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Social-Emotional Learning in the Classroom

Our Students are Watching: Embracing SEL in the Classroom

Feb 22, 2019 2019-02-22

By Jonathan Juravich

A year ago, I boarded an airplane and took my window seat next to a middle school girl and her mom. We were about to take off and travel the length of the country when I heard delighted laughter coming from my row mates. Of course, I wanted to know what was so funny, so I listened a little closer, which is not hard when you are seated on a crowded airplane.

While they still had Wi-Fi access, they were perusing the daughter’s Instagram account and reflecting on the images of her friends. They made fun of the amount of makeup that one girl wore, the poor clothing choices of another, and commented that one “looks pretty, but she is dead inside.” I was speechless. No, for real, speechless. I wanted to say everything and yet said nothing. I was going to be seated next to these two on a flight for the next few hours. I regret it almost every day. The image of this mom laughing along with her daughter’s callous words has been permanently ingrained in my thoughts.

It is situations like this one that have made me stop and think about the behaviors that I am modeling for my own children and for my students. Social–emotional learning (SEL) has become a topic that is at the forefront of many of my conversations. SEL refers to the act of exploring, understanding, and managing personal emotions and our relationships with others. The critical work of SEL is something that should be a priority in our schools. In fact, recent surveys suggest teachers and education leaders desire the implementation of this type of learning and instruction. However, they are also quick to point out the lack of professional education they have had in this important topic area.

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If you find yourself nodding along with what I just said, here are a few thoughts and ideas that have worked for me and my colleagues. First, sit down with teachers at your building and begin a discussion about what remarkable things are happening at your school. Think about what you take pride in and then go tell others about it! Next, make a list answering this question: what are the challenges you see within your school’s culture? Consider the behaviors and interactions you have witnessed between students and their peers, students and teachers, and even teachers and teachers. Lay it out there and be vulnerable; open dialogue can bring to light situations that have been overlooked.

These conversations can provide teachers with an opportunity to hear from one another about strategies that are working in their classrooms and problems that need to be solved. It is okay to say, “we have a problem,” but it is better to say, “we have a problem, and here is a possible solution.” It is crucial to talk with your students, your family, and your colleagues about the importance of having a sense of awareness.

I have come to define awareness as “a noticing of what is happening in and around you so that you can make a choice.” By noticing our emotions, we can better evaluate when it is appropriate to speak up. We can make better decision in our relationships, like when to help someone in need. Realizations made through having a sense of awareness can lead to feelings and actions of empathy and can make a difference for those around us. When asked what we do with the things we notice, my five-year-old said “we take care of each other.”

I had a sense of awareness when I heard my fellow airline passengers making fun of other young girls, and I stewed over it instead of speaking out. While I regret not speaking up in the moment, this experience has fueled efforts in researching the need for SEL to be purposefully infused into everything we do in schools. These ideas of respect, empathy, and awareness are not frivolous or mushy. They are not soft skills as many like to call them; they are essential in learning what it means to be human. As adults and as teachers, we all must model these behaviors. Our students are watching.

Jonathan Juravich is the 2018 Ohio Teacher of the Year and one of four finalists for National Teacher of the Year. He is currently serving as the Teacher in Residence at the Ohio Department of Education. He is in his 14th year in education as the art educator at Liberty Tree Elementary School in the Olentangy Local School District. As the district Elementary Visual Art Department Chair, he facilitates professional development, advances curriculum, and advocates for arts education best practices. His belief is that by taking advantage of seemingly small moments we can make a big impact for others. Follow Jonathan on Twitter @jjuravich and on Instagram @libertytreeart.

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