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Education Q&A

How Teacher-Prep Programs Can Embrace Social-Emotional Learning

By Kate Stoltzfus — June 07, 2017 8 min read
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When Nancy Markowitz founded the Center for Reaching & Teaching the Whole Child nearly a decade ago, her goal was to bring social-emotional-learning skills to more classrooms. To do so, she decided to focus on the people who would have the most power to shape such learning: teachers themselves.

An increasing number of school districts are beginning to integrate social-emotional-learning practices into academics, professional development, teacher evaluations, state standards, and even accountability frameworks. Research has shown that social-emotional learning can be beneficial for students’ academic performance, well-being, and overall success.


But according to Markowitz, there’s a disconnect between this push and the preparation of incoming teachers. A recent report by researchers at the University of British Columbia found that while every state and the District of Columbia includes at least one core area of social-emotional learning for teachers (such as responsible decisionmaking or relationship skills) in teacher-certification requirements, many preparation programs don’t teach strategies for how to understand or teach social-emotional skills.

Markowitz hopes to change that through the work of the center, which helps teachers develop social-emotional-learning skills—for their own benefit as well as their students'—before they enter the classroom. The center was founded at San Jose State University in California in 2009 and now operates independently with support from the San Francisco-based nonprofit Community Initiatives.

Using competencies from the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning, or CASEL—including self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decisionmaking—teachers learn to apply a social-emotional and culturally responsive teaching lens to all aspects of their work. The dimensions are embedded within the regular school curriculum and worked into math, science, social studies, literacy, and classroom-management practices.

A former elementary teacher, K-8 school administrator, university teacher educator, and professor emeritus of elementary education, Markowitz sees a social-emotional-learning pipeline from teacher-preparation program to classroom as critical to the center’s work. One important step is helping to make sure the goals of teachers’ preservice program align with their school district’s induction program and extend through professional development, with all leaders in a district making it a priority to include social-emotional learning as a fluid aspect of learning and teaching.

The center has been testing its strategies and practices with San Jose State University’s teacher-preparation program and surrounding school districts for the past nine years. The Sunnyvale School District in Sunnyvale, Calif., which was already implementing a districtwide initiative around social-emotional learning, is currently the center’s “lab district.” The school system’s educators are helping to field research and study the impact of an SEL-focused teacher-prep program on new and cooperating teachers, as well as their students.

This year, the center is expanding its push for social-emotional learning to five university teacher-prep programs in California, Massachusetts, and Ohio. Education Week Teacher recently spoke to Markowitz about her work. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

There is some concern that the push for social-emotional learning adds too much to teachers’ plates. Most educators are already juggling responsibilities to meet academic requirements with limited time and resources. How can they add the flexibility that social-emotional learning requires to lessons when districts require them to teach in specific ways?

There are lots of social-emotional-learning programs out there, and CASEL has evaluated a lot of them, and there are many that can be quite helpful. But having been in the field for over 40 years, we just can’t keep doing add-ons. [Teachers are] rightly concerned that anything they should be asked to do needs to be appropriately integrated into their instructional practice.

It’s just a fact that you can’t ask kids to go up to the board and explain how they get a problem in front of their class if they don’t have the self-awareness and self-management skills to be able to do that. If you don’t have a safe learning environment that you have very explicitly developed by talking with the kids about how their brain works, by talking about what a growth mindset is and how you really foster that in the classroom, by providing informative feedback that is explicit, you can’t achieve the Common Core State Standards. It needs to be deeply woven into the way in which we teach content and the way in which we organize and run the classroom and learning environment. It’s got to be a part of the way teachers are prepared and the way in which they engage in their practice.

According to a recent report, there aren’t many teacher-preparation programs that provide adequate training around social-emotional learning, even though most states include some of these competencies in teacher-certification requirements. What does the center’s SEL lens for teacher preparation look like?

We pursue our work by viewing the use of a social-emotional learning and culturally responsive teaching lens as an umbrella for many areas that we believe are sometimes used as a synonym for SEL—mindfulness practices, growth mindset, resiliency, and perseverance. What we did at San Jose State University was look across all the courses—math methods, literacy methods, classroom management, science—and see where we address these competencies. Our first goal was that teacher-candidates would leave the program understanding that attention to SEL skills is important and have some idea of how to go about integrating it in the content they were teaching and the way they set up their learning environment.

In the math-methods course, one of the things the professor realized is that [teacher-candidates] often come in and already have a negative mindset about math. She asked the candidates, when they were about to do a word problem that was tough, “What is your reaction to it? How does this problem make you feel?” She found, with both teacher-candidates and children, that she would have a range of responses. She was then able to say, “Let’s step back here. How do we need to be talking to ourselves about it?”

Here you have a math-methods teacher who is not teaching an SEL curriculum, but she is taking an SEL lens to the math curriculum—acknowledging that there is an emotional and social component to it. When you’re allowed to acknowledge that these emotions are there and they’re OK, it makes a huge difference. In math, as well as in literacy, children are expected to talk about their responses, to justify them, to respond to other people and do it publicly. If you want kids to succeed at taking risks, they must have a sense of the classroom environment being safe.

Social-emotional learning has been shown to improve students’ academic achievement, determination, and resilience. But your work to incorporate SEL competencies into teacher-prep programs focuses on teacher well-being, too. How is using a social-emotional lens to guide all aspects of teaching personally beneficial to teachers, not only during teacher preparation, but as teachers move into careers?

We’ve seen teachers become more resilient. They have another set of strategies to work with kids in the classroom around difficult content or behavior issues. They find out that there are kids in the class who need assistance who weren’t even on their radar. Teachers go into the field because they want to make a difference to kids and teach the whole child, want to help them thrive and do well in the world, and it is often difficult to do that because there is so much emphasis on academic scores. What this work has done is bring the humanness back to the instructional practice in teaching. Teachers are acknowledged for how challenging it is to be a teacher, that their social-emotional well-being is as important as their students’ if everyone is to succeed and thrive. If you’re promoting that kind of environment, teachers are going to feel like they’re more successful, and they’re going to have more of a positive impact on their students.

How can other teacher-preparation programs integrate these practices successfully?

We encourage teacher-preparation programs to develop or use tools that foster discussion and growth of social-emotional-learning skills of the teacher-candidates, but not assessment of these skills. Programs want to look at all the moving parts: what the university faculty do in a class, what the university supervisors do in their field seminars and when they’re visiting out in the field, and what the cooperating teachers who host student-teachers are doing. A teacher-preparation program needs to attend to all of these stakeholders and figure out if they are all on the same page. Are we all using the same language, are we all looking at the same competencies, and are we sure we are addressing the competencies across the program? And in addressing them, are we modeling, providing practice, and providing feedback to the student-teachers?

The teacher-candidates need a lot of practice in seeing what it looks like in math, literacy, science, classroom management, across the whole school day. It can’t just be at the university, because if student-teachers are going out in the field, and their cooperating teachers are not on the same page, don’t know the same language, and are not modeling the strategies, it’s not going to work. Then, they need to be hired into a school system that also supports SEL. It’s a pipeline, and if anywhere in the professional-development pipeline there’s a leak, there’s going to be a problem. It’s not something that should be done in a one-shot workshop.

Photo provided by author.

Coverage of social and emotional learning is supported in part by a grant from the NoVo Foundation. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.


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