Student Well-Being Opinion

Self-Esteem Is Not a Hoax

By Nancy Flanagan — June 29, 2017 3 min read
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Education Week has recently been running a series of articles and op-eds on the uses (and misuses) of social-emotional learning. There are several excellent pieces included, addressing social-emotional learning (SEL) as relevant factor in instructional success, student achievement and diverse school cultures.

SEL seems to be an evergreen topic, morphing from tales of the gradual transformation of the slow, angry, resistant farm boy in the one-room schoolhouse, to current research-supported analyses of a principle good teachers for the past century instinctively recognize: kids learn more when they feel OK about themselves.

It’s far more complicated than that, of course—plenty of kids have turned their parents’ empty praise and endless stream of social capital into totally undeserved adult success. Self-confidence without ethical boundaries is somewhere between useless and dangerous.

Still, any teacher who has sat quietly with the kindergartener who hasn’t spoken aloud in class for her first two months, or communicated solely in writing with the brilliant and pathologically shy 8th grade boy who feels his life is worthless, knows that self-esteem is a real thing, and at the core of any student’s ability to learn and develop as a human being and citizen. These, by the way, are students from my own teaching practice.

Some children come to us emotionally healthy, ready to learn, motivated from home and life experiences that have taught them the world needs their unique contribution. Others, not so much. Teachers cannot magically transform all children who believe they are sub-standard. Besides, there have always been educators who perceive their job as delivering content to the willing and the unwilling, bypassing the question of whose fault it is when students don’t learn.

Emotional connections matter. They make learning more sticky. Think back to your own elementary school experiences—in the classroom, on the playground—or to the college seminar where everyone wanted to appear smart and well-informed. When were you satisfied and proud? When were you humiliated or fearful? Those experiences are memorable because they’re attached to emotions. Your emotions.

Ask anyone about their favorite teacher--nine times out of ten, it was the teacher who went the extra mile, never gave up, and was passionate about her subject discipline. The one who cared, the one who was emotionally committed.

It’s no wonder that SEL—support for taking students’ self-concept and emotional health into consideration—is making a renewed appearance in professional conversation about what constitutes an effective education. We’ve been talking about this, using different lenses and labels, before I began teaching in the mid-70s. Self-esteem. The whole child. Emotional intelligence. The safe environment.

Perhaps all these designations have led to a muddle, confusion over what SEL is and how it looks in practice. In the 1990s, my classroom was featured in the Annenberg Learning Classroom series. A camera crew camped out in the band room for a week, filming classes and interviewing me and my students.

Midway through this (very trying) experience, the director informed me that she wasn’t getting the kinds of footage she wanted: student drama, preferably with tears and/or shouting. Your classroom, she said, is like Mayberry. Everybody’s nice and decent to each other, all the time. How can we illustrate emotional learning when all the kids are so polite?

I explained that it took a long time and lots of effort to establish a classroom atmosphere where students paid attention to each other, and to me, a place where everyone was comfortable enough to work productively, together. That was not her interpretation of “emotion in learning,” however—and perhaps the education community is spinning its wheels, trying to define and measure SEL, when what it amounts to is paying attention to students and their needs.

Chester Finn, resident curmudgeon and conservative pundit, called SEL a “hoax,” an unwarranted return of the idea of self-esteem popular in the 1990s:

Social-emotional learning also smacks of the self-esteem mindset, with entries such as "self-confidence" and "self-efficacy." Dig into social-emotional learning's five core competencies, as laid out by CASEL, and you'll spot—among 25 skills students are supposed to learn--just one feeble mention of ethics and none whatsoever of morality. You won't even find such old-fashioned virtues as integrity, courage, or honesty, and certainly nothing as edgy as patriotism. Social-emotional learning does not seem intended to build character in any traditional sense, nor is it aimed at citizenship. It's awash in the self, steeped in the ability to understand one's own emotions, thoughts, values, strengths, and limitations. All good things, up to a point, but note how far they are from the traditional obligation of schools to impart academic skills and knowledge.

What I’d say to that: The self-esteem egg comes before the integrity, courage and patriotism chicken, not to mention academic skills and knowledge. It’s hard for students to build character and resilience when they have no self-concept. It’s hard for them to learn, when they don’t trust themselves or believe in their own capacity.

The opinions expressed in Teacher in a Strange Land are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.