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October 1, 2018
Vol. 76
No. 2

Leading Together / SEL for Adults

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Social-emotional learning
Professional Learning
Consider a common scenario: When the Blue Elementary School's team of administrators reviewed year-end data to reflect on how to take the school to the next level, they identified social-emotional learning (SEL) as a priority for the coming year. Based on this priority, they arranged for four teacher-led professional learning sessions throughout the fall and provided opportunities for peer observation so that teachers could learn from and support each other.
The professional learning sessions were held in teachers' classrooms, and Ms. Azul was first to host. As teachers gathered in her room, she overheard one teacher whispering to another that the session would be a waste of time. Two others expressed concern about whether the peer observations would be mandatory. Once the session had begun, she noticed that several teachers who she knew to have strong SEL practices were quiet, while those teachers who were eager participants talked over others. Some participants eventually withdrew into their laptops and busied themselves with checking email, correcting papers, and sending texts.
Ms. Azul looked around her classroom at the anchor charts she had posted to remind students of strategies for self-management and consideration of others; the graphic organizers that students used to explore the relationship between feelings, thoughts, and behaviors; and the various tools and protocols used to support turn-taking, communication, and cooperation. These skills and strategies would benefit us as teachers, she thought.
The school's principal, who was also in the room, had made a similar observation. In reflecting on the session, she recognized that she had been expecting teachers to learn and adopt new SEL strategies for students, while their own social-emotional needs were being ignored. The teachers had strong feelings—from apathy to enthusiasm to anxiety—about the new initiative and many were having a hard time managing those feelings. They did not yet have the relationships or routines that might help them to see each other as resources who could help build confidence as they experimented with new practices. And, since they had not agreed upon norms for communication and behavior, they were starting to get on each other's nerves.

Working Together

So how do schools create a strong schoolwide SEL climate for adults? It's not something that can be mandated by the principal or initiated by an individual teacher. Teacher leaders and administrators must team up to promote this kind of cultural change. While administrators have the positional authority to communicate SEL development as a priority and protect time and space to advance that priority, teacher leaders know what their colleagues are thinking and feeling, and they often have the social capital to galvanize collective buy-in. Working together as partners in school leadership, teacher leaders and administrators can maximize their complementary perspectives to the benefit of their schools.
There are numerous ways teacher leaders and principals can work together as partners to strengthen the SEL climate for adults in their schools. Here are three ideas to get started.
1. Establish relationship-building routines. Social-emotional learning, like all learning, requires risk-taking. It requires us to be willing to make ourselves vulnerable. Unfortunately, adults have lots of baggage—prior personal or professional experiences, biases, beliefs, and fears—that lead us to keep our guard up and make us less predisposed to trust than our students might be. As adults, if we don't want to engage, we don't have to.
To create readiness for risk-taking, teacher leaders and administrators can create routines that set faculty members up to have positive interactions that, over time, give them reason to believe it's worth engaging with each other. They can begin with icebreakers that allow members to learn of each other's personal strengths, preferences, and work styles. Next, they can encourage staff members to open up a bit by sharing pet peeves and favorite self-regulation strategies, for example. Over time, they can move to higher-stakes conversations guided by protocols to unpack the emotionally charged work of teaching and learning. Each interaction is an opportunity for colleagues to strengthen mutual respect and personal regard, to build confidence in each other as allies, and to create the sense of psychological safety they need to engage in adult learning.
2. Design for collaboration. The more we work together, the more we learn about each other's strengths, perspectives, values, and the ways in which we might each be resources for one another's learning. Unfortunately, the way teachers' work is traditionally organized makes meaningful collaboration challenging. Teachers often have limited opportunities to work with one another—and times they do have are sometimes poorly thought through or inadequately supported. As a result, many teachers have developed a go-it-alone attitude that can make them wary of collaboration.
In classrooms designed to support students' social-emotional learning, students know their roles within their team, they know where to secure the materials they need to complete a project, and they know what the options are for resolving conflicts. To strengthen the SEL climate for adults, teacher leaders and principals can look to such classrooms for inspiration and adopt routines for turn taking, communication, and cooperation. The process of cocreating clear norms and transparent collaborative work processes is a positive team-building experience, and the resulting routines empower all participants to feel they can contribute.
3. Engage each other as resources in problem solving. Teaching is complex work that requires fast and frequent decision making for problems that don't always have clear solutions. Unfortunately, educators are often left to make these important decisions alone. We use our professional knowledge to make our best guess and move on to the next decision, even though the many professionals surrounding us may have relevant knowledge that could have been brought to bear.
A better solution is to create space and time to engage in collaborative problem solving around key schoolwide issues, using protocols that engage team members in generating multiple perspectives, exploring hypothetical outcomes of possible solutions, and resolving decisions in a way that allows everyone with relevant knowledge to contribute. There won't be time to take up every decision in this deliberate manner, but choosing certain issues to take slowly—by engaging in exploration and conjecture, speaking and listening, and taking part in discourse and debate—can strengthen educators' estimations of one another's competence and integrity and produce higher quality decisions for which there is truly shared responsibility.

Foundation First

When schools establish a strong social-emotional climate among adults, the benefits are clear. Recent studies have found that in schools where faculty members collaborate and develop strong communication and trust, teachers are not only more likely to learn from each other and stay in the profession, but they are also able to boost student performance.Teacher leaders and principals can lay the foundation by working together to establish relationship-building routines, design for productive collaboration, and engage educators in shared problem solving. As leaders with complementary perspectives of their school, they can best accomplish this together. Tapping into educators' passions and talents to foster productive relationships serves both adults and children well.
End Notes

1 Quintero, E. (Ed.). (2017). Teaching in context: The social side of education reform. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press.

Jill Harrison Berg is a leadership coach, school improvement consultant, researcher, and writer committed to supporting education leaders to recognize and maximize the critical role of teacher leadership in ensuring instructional equity.

Berg is an educator of leaders at all levels. She began her career in the classroom, teaching students to be leaders who take ownership of their own learning and are a positive influence on others, then moved into supporting teachers and other education leaders to do the same. Berg earned her doctorate at Harvard’s GSE while working as a researcher with the Project on the Next Generation of Teachers. She was one of the first teachers in Massachusetts to become a National Board Certified Teacher.

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