEL sessions should be facilitated vs. taught, which means teachers can and must take the pressure off themselves.
In SEL, teachers do not need to have the right answer – there is no right answer – and the process should be open-ended, allowing class discussions to go to unexpected places that are relevant to the initial starting point.
The best teachers we’ve seen simply choose to participate in the process, because a great side effect of these programs is that the impact on teachers can be just as significant (or more so) than the impact on their students.
By participating in the process along with their students, the teachers’ ability to benefit personally is increased, as well as their ability to connect with the students through personal experiences.
3. Personalize vs. Sell to students
Perhaps the best advice I’ve heard given for delivering SEL curriculum is to personalize the program rather than sell it.
SEL is not math; it is not required, and student participation isn’t graded. This means that, although it will ultimately benefit students in every area of their academic and personal development, it takes much more finesse to get across than traditional subjects.
The lessons employed by SEL schools have been developed to provide structure for the concepts, but it’s a teacher’s ability to add his or her unique flair to the material that will most determine success or failure.
No one knows the students or the environment better than the teacher, nor can anyone else match curriculum and content to a teacher’s unique style and experiences.
This is why it’s so important for teachers to experience the program personally, to connect with the content and language and then translate it in their own terms to the students they know and understand so well.
There is an element of transparency and vulnerability that, when expressed by teachers, allows students to do the same. Only then can SEL schools harness the power of social emotional learning to make the deep connections that truly empower students.
4. Detach from Outcomes
As educators, it’s our nature to be driven by outcomes. We’re constantly assessed on academic performance, test scores, behavior and attendance. We’re required to complete certain sets of curriculum, and our success is largely determined by getting measurable results.
The challenge with SEL is that it is so open-ended. As discussed earlier, it’s conversation that’s essential to program success. The very act of dictating process and focusing on outcomes diminishes the impact of the sessions.
To be certain, conversations have to be monitored and guided when necessary, but the more organic the process, the more relevant the discussions will be to your students, and the more deeply they’ll connect to the program and to one another.
A critical skill we must all develop as educators is the ability to be comfortable with ambiguity. The impact and benefits of SEL programs are far reaching, and often there is little immediate gratification.
However, while many of the outcomes will not be instantly apparent, your students will forever benefit from the guidance and encouragement at the heart of these sessions.
We have been developing and implementing our own SEL program for 7 years. It has been a bit humbling. As proud as we are of what we’ve created, we’ve also learned that it will only ever be as good as the teacher facilitating it, and the quality of the conversations and connectedness they’re able to help create.
There is no more important and more complex job than that of classroom teacher. No job has more direct impact on our future than the work our great teachers do each and every day.
SEL schools are choosing to add a new level of complexity that requires teachers to act almost like therapists. It almost seems unfair to ask this of those in an already over-burdened profession.
That said, I hope these techniques help make SEL less intimidating and reduce the burden on teachers, while preparing to give them more of the true gold of teaching; the knowledge that they’re regularly and meaningfully impacting student lives.