Podcast: Teachers Building Students' SEL Skills - Steve Barkley

Podcast: Teachers Building Students’ SEL Skills

Teachers Building Students' SEL Skills

The author of “Teaching with the HEART in Mind,”  Dr. Lorea Martínez, who was a special education teacher and school administrator and worked with children and adults internationally, provides reinforcement for the value of purposefully planning for embedding SEL skills in the classroom, beyond teaching the SEL curriculum. She guides educators to provide the necessary resources and structures to support teachers’ social and emotional capacity; and go beyond the SEL curriculum to include the conditions that make learning and growth possible for all students.

Read “3 Misconceptions about SEL” here.

Contact Lorea and find her resources here.

Watch Lorea’s video on Teacher Stress here.

Subscribe to the Steve Barkley Ponders Out Loud podcast on iTunes or visit BarkleyPD.com to find new episodes!

Podcast Transcript:

[00:00:00.970] – Steve [Intro]

Hello and welcome to the Teacher Edition of Steve Barkley Ponders Out Loud. The complexity of teaching is both challenging and rewarding, and my curiosity has peaked whenever I explore with teachers the multiple pathways for facilitating student engagement in the exciting world of learning. This podcast looks to serve teachers as they motivate and support their learners. Thanks for listening. I’m delighted that you’re here.

[00:00:38.010] – Steve

Teachers Building Students’ SEL Skills. The author of Teaching with the Heart and Mind is joining our podcast today. Dr. Lorea Martínez was a special education teacher and school administrator who has worked with children and adults internationally. She has conducted extensive research in the SEL field with focus on SEL implementation. She works with principles, emotional intelligence, teacher preparation, and school climate. She frequently blogs about how to incorporate SEL in teaching practices, leadership, and parenting. Welcome, Maria.

[00:01:19.770] – Lorea

Hi, Steve. Thank you for having me.

[00:01:22.140] – Steve

I’m wondering if you’d share how your teaching experiences in special education built towards your work with SEL.

[00:01:30.930] – Lorea

Yeah. So about, I would say maybe 14 years ago, I was coaching principals to look at student achievement data in order to increase academic results. And as I was sitting there with these principles, I realized that there was a set of skills that we were missing in order to really support students to do their best work and at the same time, increase academic results. And having my background in special education, I remember that my students, of course, they needed help with their academic fluency, and they needed to review their reading comprehension skills and their fractions, but the place where they got stuck the most, it was with their emotions. Sometimes they were completely overwhelmed because they had so much work to do, they didn’t know where to start, or they felt different in the classroom because they were neurodiverse and they had a different way of processing information. Sometimes they had a hard time making friendships or keeping friendships. So as I was coaching these principles, I said, wait a minute, we are missing a set of skills. And that’s how I came to the field of social-emotional learning. And I can tell you that at the time, I didn’t even know there was a field called the SEL, but I had that intuition that something else needed to be out there that defined these things that I knew I had taught my students without knowing that that was social-emotional learning.

[00:03:10.670] – Lorea

And once I found the field of SEL, it was so joyful because I truly found my life’s work. And for the last 10 years, I’ve been solely focused on supporting teachers and schools with social emotional learning. And I’ve seen the impact that this work can have on students and adults so I’m glad that I’m able to share it with everybody.

[00:03:38.330] – Steve

So in your earliest work, when you didn’t know what it was that you were doing, is that fair to say, was that focused on your survival and your student success?

[00:03:50.630] – Lorea

It was interesting because at the time, I was also working on my doctoral dissertation, and I was trying to find what were the concepts that really defined this work. And I remember submitting my master’s thesis, and I think I called it at the time, “personal skills.” That’s the best that I could come up with. And one of my advisors said, You know what? I know what you mean, but that’s not the concept. You need to do a little more research, which I did for then my doctoral dissertation. And that’s how I found later on that it was actually there was a field and they were researchers, but I did not have the name of what it was.

[00:04:36.730] – Steve

You recognized that your students needed those skills in order for you to do the other parts of teaching that you were being requested to do.

[00:04:47.030] – Lorea

Exactly. And it was as a special education teacher, you really spend, I would say, quite a bit of time helping kids to cope with what it means to be a neurodiverse student in a general education setting. So a lot of that work today, I think that it is being called by, you might say, social skills or coping skills. But when I was in school, really, we didn’t have the right language to define these skills. It was something that I think it came naturally to special ed teachers that we did because we knew that it was such an important part for students in order to be successful in the classroom.

[00:05:33.170] – Steve

I’m wondering if you could give us a starter definition for what it means for a teacher to have an SEL focus within her classroom.

[00:05:45.580] – Lorea

Yes. So I would say there are two aspects of how you might look at social-emotional learning when you are in the classroom. One is looking at the individual skill level. So really paying attention to your students and thinking about how they are practicing or applying social-emotional skills. And those skills go from being able to name your emotions, to have skills, to manage a conflict, to be able to apply empathy, to make good decisions. So paying attention to what’s the skill level that your students have in your classroom. So that’s one aspect of it. But the other aspect is really thinking about what are the conditions that you are creating for students to be successful? And that entails looking at what’s the teaching practices that you have and how are you connecting those to the skills that your students have or don’t have? And I’ll give you an example. Many times, we ask students to do a pair-share or work in groups in order to solve a problem or do a science project. And we do a really good job with prepping students for the academic needs of that exercise. But we don’t do a lot of work prepping students for the social aspect of working in a group.

[00:07:20.110] – Lorea

And students also need to be taught explicitly how to have an academic disagreement with another student or what to do when they are feeling frustrated because there’s a classmate that took the lead on the project and they are not leaving any space for anybody else to have an opinion or to bring up an idea. So when we do this work intentionally in SEL, we are also helping students to be able to almost fully participate in the classroom experience you create for them because you are also helping them not not only with the academic fluency that they need, but also with the social-emotional skills they need in order to, again, fully participate and engage in the activities and the pedagogy that you are presenting to them.

[00:08:15.740] – Steve

So the SEL skill allows them to maximize their engagement in the academic activity and then to be able to gain the academic at the same time.

[00:08:30.140] – Lorea

Exactly. And that’s why one of the false dichotomies is that we often hear is that when you are teaching SEL, you are wasting time because you need to be focused on really teaching the state standards. And that false dichotomy is  because when you are teaching those SEL skills to students, you said you are maximizing engagement, you are maximizing the student’s ability to actually learn that content in meaningful ways. Some of the things that I love teaching to educators is what are the pieces, what are the nuggets that we know from effective neuroscience? And one of them is the important role that emotions play in learning. So I think that when teachers realize, wow, if my students are not emotionally connected to the content, actually, they are not able to learn in meaningful ways, I think that it changes the paradigm where we actually want to bring emotion into the classroom, we want our students to have that emotional connection to what we are teaching because we know that then learning can be more engaging, more meaningful, and also more self-driven because it’s relevant to them at a personal level.

[00:09:54.740] – Steve

So I read a blog that you wrote about misconceptions that exist based around SEL focus in classrooms. I pulled a couple of statements out that caught my attention. I’d like to give those to you and just let you respond to them. The first one I pulled was, SEL needs to be focused on creating a rich environment for connecting, sharing, and learning, not only compliance.

[00:10:23.610] – Lorea

Yes. Sometimes SEL is seen as being able to get students to stay still and be quiet. And that’s not how learning happens. Maybe, I don’t know, 40 years ago, people thought that that’s how it happened today. Based on research, we know that that’s not the case. Learning is a social process. So we need to be talking about the things we learn. We need to be sharing and reflecting. So when we see SEL only as compliance, we are really limiting the benefits of SEL because all you are going to do is get students to follow directions. And I can tell you that, yes, that is a benefit of social emotional learning, but that’s a small piece. I think that if you are really embedding SEL in your classroom, you are planting the seeds for students to be self-motivated, to be engaged with the content, and to be active participants in their own learning process, not only being able to follow directions.

[00:11:50.600] – Steve

Next one that I pulled – teachers need time and space to develop their own social and emotional capacity.

[00:11:58.540] – Lorea

Yes. So I would say that the first few years of SEL being implemented in some of the largest urban school districts in the US, they skipped the teacher. They went straight to the student. And that was okay, right? Sometimes in education, we have that sense of urgency. But what these districts realized is that teachers needed to develop their own social-emotional skills. First, because they are models for the students, we know that we teach so much with our behavior much more than with the things that we say or when we are intentionally teaching a lesson, is when we are walking in the hallway and maybe not looking at students, not making eye contact, not saying hi to the office manager. That’s what students see, and that’s what they are learning from. So I think there needs to be a space where educators can reflect on, how am I showing up as a teacher for my students, both when I’m teaching, but also when I’m not teaching. How am I showing up? And then the other aspect is that we don’t know how to teach SEL just because. There is a pedagogy of SEL the same way that you have methods for math and methods in the science of reading.

[00:13:33.290] – Lorea

There are certain best practices around how we teach SEL that teachers need to know and practice and be comfortable with it in order to teach SEL effectively. That’s what I mean when I say teachers need the time and space to develop their own social emotional capacity.

[00:13:53.310] – Steve

When I first read that, I know that I’ve been facilitating teacher professional learning communities where I needed to stop and teach the SEL skills before we could get on with the other work that it was that we were trying to do, just the way back in a classroom, I ran into the same issue with students.

[00:14:18.580] – Lorea

Absolutely. And the thing is that there is an aspect of this work that needs to be very explicit, right? And for us as adults, unless you went to a school when you were a kid where you learned SEL, we have learned these skills by trial and error. So there’s a piece of the social emotional capacity of the adults that also opens the door for growth as educators in these skills. We do have certain universities that are embedding these skills in their teaching credentials, but many teachers don’t arrive in the classroom with an understanding of what SEL is or how they practice these skills in their own lives. So if that doesn’t happen there, it needs to happen in our schools and districts.

[00:15:13.650] – Steve

And the last one that I pulled, SEL requires teacher intentionality beyond any SEL curriculum.

[00:15:22.220] – Lorea

Yes. So sometimes SEL is seen as the the booklet or the curriculum, off the self curriculum that you can pull, you teach your lessons, you follow the script, and you are done. But the reality is that no curriculum is going to be able to see the students that you have in your classroom. The curriculum doesn’t know that Paul is dealing with their parents getting divorced, where somebody else is dealing with maybe financial uncertainty in their household. So SEL needs to be really connected to the challenges, the issues that your students in your class are dealing with. Because if it’s something abstract that you are teaching out of context, it doesn’t really help students to see SEL as life skills. These SEL skills are not a destination on their own, like something that you teach and then you put a check on the checklist. These are skills that help us deal with challenges in our lives and also to be the people that we want to be. So really needs to be contextualized, it needs to be differentiated, and it needs to deal with the real issues that your students are facing.

[00:16:47.880] – Steve

I’m wondering if you would have some recommendations for teachers who might be working in a school that doesn’t have a SEL program or SEL curriculum, in other words, the teacher is out on his or her own. Some thoughts, recommendations for those teachers?

[00:17:07.770] – Lorea

Yes. Actually, I’m glad that you are asking the question, because when I wrote “Teaching with The Heart and Mind,” this is the teacher that I picture in my mind. I was writing the book for a teacher who would be by themselves in their school trying to do this work. So I would say, grab a copy of Teaching With the Heart and Mind as a starter, but also think about what is the emotional experience you want to provide for your students. And I can tell you from all the teachers that I have observed teaching SEL, that when a teacher makes a commitment to do this work, even if they are on their own, other teachers are going to see the difference in their students. And then they want to know, what are you doing in your classroom? So even if you are by yourself, I think that that should not be a deal breaker, but really a motivation to really cultivate the classroom that you wish you had when you were a kid, to really create the space for students to thrive, to be challenged, to be motivated, and to have that meaningful connection with other kids and with that adult in the classroom.

[00:18:26.240] – Lorea

And above all, I think that when you think about teachers being champions for kids that can really make a difference in a child’s life, to be that adult that a child can go to if they have a challenge, I think that it requires some vulnerability and some planning some intentionality, but at the same time, I think the benefits are so worth it. I think they are really visible right away when you start doing this work.

[00:18:57.170] – Steve

I did some writing and a podcast in the past that looked at what I called, what is your classroom management curriculum? And the focus was getting teachers to recognize that whatever they were doing from a classroom management standpoint was actually, in effect, teaching a curriculum just the way their math curriculum or science curriculum was. As I was just listening to you, I’m thinking that those teachers who seem to stand out in what happens in their classrooms with students are really teachers who have that SEL as part of their decision-making, their design of instruction, how they respond to things that happen in their classroom. The reality is, I’m teaching SEL all day long and my interactions with my students. The curriculum, the time that I’m looking at a specific SEL skill might be my direct instruction moment to label that skill and let kids know what it is. But it’s really my modeling of it and the ability to bring kids back to be conscious of what it was that just happened or what it is that we’re doing there is where the real learning comes from.

[00:20:17.650] – Lorea

Absolutely. I think it’s a little bit changing the perspective and seeing SEL as a lens for teaching and learning. Anything that you do in your classroom can have that lens once you have developed and you have a model of what those skills are in your mind, and also that those nuggets of how the brain actually learns. If you put those two together, I think it’s so powerful because then it doesn’t feel like this is something else that is being added on my plate. This is actually how I teach in my classroom. This is how my students relate to each other. And it’s something that doesn’t happen overnight. And also it doesn’t need to feel like you need to do 100 things at the same time. You can start small with something that is important to you as an educator. And once you start that process, I think there’s no looking back. I have never met a teacher who has told me, I did SEL, and now I’m going to go back to how I taught before. I’ve never heard anybody say that to me.

[00:21:33.250] – Steve

Well, thank you. I will place the link to the article on misconceptions in the lead-in to this podcast for folks. Would you tell people the best way that they might be able to reach out to you, find the other resources that you have available, maybe even raise a question or two that they have with you?

[00:21:55.180] – Lorea

Yes, absolutely. They can find me on my website at loreamartinez.com and I have a newsletter that I publish bi-weekly. They can sign up for that. And there’s a contact page. I always respond to all the questions I receive. So please feel free to send me questions. I would love to hear from you. And on my website, you’ll find information about the book and where you can purchase it. I also have an online course to develop educators’ social-emotional skills. And exciting It’s exciting news that today also I’m launching my YouTube channel. And the first video this week is on Educator Stress. So if you are on YouTube, just go ahead and subscribe, and I’ll be publishing new videos every couple of weeks. A lot of resources for all different learners.

[00:22:49.540] – Steve

Thanks so much.

[00:22:51.320] – Lorea

Thank you, Steve. My pleasure.

[00:22:55.710] – Steve [Outro]

Thanks for listening, folks. I’d love to hear what you’re pondering. You can find me on Twitter or LinkedIn at Steve Barkley, or send me your questions and find my videos and blogs at barkleypd.com.

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