Social emotional learning is necessary, not an extra

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Joshua DeWar
Joshua DeWar

By Joshua DeWar
joshua.dewar@jefferson.kyschools.us

I was hired in the middle of December. It was my first teaching job and my second career. I thought I was well-prepared. I quickly realized I knew nothing.

As a Breakfast in the Classroom school, I fed my children breakfast each morning to start our day while we completed our daily grammar review. One morning that first week, one of my girls said something that took me off guard. “Mr. DeWar, these are just like the ones they serve in the shelter. I love these.”

I stood frozen. This child was so excited about breakfast, but I did not know that she lived in a nearby shelter with her mother. How do I respond? Fearful of saying the wrong thing, I chose to move on and I continued circulating the room, passing out food to other children.

A few days later, one of my students challenged me. He had been very attached to his former instructor. Feeling unsupported at being asked to sit correctly in his seat by his new teacher, this student stood up and walked to my closet. He began violently kicking the door. As I approached, adamant on maintaining management in my new classroom but unsure of what to do, he turned to face me, ran toward me crying, and buried his face in my stomach. “Please don’t leave me, too, Mr. DeWar,” he said.

I had no idea what to say or do.

What I learned in those first months of teaching is more than I learned in my graduate preparation program. I began to discover that my job is NOT simply to teach core content. Rather, it is to teach standards in tandem with social skills instruction that helps students develop as social emotional learners. Social emotional learning is paramount to classroom management, and focusing on social emotional skills can boost common core implementation.

Social emotional learning is the process through which students acquire and apply the skills and knowledge necessary to understand and manage their emotions, set and achieve positive goals, show empathy toward others, and establish and maintain positive relationships.

Research shows that classroom management is perhaps the most underdeveloped segment of teacher preparation programs. Rarely do new teachers believe their classroom management skills are adequately developed. I quickly came to feel this way myself. A large part of this is because my role, a teacher’s role, has evolved into one in which not only must we teach “just the facts, ma’am,” but we also must give students the tools they need to tackle the social and emotional demands of the school environment.

Good teachers know effective classroom management is an extension of the quality of relationships in the room. Such relationships are characterized by warmth and a responsiveness to a student’s needs, but also have clear boundaries and consequences as well. What I had to learn as a new teacher was how to walk the line between being a friend and a disciplinarian.

I had thought I had to maintain a distant professionalism. What I learned is that I had to love more. I started sharing more about my life. I started mirroring what I was teaching. Instead of venting my new teacher frustrations at my pupils, I would engage them in classroom meetings as mini-adults. “When this happens, I feel sad and frustrated,” I would say to the students. The funniest thing happened as a result of this. The students started doing this on their own. No longer were there many conflicts in our room – students were using their words.

This was particularly important as a male teacher in a primary grade. Students began to see that everyone – regardless of age or gender – can address peers in positive ways when they are happy and when they are frustrated. We learned together that no challenge is insurmountable. My male students especially learned that fists are not always the answers, and that words can be just as powerful.

That first half of a year, I learned a lot. As I got to know my students as people, I also came to learn that explicitly considering students’ social emotional learning could help me establish age-appropriate and reasonable expectations for classroom behaviors and would allow me to identify which skills and strategies I needed to model and teach my students.

I began to verbalize everything. We discussed appropriate behaviors in society, the need for rules, and what kindness was and how it matters. We engaged each other in meaningful social studies lessons on culture, and our economics discussions revolved around not only what money is and how it works – but also how to use it to help all in society find success.

Our new curriculum, especially in English language arts, requires students to do more close reading. Students must understand an author’s voice and develop a sense of an author’s purpose. Common core calls for deeper conversations with peers about texts being read and for more reflective journaling than did our former standards. Such discussion and reflection will inevitably create more classroom dialogue – some positive and some negative. Such discussions will provide opportunities for children to develop clear communication skills, resolve conflicts and arrive at separate or similar understandings of what they are reading. Having social emotional learning instruction will facilitate clearer academic discourse and overall student success.

I realize many individuals are skeptical about social emotional learning being taught in school; others see this as the work of parents. However, all educators being evaluated on student performance should not delegate such an essential part of student learning to others outside the school. To do so would be haphazard at best. School is not a place where we care only about the intellectual development of the child. If we as educators are truly developing students for a productive life, we also must make social emotional development among one of our highest concerns.

I still speak to many in my first class daily. I used to think they were my guinea pig class. What I have come to see is that I was the one who was their guinea pig. They taught me about what it means to be an emotionally connected, committed, involved teacher. It will help me improve my classroom instruction and management for years to come.

Joshua DeWar is a native of Janesville, Wis. He has lived in the Louisville area since 2010. DeWar worked in higher education as a student affairs professional and administrator for nine years before moving to the K-5 classroom. He currently teaches 2nd grade at Engelhard Elementary (Jefferson County.) He holds a bachelor’s in French and elementary education from Ripon College, a master’s in college student personnel from Bowling Green State University, a master’s in teaching from the University of Louisville and a doctorate in educational administration and leadership from Marian University. He is serving as the 2016 Kentucky Elementary School Teacher of the Year.

1 COMMENT

  1. Well said Dr. DeWar. Social emotional learning is vital for children to develop skills necessary to navigate throughout their lives.

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