Authors: Whitnee Grant & Anjosia Brown Ellerbe
Schools across the country have increased focus and priority of social-emotional learning (SEL) for students. While a significant amount of research finds social-emotional learning leads to positive behavioral and academic outcomes for students, we believe equal or even greater consideration should be given to social-emotional learning and practices for educators.
While many educators understand the benefits of considering the development of the whole child when implementing school-wide or classroom strategies and systems, often the development of the ‘whole educator’ is never considered. The past few years have only accentuated the need to address issues such as teacher burnout and stress-related health issues that have plagued teachers for decades. According to a study conducted by Education Week, the percentage of teachers considering leaving the profession tripled from Fall 2019 to Spring 2021. A survey conducted by RAND’s American Teacher Panel found teachers were more likely to report job-related stress and depression than the general population. The findings of studies such as these further support the need for consistent practices that strengthen the social and emotional skills necessary to manage stress and increase overall well-being for teachers.
Burnout and Compassion Fatigue
Merriam-Webster defines compassion as a feeling of wanting to help someone who is sick, hungry, in trouble, etc. Educational professionals, especially teachers, embody this definition of compassion. They have a strong desire to help every student. Oftentimes, the educators absorb the pain and trauma of others, including their students, until they become mentally, physically and spiritually exhausted. This is when burnout occurs. Educators have been trained to do more with less and to push through so the burnout is not always recognized. This unrecognized burnout leads to compassion fatigue; an extreme state of tension and stress from caregiving that leads to isolation, feelings of hopelessness, indifference, pessimism and overall disinterest in other people’s issues.
When educators get to this level, students suffer. The educators may have little to no empathy left, but the students still need 100 percent of the educators’ attention and empathy for their situations. The educators do not want to let down their students, so the cycle of giving what’s left continues. Has this happened to you? Do you feel selfish thinking of your own needs? Do you feel that unreasonable demands are placed on your time? Are you struggling with your work life balance as an educator? If you answered yes, then you may be suffering from compassion fatigue and need SEL for Educators.
What are SEL Practices for Educators?
The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional, Learning (CASEL) defines social-emotional learning (SEL) as the “the process through which children and adults understand and manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships, and make responsible decisions.” The CASEL framework clusters the skills, knowledge and attitudes of SEL into 5 competencies: self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, responsible decision-making, and relationship skills. This framework is mainly used as a guide of the foundational competencies that are necessary for students to develop, but we argue that strengthening these competencies is just as important for educators as it is for students. Transforming Education states that Educator SEL includes:
The competencies adults need in order to “manage stress and create a safe and supportive classroom environment,”
The “skills and mindsets that adults need to effectively embody, teach, model and coach SEL for students” and
The “overall well-being and emotional state of students in school settings.”
Whether the competencies, skills and mindsets are aligned with a particular structured program or are the foundation of simple isolated activities, we believe a system and culture that prioritizes the social and emotional well-being of educators through practical and consistent practice is vital to our students and the present and future of our field.
The Case for Consistent SEL Practices for Educators
Impact on Self-Efficacy When We Focus on What is in Our Circle of Control
Bandura defined the concept of self-efficacy as one’s belief in his or her ability to successfully cope with the challenges, tasks and obligations necessary to execute a plan or bring about a desired outcome. Over the past few years, the challenges and obligations that educators face have magnified and increased. However, the source of the majority of the issues and problems educators must address daily are not within the circle of our control. This has a direct impact on our ability to cope with these challenges. Strengthening our Social-Emotional competencies allows us to self-regulate our emotions and reclaim our agency when issues arise.
Impact on School Culture and Climate
A school’s culture and climate directly impact how a community responds during times of stress and challenge. We believe a school culture that prioritizes social-emotional practices and well-being of all stakeholders, whether it be educators, students or families, produces a climate that increases collective efficacy and positive outcomes. In his book Atomic Habits James Clear argues, “You do not rise to the level of your goals. You fall to the level of your systems. Your system is the collection of daily habits that will get you there.” A system of daily habits that build community and relationships, increase social- and self-awareness, and support responsible decision-making is the key to a positive and healthy climate and culture.
Impact on Culturally Responsive Teaching
Culturally responsive teaching (CRT) is the research-based approach to teaching that connects student’s cultures, language, and life experiences with what they learn in school. As educators use CRT in conjunction with SEL, the connections that students make help connect what they are learning to life experiences they already have. It allows for deeper discussion and reflection. When students and educators feel that their emotions and lives outside of the classroom matter, it allows for the creation of safe, equitable, empowering learning experiences for all.
Impact on Diminishing Sources of Burnout
Many may falsely assume that the burnout and compassion fatigue mentioned earlier in the article are due to the global COVID-19 pandemic with all of its variants. Sadly, the CASEL 2017 survey of 5000 teachers listed their top 5 emotions as frustrated, overwhelmed, stressed, tired and happy with the source of frustration and stress pertained to not feeling supported by their administration, challenges related to meeting all of their student’s learning needs, high-stakes testing an ever changing curriculum and work/life balance.
The Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence studies how emotions drive effective teaching and learning, the decisions educators make, classroom and school climate, and educator well-being. SEL matters for students and educators alike! Emotions matter for five primary reasons:
Emotions matter for attention, memory and learning.
Emotions matter for decision making.
Emotions matter for relationships.
Emotions matter for health & well-being.
Emotions matter for performance.
Educators need administrators, parents, and the community to be sensitive to their needs as they are sensitive to the needs of their students. They desire to come into the school and feel happy, inspired, valued, supported, effective and respected. The space between how educators currently feel and how they want to feel is an opportunity for growth and support.
As educators begin to feel the effects of the support, they will be able to give more of what is needed to their students. Support of educators then leads to students being more engaged. There needs to be a greater focus on health: social, emotional, mental, physical for both the students and adults in the buildings that will bring out the best in them both professionally and personally.
How to Get Started - Practical and Easy Steps for Schools
With all of the information above, you may think that it will be extremely expensive or time consuming to implement SEL practices in school buildings. On the contrary, schools have professional development for teachers already, so they can incorporate SEL practices into this plan. One simple solution would be a professional development on Redefining Boundaries. This cannot just be a professional development session, but this concept must be modeled by the leaders: taking time away from email by only responding during work hours and not expecting responses during non-working hours.
Another opportunity would be adding weekly task lists. With so many due dates, meetings and expectations, it is easy to feel added stress when you miss a deadline or forget you have a meeting until your calendar alert gives you a 15 minute reminder. Creating a weekly task list of due dates and important events that affect all teachers will ease the burden of missing deadlines.
Lastly, give teachers permission to breathe. Whether it is ending an hour-long meeting 5 minutes early or shifting professional development to asynchronous learning, there are opportunities to change the mindset of how things have always been done in education. Encourage teachers to invest 5 minutes of their planning time on themselves. Amy Saltzman, MD developed the PEACE acronym as a part of her Still Quiet Place curriculum. PEACE stands for Pause, Exhale, Acknowledge, Choose, and Engage. As educators go through the steps, they can refocus their minds and practice better work habits.
We need healthy educators with students! This benefits both the educator and the student for the future. Allow the practices of SEL to move from just student centered to educators benefiting from these practices as well. Educators, you do not have to be ok all of the time - but stop pretending you are so that we all can get the SEL support we need and deserve in this profession.