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October 1, 2018
Vol. 76
No. 2

Boosting SEL in K–12's "Ivory Towers"

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Social-emotional learning
Instructional Strategies
The superintendent's leadership team for the district where I was working had just finished its Monday morning meeting. One member of that team stopped as he passed by my cubicle to view the large poster I'd recently hung up. It displayed a list of seven civic dispositions being taught to 3rd and 4th graders in a new curriculum that the district was using and that I was responsible for evaluating. These civic dispositions included things like compassion, promoting the common good, and open-mindedness. With a shake of his head, he said, "If our team could only follow these principles, this district would look a lot different." 
Although this interaction happened years ago, having spent a lot of time working inside two K–12 "ivory towers," I'm now even more convinced that his assessment was spot-on. By "ivory towers," I mean district-, state-, and federal-level departments of education; boards of education; and administration and faculty in colleges of education—any entity in which high-level education initiatives and changes are dreamed up and policy recommendations made or enforced. 
Like everyone in education, I'm aware of the growing interest in K–12 schools in implementing approaches that support the positive development and nurturing of children as whole human beings, approaches like social-emotional learning, mindfulness, project-based learning, restorative practices, and trauma-informed practices. But I ponder the irony that there's no entity responsible for ensuring that federal, state, and district education leaders—the policy creators, decision makers, and compliance officers—possess the dispositions to support sound, empathetic decision making or that they are grounded in the realities they're responsible for supporting. Checks into certifications, degrees, non-criminal background—yes. Checks into social-emotional intelligence and skills, compassion, and connection—no. 
Needed: Social Awareness 
All people, regardless of position, should continually reflect on the five competencies of social-emotional "health" that the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) has identified: self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision making. These competencies are inherently interdependent, and each is essential in its own right. However, there is one key social-emotional competency that I believe leaders and staff in district, state, and federal education departments especially have a duty to nurture: social awareness. 
The skills and attitudes under the social awareness umbrella in CASEL's framework are perspective taking, empathy, appreciating diversity, and respect for others. Why are these skills particularly critical for leadership and staff who direct education decisions and procedures from outside school walls? To answer, let's first consider how "ivory tower" is commonly defined—that is, as "a place or situation removed from worldly or practical affairs," according to It's fair to say that many district, state, and federal administration staff are removed from close contact with the "practical affairs" of K–12 schools. Such officials face a whirlwind of daily affairs and accompanying pressures, but these pressures are different than the realities adults and students in schools face. 
Some folks in these "towers" have never actually worked in a school—or with youth at all. Even the many staff members and leaders of education departments who have spent considerable time working at the school level, are currently at a distance from school life in both time (many worked in schools a long time ago) and space (their positions require many hours in offices, few inside schools). It doesn't take long to become disconnected from realities on the ground. When most of our time is spent in meeting rooms with other adults discussing policies, managing organizational matters, and reviewing data, it's easy for our thinking about students, teachers, and schools to become far too abstract. 
I've found this to be true for myself in my current position as a program consultant in the Kentucky Department of Education. The fact of the matter is, people in positions like mine aren't face-to-face with our young people or the teachers that teach them. We don't look into young people's eyes every day. Not the ones beaming with pride at a completed project, nor the ones full of rage at a world they feel is against them, nor those full of tears because they lost their parent to addiction or incarceration. This lack of contact can get in the way of our ability to truly empathize with students, to take their perspective—or even to understand the true complexity, diversity, and resiliency in K–12 schools. It's also true that the racial and socio-economic backgrounds of those of us in the ivory tower often differs significantly from the demographics of the students and families we serve. 
But teachers, counselors, and other staff, particularly those who work in high-poverty schools, do look into these hurting eyes day after day—while facing down countless top-down and high-stakes mandates. School staffs' stress and vicarious trauma have painful consequences for themselves, their students, and ultimately the system as a whole. We need to empathize with them, too. 
Proximity and Emotion 
To gain fuller awareness of the adults and children our work affects, we need to spend quality time on their turf. As Bryan Stevenson asserts, "proximity," just being around the people affected by an issue, is crucial to understanding their needs and suffering. Stevenson believes, "You cannot be an effective problem solver from a distance."  By getting into schools more, we'll see essential nuances related to the problems teachers and students face. But we must be willing to be uncomfortable. 
We also must be willing to feel more deeply. Psychological research tells us that people need to experience feelings about something if they are to take meaningful action on it. Without any compelling emotion to direct our behavior, we just aren't sufficiently stimulated to do much.  
Nourishing Our Social Awareness 
Those of us in K–12 ivory towers must embed within our organizational structures actions and approaches that will help us maintain a connection to people and realities "on the ground." Such contact should be an expectation, part of our work beyond mid-year school walkthroughs or meetings with principals. To nourish both social awareness and self-awareness in our roles as administrators and policy makers, we might: 
  • Mentor a student. This will provide frequent interactions with students, staff, and teachers and spur emotion about school realities. In my quest to stay connected while in a district office, I mentored one student from 3rd to 8th grade (until she left the state). This mentoring started through a formal, weekly reading mentoring program called Every1Reads. As I watched Tracy (not her real name)—who lived in extreme poverty, move in and out of eight different schools, deal with evictions, homelessness, and parental addiction—get suspended from school countless times, my work with school discipline data took on an even greater sense of urgency. The monthly data reports on suspensions in the district that I analyzed for leadership came to represent far more than numbers to me. As I recognized that the students with the most excruciating home lives were those most likely to be pushed out, this data came to represent inexcusable systematic exclusion of students who need us the most.  I saw that we must have the courage to engage with both the pain and strength of our youth, for their sake and ours. 
  • Establish a substitute staffing program. Let's ensure that we spend at least 10 entire school days of each school year in the shoes of a school staff member. State and district office staff could regularly substitute in such roles as a teacher, janitor, in-school suspension teacher, or cafeteria worker (not in an evaluative capacity but as a learner and support to the school). Many districts face substitute teacher shortages, and putting ourselves in the shoes of those who work in schools will only enhance our decision making back in the office, so this approach is mutually beneficial. It will require protocols and logistical work, but the benefits would outweigh any costs. At a minimum, we can participate in the one-day challenge to shadow a student that School Retool sponsors annually, or similar efforts. 
  • Learn together. Make it an intentional part of the district, state, and federal office culture to explore the real-world challenges our students and teachers face. This can include facilitating quarterly dialogues with students, families, teachers, and community members on their turf—honest forums where we should expect to be uncomfortable, not "stakeholder" meetings where they come to us. Within the ivory tower structure, we can do organizational studies or "lunch and learns," perhaps centered around documentary-style films that show the kind of trauma many youth now experience. (For instance, good resources include the "ReMoved" series of videos about foster youth) and a video developed by KPJR Films that presents research on the effects of adverse childhood experiences. 
  • Use mixed methods. Mixed methodology—the combination of qualitative and quantitative information—provides the best picture of any problem under study. The quantitative (numbers) tells us the what and assumes a fixed, measurable reality. The qualitative (descriptive words and texts) tells us the why and assumes a dynamic, negotiated reality. Drowning in numbers, such as endless spreadsheets of achievement, attendance, and behavior data, is the quickest way to make a human problem abstract. When analyzing or reporting data, we should intentionally include qualitative information where possible—gathered through focus groups, open-ended surveys, or interviews. Let's always remember that each number represents a precious human being. 
Increasing our social-awareness capacities by connecting with what's really going on in schools day-to-day and in the living, breathing lives of students and staff can support transformation for those of us working in education's ivory tower, especially if we simultaneously strive to boost our self-awareness. For me, staying connected with the pain and struggle of another inevitably forced me to confront my own (repressed) pain from childhood trauma and explore how it manifested in my daily interactions with colleagues. It also led me to commit to the study and practice of mindfulness and heartfulness—remaining fully present in meetings and listening with my whole being, taking long deep breaths and finding stillness instead of blowing up in anger at another, and remembering to have an attitude of gratitude instead of judgement and self-righteousness. This work of self-awareness is a moment-to-moment commitment. As Einstein said, "No problem can be solved through the same level of consciousness that created it." 
End Notes

1  Fernandez, L. (2016, April 21). Empathy and social justice: The power of proximity in improvement science. [blog post]. Carnegie Commons Blog. Retrieved from

2  Seltzer, P. (2016, April 27). "The curse of apathy: Sources and solutions." [blog post]. Psychology Today. Retrieved from

3  Recent data from the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights, as discussed in this Washington Post article, affirms that students who live in poverty and minority students are more likely to receive harsh discipline like suspension.

 Judi Vanderhaar is a program consultant in the Division of Student Success in the Kentucky Department of Education. She previously conducted research and evaluation in Jefferson County Public Schools in Louisville, Kentucky.

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