Rethinking How Students Succeed” underscores the reasons why we at New Teacher Center (NTC) emphasize noncognitive factors in our mentoring program for educators. In our view, social and emotional learning (SEL) is an essential building block for a positive environment in which teachers and students can thrive. But beginning teachers—while they have an incredible amount of energy and desire to be great in the classroom—often lack the perspective and experience to spot opportunities to foster rigorous academic instruction using SEL.

Several months ago, our SEL team conducted a series of focus groups to identify the most frequent “missed opportunities.” Here are the top five they found, along with ways that teachers have learned to apply SEL to great advantage.

1. Meeting Students Where They Are

Knowing students across multiple dimensions—such as language, culture, interests, and individual preferences, in addition to academic skills—enables teachers to be more effective in building successful relationships and meeting the learning, social, and emotional needs of their students.

In her first year teaching science at a rust-belt high school, Sarah had a lot of football players in her classes. To meet those students “where they are,” she decided to start going to their football games every Friday. “I was sitting next to kids’ families,” she told us. “If there was a way I could say ‘hi’ to the kids that I taught, I did. They knew that I was interested in what they were doing. They knew that I was going to be sitting next to their mom on Friday, so if they didn’t do what they were supposed to do, there was going to be trouble. And they knew that I cared. That was huge. Huge! And that kind of helped me get the critical mass of the kids to be on board.”

2. Shaping Classroom Culture

“Culture,” in the classroom, is an intangible force that influences the way students behave, as well as their expectations of others’ behavior and the value that they are getting out of the time they spend at school. To shape the culture in her classroom, Cata, a veteran teacher, prioritized an attitude of respect for the voices, opinions, and experiences of her largely poor and minority high school students. “For every single thing we've done, they’ve given input,” she said. “They’re not graded on attendance, for example, but they are graded on participation, since we need them for the knowledge that they bring and the common knowledge that we’re building together. I try to give them as much choice as possible. They also choose things that they consider appropriate for the classroom in terms of procedures. These are things that I think are important for them.”

3. Addressing Special Needs

Every student (and adult) has different learning strengths and needs. It is important that teachers understand the complexity of learning, and that attention, memory, language, higher order cognition, spatial and temporal-sequential ordering, social and emotional, and neuromotor skills all play a role in learning.

A mentor in a Chicago public school comments: “Learning about the neurodevelopmental constructs has given me another lens to view and reflect on how we learn, work, and get along with others. During my beginning teacher meetings, I am consistently finding myself using the language and thinking back to what we learned about the constructs and functions—how they affect behavior, the impact of leveraging strengths and affinities and connecting them to the curriculum, and, simply, how important it is for teachers to know the students they are teaching. The teachers I share this new learning with are really interested in knowing more about the constructs and have really been open to exploring this new perspective.”

4. Navigating School Cultures

Faye learned how to apply SEL to navigate school cultures in her first year at a high-poverty urban middle school by turning to her peers. “I walked around in my school and listened to what other teachers were doing,” she said. She knew that she needed help, but the school provided no mentoring. Eventually, another teacher of color advised Faye to draw on her cultural connection with her students to build rapport. It worked. “Instead of asking students in English to be quiet, sometimes I would talk to them in Spanish. And immediately they would listen. My classroom management just became completely different.”

5. Engaging in Communal Learning

When students collaborate with one another, there’s a great opportunity for them to feel more invested in the educational process, and in each other’s progress. Ron is a veteran math teacher who is committed to helping his urban ninth graders understand growth mindsets—the belief that their most basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work. In small groups, students wrestle with growth mindset questions. Ron then allows each small group to ask two questions of the larger group “so they have to be the best, most challenging questions.”

“That forces them to collaborate,” he explained, “and usually as a group, they can figure out what the next step would be. We love groups’ questions, and we love questions that answer our questions.” The practice reinforces the fact that the class is about “communal learning,” Ron told us. “We’re expected to struggle.”

Not surprisingly, our focus group also identified several situations in which schools can leverage SEL to help teachers with their own personal development. Their top finding: SEL can help teachers cope with the isolation of teaching and fear of letting on that things are tough. As Steve, the principal of a 6–12- grade school in a working-class city, explained, “We work with the new teachers to create a cohort model. I think that’s just really, really critical. They need to know that they’re not alone.” The day he spoke with us, he had gathered new teachers in a circle, inviting them to share what was going well. In the process, he said, “The things that weren’t going well leaked out. And they all said that ‘it just felt good to know that I wasn’t the only one having this problem.’”

Each of these educators’ stories bears witness to the power and effectiveness of integrating social and emotional learning into the work of teachers and students.

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