This winter, my district called a snow day when it wasn’t really necessary. As a result, teachers ended up having to spend a glorious day of professional development on June 10th. It was our make-up day. A day we otherwise would have been off, sleeping in, and nursing our first hangover of the summer. Instead, we were back at work, after we’d submitted our final grades, painfully attending six morning workshops on 21st century learning and then an afternoon session attributed to Social and Emotional Learning, otherwise known as SEL. You can imagine how excited we all were.
This was a tough year too. I won’t get into all the particulars, but I will say that the morale at my school is at an all-time low, which is pretty bad since our morale hasn’t ever been that good to begin with. Teachers just aren’t feeling supported or appreciated. And we work really hard, so that sucks.
A few of my work friends and I went out for lunch in between sessions and one of my friends asked each of us what was something we would have liked to have been acknowledged for. We each took a turn saying the thing we had worked hard at that year that went completely unrecognized by our administration. At least we had each other.
Then we returned to school for the afternoon session hoping that the time would go by quickly so we could start our well-earned vacations.
I actually was interested in learning more about SEL. After all, I’m expected to teach it now, there are standards for it, but no one has told me how to teach it or trained me in it, so I was eager to hear what our speaker would have to say.
One of the last units I taught this year, I thought, tied in nicely with SEL and my content standards, but was not appreciated by everyone. I started by having my students read, annotate, and respond to an article about a gender-neutral bathroom in the LA Unified School District. The article discussed how students had petitioned to get the bathroom, but then it was protested by a local church and fights broke out as a result. Next, my students performed a close-reading of an essay called “A Clack of Tiny Sparks: Remembrances of a Gay Boyhood.” In this essay, the writer discusses how he struggled to come to terms with his sexuality during his teenage years. Lastly, we watched a TED Talks called “Love, No Matter What.” The speaker, Andrew Solomon, does address homosexuality, but he also talks about the deaf community, dwarfism, those with Down’s Syndrome, and even the parents of the Columbine shooters. The big idea behind his talk is acceptance. My students practiced non-linear note-taking, writing objective group summaries, and answering text-based questions. Everything we were doing tied into Common Core standards, as well as the SEL standards of my district.
Still, I knew that there would most likely be a phone call or an email from a parent who didn’t like what I was doing. And I was correct. I had to have a “parent meeting” which was fine, really. The mom got to say what she felt, and I got to smile and nod. She said she had an uncle who was gay; they liked him and he was allowed to come over to dinner, but they did not approve of his lifestyle. She was concerned that this particular unit took two weeks to teach, but she failed to see that it was only five classes (because we are on block schedule, we only meet every other day.) Her big argument was that two weeks is a long time for a student to come to class every day feeling uncomfortable. Meanwhile…many students spend every day of their lives coming to school feeling uncomfortable, but who was I to knit-pick these points?
Did I mention this mom is also a history teacher? I wondered if she would cut her unit on the Holocaust short if there were Jewish kids in her class, or refrain from teaching about the KKK if she had students bothered by that content.
Aside from this one parent though, none of my students openly complained. Yet a few did write about it in their end-of-year reflection letters to me. There was one student who said homosexuality is tied too closely to religion and since we aren’t supposed to “teach” religion in school, they felt I shouldn’t be “teaching” about homosexuality. I had a few others who expressed their displeasure, but the thing is, for every student who didn’t like it, there were others who were thanking me.
At the end of the year, my students had to write a personal essay on one of their beliefs and also do a presentation on it. I really feel that the unit on acceptance helped them to be a little more tolerant of their peers as they stood in front of the class and talked about things like religion and atheism, self-love and suicide. There were some deep topics addressed and tears were shed. But what touched me the most, was the way that my students listened to and supported one another, even if they didn’t necessarily share the same belief.
Still, I didn’t know if this is what I was supposed to be doing as far as SEL goes. And if it was, how much of this was I expected to do? None of these questions have been answered, and I was hoping that maybe, just maybe, I’d get some clarification at this training.
I didn’t. But that’s not to say it was a total loss.
Firstly, the presenter began by acknowledging that he totally understood where we were at, as teachers, sitting in a training, on the last…..day…..of…..the…..school…..year.
Thank you. I like you already.
He talked about how important it is for students to learn how to give a good handshake, look people in the eye, and introduce themselves—a skill that is being lost in a world where we are always virtually connected, but not always present in. He mentioned the importance of learning how to be active listeners, a skill he claimed was an investment in our relationships. He discussed how students needed to learn how to disagree without being disagreeable, and he used the quote, “If the only tool you have is a hammer, then every problem becomes a nail.” And he stressed how important it was for people to know how to apologize.
Just days prior, I had witnessed this inability to apologize occur not once, but twice, in my classes. The first time was when this girl had borrowed another student’s notes to copy, but despite the lender giving her detailed instructions on where to find him to return the notebook, it was not returned. The lender was annoyed he’d not had his notes, which he needed to prepare for the final. I watched as the borrower offered up, not an apology, but excuses.
The second incident was only a few days later when I had to speak to a student who had turned in plagiarized material for his last essay of the school year. As I addressed this with him in the hall, he tried to explain all the reasons he turned in the web-essay, but he could not seem to utter up the words, “I’m sorry.”
These incidents replayed through my head as our presenter asked how much better our world would be if our students learned just one of those skills. I was reminded of a recent movie I watched. The title character, Ashby, tells the teenage boy he’s befriended to “don’t just say you’re sorry, make amends.” I was reminded how heartfelt apologies had benefitted every relationship I’d ever been in, and times when the lack of one seriously hurt them. And I was reminded of how much time I spend- as a parent- teaching my children when and how to say they are sorry, and why it is important.
As we were pairing up for an activity, a colleague commented how SEL is the job of the parents, but the presenter also said that many families today are missing two healthy parents who are actively rearing their children.
It takes a village to raise a child, and schools today have become the village.
As teachers, we can cross our arms and say “that’s not my job,” but as members of society who witness tragedies occur and who know that mental health issues are not being properly addressed, it is our civic responsibility to do everything we can. If teaching SEL addresses mental health issues, then I’m on board.
“An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”
The presenter reiterated this point time and time again. Social and Emotional Learning is, as he put it, “mental health first aid.” And here’s how: we create our thoughts, which create our emotions. Our emotions create our actions, which create our impact on the world. If we can teach our children to change their thoughts, it will change their emotions, which will change their behavior, which will change the world.
It will change the world.
In the wake of what occurred in Orlando, it makes one think.
While I may not have left that training with the answers I was looking for, I did leave with some confirmation. I am going to continue to teach acceptance in my classroom, even if that means presenting students with texts that showcase the perspectives of people whose beliefs they disagree with, even at the risk of momentary discomfort. I am going to continue to look for teachable moments where I can tell a student: stop making excuses, and say you’re sorry. I’m going to continue treating my students as “my kids” and acting in loco parentis, because unlike my children, they may not be getting the parenting they need at home.
I am willing to be a part of the village so that my own children can live in a world where, hopefully, things like Columbine and Orlando happen less and less.