Advice for Embracing SEL as a New Educator

René Salyer M.Ed, Intervention Specialist, Davis Middle School

As educators, we strive to create the best opportunities for our students. We don’t just want them to succeed within the walls of our classroom or our school, but ultimately, we want them to succeed in every environment. We go well beyond teaching academics and often take on a large load of teaching social, emotional and cognitive capacities as varied as individual responsibility, executive functioning, self-regulation skills, social skills, and communication tactics. As a newer educator, it can feel overwhelming to consider all the different responsibilities we have to best serve the students in our room. It can be even more overwhelming to know that we must ultimately make the decisions that are best for our individual students which can vary widely from the decisions our fellow colleagues may make about the same students.

I want to be vulnerable with each of you because that is how we can learn best from one another. I won’t pretend to have all the answers and I will tell you that there is a lot of trial and error that goes into teaching. I am only in my second year as an intervention specialist, and I find myself seeking help on a regular basis. Learn that vulnerability is a strength. The more times you are willing to ask for help, seek learning opportunities, and navigate through new research, the better teacher you will be for your students.

Asking for Help
My first major piece of advice is to find at least one person you can speak with on a regular basis about teaching, especially in relation to social and emotional learning. The field of SEL has made a huge growth spurt over the last decade which means a lot of us are still in the early phases of learning. The necessity to implement evidence-based SEL in schools–both as a prevention and intervention approach–has only intensified due to the challenges brought on by the pandemic. Don’t feel like this person has to be someone inside your school. Talk with people that you studied with in college, join a teacher organization, jump into a book study, use your LinkedIn, and just be willing to go beyond the means of your building. We all work with phenomenal teachers and I recommend that you definitely take their help–no one knows your school programs and resources better than your colleagues. However, you will find that gaining perspectives from other schools and organizations will lead you to resources you hadn’t considered.

Seeking Learning Opportunities
Now I’m the first to admit that seeking learning opportunities can be intimidating as a newer teacher. Schools tend to send their lead teachers and administrators to conferences, so opportunities for newer teachers to attend are rarer. The reality is that we couldn’t possibly learn everything in college and that is okay. You learned educational philosophy, the basics of instruction and classroom management, and state standards but you probably didn’t get the opportunity to dive deeply into social and emotional learning. Consider the importance of networking early on and jump into the variety of learning opportunities available. Take the time to research what educational conferences exist near you or what virtual professional development is available in your area of need. Two great places to start include SEL4US and CASEL. Each of these nonprofits has a list of upcoming events where you can learn from experts in the field on specific topics. Consider signing up for virtual SEL summits and free professional learning where you can receive recordings to watch later. This will give you the chance to learn about a variety of topics and build a database of resources.

Navigating Research
Research is by far one of the hardest things to navigate as a new teacher. When you are trying to balance all these responsibilities, how do you find time to continue researching best practices? My personal recommendation is to start small. No one has the time to spend hours navigating multiple research journals. Read our quarterly SEL4OH newsletters and check out CASEL’s newsletters (offered weekly, monthly, and quarterly). We also love UC Berkeley’s Greater Good in Education, which aims to translate some of the newest research into practice advice for educators. These resources will give you a glimpse into new research going on in the SEL field and point you towards practical strategies that you can use within your classroom.

Steps to Integrate SEL Right Now
If you take all the steps above, you are going to see growth in your social and emotional teaching. However, I want to leave you with several steps that you can take immediately in your classroom:

1. Step one is to check your knowledge of your students as individuals. It is easy to get caught up in testing, academic skills, and all the paperwork that goes into teaching, but your students ultimately need you to know them and see them as whole human beings with their own challenges and dreams. Write every student’s name down in your class based on memory in no particular order. Then identify the last fifth of the students on the list. The goal of this list is to identify students that could benefit from building a stronger relationship with you. Try to build some more opportunities to intentionally connect with these students. Ask them about their day, check in on their work, give them positive classroom feedback, or call home and let their guardians know how much you enjoy having them in class. These small opportunities can open a connection that will make all the difference when providing social and emotional support later on.

2. A second step to consider is emotional check-ins. These don’t need to be elaborate like you see on teacher Instagram or TikTok. You can have students complete a quick google form or give you a thumbs up/thumbs down. These simple checks can help you determine if your students are ready to learn. Research shows us that students must feel safe and have a sense of belonging to effectively learn. Recognizing your students’ emotions and providing them with even quick opportunities to share with you will allow you to build even more connections.

3. The third step is intentionally integrating SEL skill building opportunities into academic instruction–you can begin with partner and group work. You are an expert when it comes to your students. You know their strengths and their needs both academically and individually. During partner/group work this week, walk around and take notice of skills that your students could build on. Do they need to practice actively listening, demonstrating they empathize with others’ perspectives, or managing their impulses? Prior to having students work with their partners or groups, do a quick check-in to give individual feedback on what you noticed and empower them to build self awareness by asking them to decide on a social and emotional skill to practice during the next partner or group opportunity. If there are common skill areas that need support among your students, you can model these with peers in the classroom. Always be thinking about the embedded social and emotional growth opportunities for students while tackling the academic learning taking place in your room.

Social and emotional skill building is a big undertaking but one that is a substantial area of need for all students. I know it can be overwhelming, but you have the skills and resources to tackle this area. Don’t hesitate to network with experts, ask questions, and show your vulnerability. All of this is going to make you an even better teacher for your students. Thank you for working to make your classroom the space they ultimately need.