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What’s the role of a teacher? Thoughts on the social emotional learning trend

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An essay on the role of a teacher today, and the wisdom of the standardized social and emotional learning phenomenon.

SEL Social and Emotional Learning

image from casel.org

By Nick Parsons, Chemistry Teacher. 12/18/2019

Nick author

In wrapping up and reflecting on the 2019 year, I’ve been thinking about school a lot… too much. Overall, teaching has been mostly good to me.

I liked school as a kid for the common, superficial reasons, like socializing and doing extracurriculars (by extracurriculars I mean sports, not all the other stuff I “did” to pad up a resume).

I REALLY liked school for deeper, private, and more personal reasons, such as being a place where I had the opportunity to challenge myself and either: (1) fail, reflect, and grow to do something more challenging or (2) succeed, reflect, and grow to do something more challenging.

For reasons I don’t understand, satisfying the incessant, burdensome need to challenge myself and be better always, and probably forever will, feel better than almost anything else.

On a day to day basis, I slept through most of my school day because it was usually boring and school/ practice/ homework was a 7:20am-9pm job, with 2 hours somewhere in there to eat, shower, and take a break to collect myself to get through the current day, in preparation for the next day. The majority of days I would feel stressed, tired, and mostly, just content – not overly happy, not overly sad. I certainly was not a daily ray of sunshine.

I LOVED all of the teachers I had in high school, but I can’t remember any going out of there way to help me sort out, identify, regulate, reflect, or otherwise support my social-emotional state… and that was totally fine. Honestly, if they did it would be weird. Plus, I trusted they were all conscionable, decent humans and if there was something seriously wrong with me, I bet they’d notice and reach out.

Not only that, I knew who the adults were who would support me as a young person. They were the same people who held me to high expectations, saw me at my highs and lows, would call me out if I was lacking focus or being a jerk. It was all love and it was real.

I liked school because it was satisfying, and I got through it because I was hooked on that feeling and I had genuine, supporting people that would afford me opportunities to challenge myself, hold me accountable to engage with these opportunities, and support me, if necessary, in adapting to these challenges so I could be better equipped to face them in the future.

I liked school (and coaching) SO much, I decided to do it, not as a job, but as a vocation (there is a difference). My average work day is essentially the same as in high school. During the hours of 7am-9pm I go to school, then coach, then come home to lesson plan or grade. Somewhere in there, I get two hours to eat, shower, and collect myself to get through the current day, in preparation for the next.

The majority of days I feel stressed, tired, and mostly, just content – not overly happy, not overly sad. I’m a little more outwardly positive and “sunshiny” because I don’t want to be that weird, mopey coworker, and students are more productive if I, at least, give the outward appearance of being happy and enthusiastic. Thankfully, I usually am. Somedays, I have to pretend, But mostly, my students can read my by the end of a semester, understand how I’m feeling, and they’re usually cool and respectful of it.

I’m a firm believer in creating fair, well thought out policies and adhering to them with fidelity. I teach chemistry – not because I have some deep, inherent passion for it – but because it’s “hard”, demanding, and doesn’t require much background knowledge – almost every student starts on an even playing field of knowing pretty much nothing. It’s the kind of subject where if you work hard, challenge yourself, fail, and reflect, you do REALLY well in. And nothing feels better to me when students do really well.

We definitely do not take content time aside to share our feelings, but I for sure will ask students how their days are going, what their other classes are like, how their game went last night, if they were able to get sleep after their rehearsal last night. BUT only if they got the work asked of them first.

Once in a while I remind the children that they have my unconditional support. Far more often, though, I’m reminding them that school is like a job, effort doesn’t matter much to me because it isn’t a material thing I can grade, and in my room, to do well, they need to be producing the best work they can. If they don’t, they’ll know when it’s graded. And no, I don’t allow revisions or retests. My favorite teacher’ism might be, “Hey now, don’t get mad about it, just get better.”

In general, I have good relationships with students. I hear through the grapevine and through survey data that they like my class, that they know I care about what I’m doing, I put in a lot of effort into my job, and they admit that they learn some chemistry by the end of it.

I’d be omitting the truth if I didn’t say I also constantly badger kids to put their phones away, cold-call the kids sleeping in class, cold-call the kids who are otherwise distracted, or raise my voice to talk over students talking over me. And I definitely piss off a kid once in a while with my daily urgency for order, focus, and productivity above having “fun”.

If a kid gets disrespectful toward me after I hold them accountable for violating clearly laid out classroom policies that are fair, constantly revised, and regularly communicated, I don’t ask them how they’re feeling or worry about how I can help them regulate their emotions. I got 20+ other kids that need to learn! I don’t have the time or capacity for that. Plus, I don’t need to: I’m a teacher, they’re students. On a professional level, in no way are we equals.

They get another chance, in that moment, to do better. If they can’t do that, well they can talk about it with an administrator, or at home with their family after I notify whoever is taking care of them that I’m not tolerating that kind of nonsense. Usually the kid gets better after that, sometimes they don’t. While I would like better outcomes in these situations, I’m not going to take on that burden of altering their psychology and modifying their behaviors. I’m a teacher, not a psychologist or a therapist. That’s not my place.

Since I got into teaching, all I’ve been listening to is this SEL (social emotional learning) thing and how I’m supposed to teach students how to recognize and regulate their emotions to feel good all the time. But again, I teach chemistry, no one taught me or trained me how to be a therapist.

Most schools push for this SEL thing, but there are only 6’ish hours in a school day. I’ve observed, substituted, and taught in 5 schools in the past 5 years. I’ve noticed that SEL pushes out other time-consuming tasks like content and discipline.

I’ve also noticed and have crossed paths with plenty of literature saying rampant depression is ailing teens, in-person communication is bizarre for them, and that they are encouraged to fight for their right to feel good all of the time. Plus, I’ve had a lot of students who are far more interested in me being their friend rather than their teacher. Like, no… that’s super weird, not to mention unprofessional.

I’ve also witnessed, experienced, heard about, and read about early career teachers leaving the profession ENTIRELY from burnout, veteran teachers saying “school wasn’t always like this”, and almost unanimously, by all kinds of teachers, some level of regret for even entering the profession. I was warned by SO many teachers to not enter the profession when I made the decision to. That’s not hard, qualifiable, or quantifiable data, but it was a lot – trust me!

I think I was better off in school as a student than my current students that I teach. I went to school to learn, because that was the whole purpose of school. I definitely didn’t go to feel good, and it wouldn’t matter! Going to school wasn’t a “choice” thing for me – I went because it was my job. I got the sense that it was my job and I would work hard during it because that was prioritized more by my teachers and parents than them worrying about how my social-emotional state was.

It feels backwards now. Every year, I get the sense students think my role in the room is to be some entertaining, funny guy that is supposed to make them feel good and never make them feel guilty, ashamed, embarrassed, or like they’re doing a bad job. It’s not my goal as a teacher for kids to feel that way, and it’s not something I particularly enjoy, but yah, that’s going to happen. School is hard, and if it isn’t I don’t know if we could define whatever “it” is as school.

And I know why they feel this way. Social-emotional learning is the new “in” thing. I suspect they’re interpreting the message from SEL as, “Yes, getting good grades is important, but definitely not as important as feeling good.”

This is sad, because I think we’re robbing kids of opportunities to intrinsically “feel”. Instead, unqualified, therapist like, social-emotional focused teachers (like myself) are unintentionally pushing these half-baked, extrinsically sourced emotions onto kids. Then, when they find themselves in situations where intrinsic, genuine, and powerful emotions rise up, they’re not equipped with dealing with them because they haven’t been put in organic situations to deal with them independently.

I also worry that this constant expectation about how to feel and in what situations is making students (and plenty of adults) abhorrently intolerant to events, people, or actions that make them “feel” bad. I’m not saying people should never feel offended, mad, or hurt in their dealings with people and events, but there needs to be less pressure on people to HAVE to feel certain ways.

People make mistakes and upset other people. It happens, and I don’t think it’s going to stop happening while humans roam the Earth. But if we’re encouraged to reject anything that upsets or offends us in lieu of experiencing the myriad of emotions that naturally emerge in these situations, the opportunity to develop self-regulation, empathy, and perspective taking is in danger of being lost. Further, the inclination and need to reflect upon, think critically about, and consider future actions in regards to whatever it was that is upsetting becomes unnecessary and unimportant. Absentmindedly rejecting sources of negative emotions bring too hasty of closure.

And I think that is happening everywhere, especially in classrooms. Because emotions have become so embedded in the teaching profession, the line between what is personal and professional and how to feel about a person or event are becoming blurred. My biggest fear is that demanding expectations, conduct policies, and rigor, the stuff that makes school “school”, become villainous ideas that can be rejected and attacked.

I dunno. This SEL thing is complicated. But I liked how I went through school as a student, and I know I’m better for it. I’m really proud of who I’ve become and what I do and school was a big part of that.

I also know that whatever I do as a teacher, it’s going to be focused on:

1. Enabling my students to be equipped to be successful in the real world, and…

2. Providing them reasonably challenging obstacles, a focused environment to work hard in, and several opportunities to achieve something that they thought was beyond their current capacities, and…

3. Most importantly, to get them to FEEL, GENUINE satisfaction and joy at being successful, in SOMETHING. It only takes once to get hooked to that feeling.

Long story short, I like going to my teacher job to just teach because it is simple and rewarding. I think my students benefit the most from that as well.


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