SEL doesn’t just change the teaching—it changes the teachers and the students. Here are their stories.
-BY VICKI ZAKRZEWSKI | SEPTEMBER 16, 2014
Research clearly demonstrates that integrating social-emotional learning (SEL) into the classroom is good for both students and the adults who work with them.
But there’s a story that the research hasn’t captured—the one of powerful transformation that can result from the practice of SEL.
I recently spoke to a number of educators about the impact of SEL on themselves and their students. What they told me revealed the potential of SEL to transform not only people, but also education itself.
SEL transforms the inner life of teachers
Games and other playful activities were a key part of the Greater Good Science Center’s Summer Institute for Educators, which develops key social-emotional learning skills.
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 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 modeled 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.