How can we make social-emotional learning (SEL) more than a buzzword?
Dr. Byron McClure is here to go beyond what’s trendy, and give an honest overview of the mental health and socio-emotional support students really need from us right now.
Byron is a National Certified School Psychologist currently redesigning a high school in Southeast, D.C. His work centers around influencing systemic change and ensuring students from high-poverty communities have access to a quality education. Byron has extensive knowledge and expertise in mental health, social emotional learning, and behavior.
Byron has done considerable work advocating for fair and equitable discipline practices, and designed and implemented school-wide initiatives such as SEL, restorative practices, RTI, and trauma responsive practices. As a result of this work, led by Byron, his school recently won the 2019-2020 Whole Child Award.
I think you’ll find Byron’s energy is contagious. He’s going to give us a bit of context about what the SEL needs are for students right now, what’s trending, and clarify exactly what true socio-emotional learning means., including the history of it and what elements have been intentionally obscured. Byron’s also going to share 3 specific practices you can do with kids to address their socio-emotional needs, and we’ll talk at the end about how schools can address teachers’ socio-emotional needs, as well.
Below, you can review the big ideas, listen to the full audio, or read the transcript.
- Social-emotional learning must be action-oriented
Ideally, schools should be able to connect the students with a team of professionals that will help make the shift from what’s wrong to what’s strong. Authentic, action-oriented SEL practices require a radical shift away from traditional methods that reinforced the systems that have led to inequity in the first place. The strategies must be culturally-affirming and more importantly, be rooted in empathy, love, and connectedness rather than a focus on compliance and control.
- SEL strategy #1: Restorative conversations
Restorative conversations is a great way to engage an entire classroom in building relationships, prioritizing dialogue, understanding, and cooperation. They begin with restorative questions that delve into what’s happening with the students and how they’re feeling about it. It’s important for educators to reflect on how a student’s behavior was impacted by the situations or the conversation itself.
- SEL strategy #2: Daily check-ins
Daily check-ins are the perfect opportunity to bring in restorative questions. The goal of the daily check-in is to assess the wellbeing of the students and help them name their emotions. You can ask a student who’s having a bad day to focus on answering just one question and make sure to circle back to asking, “How can I help you?” For more significant concerns, a teacher should be able to refer students to the support that they need. This is why it’s important for teachers to have a healthy collaboration with social workers, school psychologists, and school counselors.
- SEL strategy #3: Morning meetings
Morning meetings should provide the students the space and time to address their social emotional needs. Through restorative conversations, you can discuss what needs to be improved in the classroom, school culture, climate, etc. These meetings should leave the students with a feeling of empowerment. The morning meeting can also be a time to celebrate what’s working.
- Socio-emotional learning is not fluff: it prepares kids for the real world
Research has shown that students with good SEL skills have much better outcomes once they actually get to college and career. They can demonstrate empathy, have an understanding of self-awareness and social awareness, make responsible decisions, and manage their time effectively.
- Socio-emotional learning must be culturally affirming and strength-based:
The true origins of SEL began as the need to address racial inequities during the 1960s. Dr. James Comer’s work on uplifting Black people up out of poverty, through social and emotional development, is what ultimately lead to SEL. He believed that if we actually address the developmental issues of poor Black youth, as well as acknowledging the effects, of racism, and bigotry, that has systemically been inflicted upon Black people, then, and only then, will this lead to a systematic way of improving outcomes for Black youth. We must no longer focus on the deficits, illnesses, or what’s wrong. Instead, we have to set our sights on how can we focus on their assets that can help them to improve outcomes, improve academic achievement, decrease conduct problems, or decrease emotional distress.
- Beware of “equity detours” in the real work of SEL
Equity detours are described as detours that white people follow to protect their privilege and avoid the actual work — the real work of racial justice. It is worse than explicit racism because they do racism’s work while consuming resources that are meant to combat them.
- Schools must also care for teachers’ socio-emotional needs
Teachers are in it for the kids, but they can’t be in it for the kids if we’re not taking care of ourselves. It’s important for district leaders to listen to the needs of teachers and then take action to meet their needs in an authentic and caring way.
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The current status of students’ mental health and socio-emotional needs
ANGELA: Byron, I know you’re well-connected to a number of different school leaders, and teachers, and fellow school psychologists. I would love to hear about your perception of the larger patterns that you’re noticing with students’ mental health right now. What kinds of social-emotional needs are you seeing and hearing about that are really getting you fired up inspiring you to make a difference?
BYRON: That’s such a great question to start out with. And I want to begin by saying I’m really excited to be here with you: I’ve been following you for some time, so it’s great to connect.
But for this question, in our day and age, we got to realize that it’s easy to follow trends instead of what’s in the actual best interest of students. So everything that I focus on is what’s in the best interest of kids. Now, all of a sudden or so it seems, people have this vested interest in students who live in high poverty communities, as well as their mental health. Well, Angela, what gets me fired up is the fact that students with mental health struggles often didn’t have adequate support in our schools pre-pandemic.
So here’s the truth, especially for Black students and other youth of color: many of these students have unmet mental health needs for decades. Instead of schools being the place to get treatment for their needs, they often have been viewed through a lens of academic or behavior problems which, at times, has even led to the criminalization of Black and brown youth at disproportionate rates.
At best, I think it’s been a little bit disingenuous, and at worst, it continues perpetuating systemic injustices and discrimination which subsequently led to poor outcomes. Now, the reality is that students — and even adults too and we’ll talk more about adults a little bit later — but students historically have experienced and sadly will continue to have significant mental health needs that are going unmet. That’s just the reality.
We also have to recognize that many students and their families are also experiencing a number of other things, as well — like evictions, displacement, health disparities, increases in gun violence, as well as other violent crimes.
And look, students also might be feeling disconnected and disengaged due to isolation and the disruption of their typical routines. Notice that I haven’t mentioned anything academic as of yet. Why? Because if we’re going to address the academic issues that may have occurred during the pandemic, then we also need to fully understand that other kinds of loss our young people have experienced, and have plans in place to support them through those losses.
I believe that we have a unique opportunity to think and plan differently in this moment. We can focus on building a system that’s responsive to the students. Why? Because that’s why we’re supposed to be in this business in the first place. Doing so requires that we begin by listening to those young people, and then amplifying what they say they need as opposed to what we as adults think they need.
Moving beyond the SEL buzzword
That’s right. And I agree 100% about this being our moment to start re-imagining things, and to start doing things differently, because there is so much more awareness now. You’re mentioning all the issues going on before the pandemic, and now all of a sudden more people are paying attention.
So, that adds an interesting angle to it, because I feel like socio-emotional learning, or SEL, is a huge buzzword. Lots of districts are now paying more and more lip service, but they’re also putting a lot of pressure on teachers to maintain students’ academic progress as if this were a normal school year. So, I feel like that’s leaving a lot of teachers feeling caught in the middle.
They want to center kids’ socio-emotional needs. They want to pay attention to all of these things that you’ve outlined here for us, but their admin or their superintendent, maybe even students’ parents, are expecting a focus on academic rigor, and meeting the standards. What’s your take on that? And in these trends with SEL right now?
Yeah, this is so true, Angela. It seems that everyone is a mental health or SEL expert these days. If our educational response to the pandemic is more of the same type of approaches that we were already trying before the pandemic, things like the pages of standards, longer school days, more and more assessment. The truth is, it’s going to fail, just as it was failing before the pandemic.
This work must be more than just a buzzword, or the latest trend. It must be action-oriented. To me, this means that our work require steps towards change, things that actually move the needle, not just lip service.
I would say for me, I’ve been a school psychologist for four years. And the past year or so, I’ve been lucky to redesign, and actually, my job is to re-imagine what a high school looks like in Southeast DC. My official title is the assistant director of redesign, which sounds great. But through this redesign process, we’ve actually been able to envision a school that prioritizes the whole child. And so I’m able to blend my expertise in psychology, in mental health, and wellbeing, to actually bring this inside of the school, and see what this looks like.
So my primary responsibility has been designing this concept of the dream scene, which is taking SEL to the next level. Through this dream team, we’re connecting every ninth grade student, with the dream team of caring adults to help them reach their goals. And we do this through a strength-based approach, and we begin by helping students identify their top five strengths.
The primary focus here, is shifting from what’s wrong to what’s strong with students. We also do this by providing them the support that they need to make their dreams come true. So, in a nutshell, my take on this is that to be in a space where we’re authentically going to move the needle, we have to shift from what’s wrong to what’s strong, and actually move to SEL practices that are action-oriented.
Integrating the lens of SEL with action-oriented teaching practices
Okay, let’s talk about some of those practical strategies then. I’m going to ask you to share some specific things teachers are doing, but I want to clarify first, do you think of socio-emotional learning as something that you do with students? Or is it more of a lens through which you base your teaching practices and the way the school is run? Or is it both?
Right. So to me, if you view it through a lens of something that you’re doing to students or with students, it’s going to fail every time. Because the reality is adults think things should be a certain way, and kids and students might think things might need to be a certain way. And if we approach it from, We know what’s best and our rule is the rule of law, we’re going to fail every single time.
So, for me, I think that it must be integrated and done through a lens that is culturally affirming first. Then, it should also inform your teaching practices by being action oriented. It should address instances of harm, and use a strength-based approach to building relationships within a sense of community. These practices require a radical shift away from traditional methods that reinforced the structures and systems that have led to inequity in the first place.
These constantly affirming SEL practices — to me — must be rooted in empathy, love, and connectedness at the systems level, rather than a focus on compliance and control. That’s the lens that I use. And my recommendation is to approach this work using that student-centered approach, that student-centered lens, that’s based on principles from design thinking. This means, you are disrupting imbalances of power, you’re lifting student agency.
A lot of people say student voice — I like student agency because it puts the focus and power back in the hands of children or youth. And then it’s our job to bring that agency out and to support them in their efforts. And then we have to focus on designing solutions collaboratively which are more likely to lead to positive outcomes. In a nutshell, if you do things for people and not collaboratively jointly together, then it’s going to fail every time. But there is power when you can design innovative solutions together.
Practical SEL strategy #1: Restorative conversations
Okay, let’s talk about what that looks like. I know you’ve identified three specific things that teachers can do to enhance socio-emotional learning. So let’s talk about what that is, what that looks like in the classroom, and in the virtual classroom.
For me, one way of doing this is through restorative conversations. And what a restorative conversation is first, is a great way to engage an entire classroom, or community in building relationships, prioritizing dialogue, understanding, and cooperation. When done right, these restorative conversations, can also help to create a culture that’s established on trust, compassion, equity, inclusivity, and accountability.
A big part of these restorative conversations, is the use of what’s called restorative questions. Now, you can ask questions such as, “What happened? What’s been going on for you? What were you feeling? What led up to the problem?” That can help you to gain a greater understanding of what’s happening with your students and even for yourself as the adult in that space. And what that does is it moves the element of power and it creates balance so that everyone is sharing, everyone has a voice, and they’re contributing to that classroom environment.
It’s also important to reflect on how each person’s behavior impacted the situations or anything that might’ve happened during that conversation. What that means is you’re bringing a sense of equity to the conversation where everyone gets to share and contribute.
One of my favorite restorative questions is, How can we repair the harm that has been done? And also, How might we prevent this from happening again? That is a powerful strategy that teachers, administrators, and even students can use can use to build understanding, develop empathy, and create a culture that’s focused on building relationships.
I definitely want to affirm what you just said. And I also want to encourage any teachers who are listening and thinking, I don’t know if my kids can do that that yes, they can. They absolutely can. Those are questions that I have asked with my pre-K students, with my third-grade students, I’ve done it in instructional coaching with middle and high school students.
Kids are really, really good at it. They have an innate sense of justice and an innate sense of what is fair and what’s not fair. And if you bring this question to them, as in, “This situation has arisen, and this was not right, how can we repair the harm?” I think they will blow you away with thier responses, especially with practice in these conversations. My kids have always come up with better ideas than what I would have ever thought of myself.
Absolutely. And that’s exactly what I’m getting at: when you bring students to the table, when you bring that community to the table, what’s happening is, you’re getting solutions and ideas, from a different perspective, that otherwise you never would have thought of. And that can really change that culture, that climate, and bring people together for good. So you’re absolutely spot on with that.
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Practical SEL strategy #2: Daily check-ins
So that’s a little bit about these culturally affirming and restorative practices. We’re going to get more into that later. Let’s talk more about these other two things that teachers can do to enhance socio-emotional learning.
So another strategy is called daily check-ins. And during these daily check-ins, it’s perfect if you bring these restorative questions, or restorative conversations, to these daily check-ins.
So what’s a daily check-in? It’s an easy, really convenient way to where you are literally checking in with the status and wellbeing of what’s going on with your students inside of your classroom. The important part of this is helping students identify and name their emotions because that’s a very important skill for student’s success.
Teachers can check in with each student, or the class as a whole, to understand how they’re feeling in school that day. You can use a number system — one through five that’s like a rating system — or for younger students or even some of the older students, a cloud system — sunny, cloudy, or rainy. This is a fail-proof way to get students involved and to simply check in.
And what you can do after you have that type of check-in is you can begin getting a good gauge, Okay, this student might need this today, or that student might need this today. And then you’re constantly meeting their needs, making sure that they’re showing up. And that also is a great way to build trust with your students, because it’s like, Hey, my teacher cares about me. They want to know how I’m doing every single day. And so I’m a huge proponent of checking in daily with your students.
And then for staff as well, staff should be checking in, maybe not daily, but one of the things I was able to do at my school is to have weekly check-ins where we checked in on Mondays — we had staff circles — and then on Fridays — we had check-out where staff came in, and it was a great way to close out the week as well. So again, daily check-ins are great for students as well as staff.
What do you recommend that teachers do if a student shares that they are in a low mood or they’re having a bad day through the check-in? How would that response change a teacher’s practice with that student that day?
One thing that I think is important is that teachers collaborate with social workers, school psychologists, and school counselors as a way to get started so that they can, again, help meet the needs of their students. If this conversation is centered on meeting the social emotional needs of your students, then you must be collaborative in your approach. And if a student has significant concerns that are worrying to you, making sure that as part of your daily practice, you know how to refer students to the support that they need to get those unmet needs actually met.
Now, if it’s just, I’m not feeling it today, I’m not cool, then as a teacher, you can take that advice and say, You know what? Instead of answering all four questions, how about you just focus on one, or what is it that you need?
And that way you’re able to have a conversation. This can happen in person or virtually. It can be, you might have a student who on this cloud system says, “I’m feeling a little rainy.” Well, you can send that student a message saying, “Hey, I noticed that you say you’re feeling a little rainy, what is it that you need today?” Going back to those restorative questions, What is it that you need? How might I be able to help you? And then the student can tell you what it is that they need.
And then most importantly, you actually must work towards meeting that need of that particular student. That is a fantastic way to listen to the needs of your students to make sure that they have voice, and then you’re building trust because you’re following up on the action to make sure that they feel great.
Another important thing is that once you have been doing this for a while, you will see that these circles, these practices, take on power of their own. What I mean by that is it will be remarkable, and it will blow you away to see that students will start lifting up other students.
One important thing to remember here is that if you have a student who might say, “Hey, I’m feeling a little bit rainy.” You might have a student who’s feeling a little bit sunny. And then, you might want to pair those students together on an activity so that they can balance each other out, and they might be able to support one another.
Again, it’s building a community that’s built on empathy, understanding, and meeting the needs of one another. And it doesn’t just have to be teacher to student, it can be student to student as well.
Oh, that’s such a great suggestion, and so easy to do. I love also that it gives the student the power and agency to reflect on and articulate what their needs are.
And I think that sort of self-awareness is so important for kids, because it’s frustrating when you’re in a bad mood, but you don’t know why, and you don’t know what’s going to get you out of it. So taking that moment to think about, Okay, what do I need? What would make this better? Having that self awareness of your own emotional wellbeing, I think, is super, super powerful.
And, it’s letting kids in on that process, acknowledging that we all have bad days, we all have low moods, and talking about what we need from the people around us. It’s just such a powerful life skill, to be able to communicate like that with our partners in relationships, with their friends, with their family members, and to be able to say, “I’m not feeling great, here’s what I need from you”, that could be a life-changer.
Absolutely. And it’s important to know that it’s a skill that needs to be developed. It’s like a muscle — it takes practice — and you have to work at it, you got to lift those weights sets, and make sure that muscle grows. Same thing, students aren’t magically going to wake up, even adults too, with the language that they need.
In another training, I dive deeper into another practical strategy which is helping students and staff, to develop the social emotional vocabulary, which means learning to identify your feelings, learning to identify your emotions, and learning to recognize the symptoms within your body: Are your hands becoming sweaty? Is your heart beating fast? And what does this mean? Are you overly excited?
And once you can do those things — again, it takes practice— it will lead to you being much better able to develop those core competencies of SEL, but it takes practice.
Practical SEL strategy #3: Morning meetings
Okay. So practical strategies: we talked about culturally affirming and restorative practices, we talked about those daily check-ins. What’s the third thing that teachers can do to enhance socio-emotional learning?
So, the third strategy that I have is the idea of having a morning meeting. It’s similar to a check-in, but this is creating space which is super important, because if we’re authentic and sincere about it, we’re going to build into the schedule some space and time for students to address their social emotional needs.
Now, you can do this in the form of a morning meeting. Some people have town halls, but the key concept here is to check in frequently, i.e. daily check-ins. And we can even celebrate what’s working, and then have restorative conversations, about things that you might need to address, to improve that school, that classroom culture, or climate. This can happen in person or virtually, as well. The key thing here is to make sure that you’re empowering all of your students with more than just having a voice.
You’re empowering them with agency to where they can feel comfortable and confident in doing these things on their own. You can do this by giving them a vote to give them ownership of their classroom environment. Now, that might be more so geared towards some of the older students, but even for the younger students, you can do things like giving them jobs, giving them responsibilities, so that they feel that, This is mine, and I care about that. And what that does is it gives them pride and ownership over that experience.
And then Angela, I have one more bonus strategy that I want to share with you and your listeners, because I get asked this question so much about people wanting actual strategies. And so often, it’s just this pie in the sky concept. So, I wanted to make sure that you and your listeners were aware.
I created what’s called SEL conversation cards, that’s called What’s Poppin. Where I’m from, “what’s poppin?” is a greeting. It’s a way to check in, and see how someone’s doing. So I created 50 of these conversation cards that teachers can use virtually or in person to simply help get the conversation started. And they’re fun and simple ways to build community and quickly enhance that social emotional learning inside the classroom. And they’re only $5 in the digital downloads, but there are fun ways to start conversations.
There’s one cool part — I call them action cards — and if you pull an action card, you have to complete some sort of action. For example, one of them is writing a gratitude note to a friend, or sending a message to someone just to check in on them. But it’s a great way to build community and bring SEL at the center of what you’re doing inside of the classroom.
Why socio-emotional learning is “preparing kids for the real world”
This is a little bit of a tangent here, but it’s been something I’ve been wanting to get off my chest, so I’m going to say it.
I sometimes hear teachers say things like, “Well, we can’t cater too much to how students feel, because when they get out in the workplace, their bosses are not going to care. If you’re having a bad day, your boss isn’t going to let you off the hook.”
And I have a couple of different thoughts about that. One is that I think once kids learn to identify these feelings and know how to shift themselves into a better space and understand what they need, that even if they’re in a situation where they don’t have that leeway, they are able to self-regulate a little bit better.
I also think it’s a big misunderstanding of workplace culture to assume that all bosses are deeply uncaring. I’ve worked in a lot of places— thinking even about some of the side jobs I had in high school, in college, some teaching environments, some consulting work I’ve done in the last couple of years.
It is quite normal in many, many workplaces for a boss to say, “If you’re not feeling great today, then do that particular task tomorrow. It’s an important task, and I want you to be in a good headspace for it.” That’s how I treat the folks who work with and for me, and they give me that space grace back.
I think some school environments are so toxic that teachers just assume that every workplace is toxic. But we’re not sending our kids off to work necessarily in a factory, like we’re in the revolution. And I think increasingly, we are recognizing as a culture that even people who are in minimum wage jobs need to have their humanity recognized. They are not machines, they are not robots, we cannot push them 24/7. They will have different physical and emotional needs that interfere with their productivity and output, and that’s normal. And I think more bosses are realizing that if you want to keep your workers, you have to treat them like humans.
So I don’t worry too much about that idea that “we’re not preparing kids for the real world” if we’re doing these kinds of SEL things with them. No, that IS the real world.
And more importantly, this is the world we want to create. Some of these students are going to move up and be the boss — they’re going to be that CEO. One day, they’re going to have people working under them, and I want them to treat their employees like humans.
That’s right. You’re absolutely right. And research has shown that students who can demonstrate these SEL skills have much better outcomes once they actually get to college and careers. That they’re able to keep a job longer. And they’re able to make more money because they have these skills, they can demonstrate empathy, they have an understanding of self-awareness and social awareness, they can make responsible decisions, they can manage their time effectively, they know how to get up on time, and make sure that they’re doing their tasks to complete a job. So these skills are important for actually getting, keeping, and maintaining actual jobs. So you’re absolutely right, Angela.
Why socio-emotional learning must be culturally affirming and strength-based
Let’s circle back around to this piece about being culturally affirming, because I want to talk more about how racial equity fits into socio-emotional learning. I have made the case on this podcast a number of times that these are not separate issues, that we can’t tend to students’ socio-emotional wellbeing, without recognizing their full identities. And that includes their race, their ethnicity, their home culture. We need to see students for all that they are. And I think we can’t truly do SEL with kids if we’re not also examining and dismantling oppressive practices in our schools. Do you agree with that?
Absolutely Angela. And when we talk about buzzwords, my fear is that things like social justice, and racial equity, and dismantling oppressive systems, are becoming buzzwords. But there’s this part of me that remains optimistic that there are people out there who are sincere, relentless, and actually working towards achieving this as an actual goal.
It’s absolutely imperative that we dismantle, and my word is disrupting these practices, that for so long, have disproportionately impacted and caused harm to groups of people. In fact, one of my things here lately, has been making sure that people are aware and understand that social-emotional learning, in its true form, was a way to address racial inequities.
People might be saying, what do you mean by that? Well, if you knew the true origins of SEL, then you will know that SEL was born out of the need to address racial inequities during the 1960s. And some might even argue that that time era was one of the most racially unjust times in American history.
Of course, we have slavery and Jim Crow, but the 1960s was just the time of racial and civil unrest. So I want to shout out Dr. James Comer, who was the first African-American, full professor at Yale school of medicine. His pivotal work in research centered and eventually emerged into SEL.
His work really focused on uplifting Black people up out of poverty, through social and emotional development. That’s powerful. He examined ways to improve outcomes for Black students, and to high poverty, New Haven elementary schools. He hypothesized that, if you only focus on improving test scores, if you only focus on the academic growth of students, then this wouldn’t even result in any outcomes — you wouldn’t improve your school, it wouldn’t increase academic achievement. In fact, you will be doing more harm and getting much of the same results.
So, Dr. Comer focused on this concept of the whole child. Where have we heard that before? In this new emerging term, he was talking about the whole child back in the ’60s. And his approach centered on addressing, again, the unmet mental health needs of students. He said by doing that, by addressing those needs that have for so long gone unmet, then and only then will we see improvements in academic achievement.
So, even circling back to how we started this conversation, if we’re not addressing the whole child, if we’re not looking at the social-emotional development, if we’re not looking at this historical context, we’re going to get it wrong every single time.
And lastly, with Dr. Comer, I just want to say, he believed that if we actually address these developmental issues of poor Black youth, as well as acknowledging those detriments or effects of racism and bigotry that have systemically been inflicted upon Black people, then and only then will this lead to a systematic way of improving outcomes for Black youth. So what that means now in our work — more than a buzzword, more than anything else —is that our work, if it’s true SEL, then we must buy systemic ways to focus on improving outcomes for Black youth that is culturally affirming, that’s strength-based.
We’re no longer focusing on the deficits, or the illnesses, or what’s wrong — all of these negative things. But we’re focusing, How can we focus on the brilliance of our Black students? Of our Brown students? How can we focus on their assets that can help them to improve outcomes? To improve academic achievement? To decrease conduct problems? To decrease emotional distress? Then and only then, will we actually begin to move the needle in the right direction.
Thank you for teaching me that about Dr. Comer. I’m going to have to look that up and learn more about his work because I’m really curious about it, and I didn’t know.
Yeah, absolutely, and it moved me too. During the summer when the pandemic hit, and everyone was posting the Black square images on their social media, and I even heard some people saying SEL is not an effective way. I was like people are being performative. And then you have another group of people who just don’t understand the real racial undertones of SEL in the sense that this is a way to address the racial injustices.
And so I actually wrote a blog post which is on my website titled, Did You Know that SEL Emerged from the Work of this Black Man? And my purpose was to educate people, on where SEL came from, why, so that now in the work that we’re doing in schools, in districts, all over the country, that we can actually say, “Hey, if we go back to our roots, then we can focus on that social emotional development. Then we can really bring this racial justice to the front, as a means to eradicate these oppressive systems, that have been hurting our kids for so long.”
Avoiding “equity detours” in the real work of SEL
Can you speak to folks who are thinking, “I’m comfortable with doing SEL with my students, my administration supports me in that, but something like racial equity, or examining oppressive practices, racial justice, I’m not sure that I’m ready to tackle that in an appropriate way with students. And I don’t know if it’s something I’m allowed to do, because I think we would get pushback from parents. So what can I do to address my kids’ socio-emotional needs in that situation, where having these really honest conversations, like what they’re hearing right now, don’t feel possible?”
People must resist the need to take equity detours. And equity detours have been described as detours that white people follow to protect their privilege, and avoid the actual work, the real work of racial justice. And these detours might look different, but basically, they create an illusion of progress towards equity. But the problem here is that it can even exacerbate inequities. And the reality is they can be even more devastating than explicit racism, why? Because they do racism’s work while consuming resources that should be geared towards combating and disrupting these oppressive systems.
Simply put, they mask racial inequity. These detours relieve people of the responsibility to name and eliminate the ways that racism operates especially inside of schools and with our children. So, for some people, instead of being on an authentic path to equity, they’re on a detour around it. And for even more people, they’re just admiring it.
And as this new term has emerged, people are on this performative allyship to whether they like it, they want to admire it, but they’re not committed to doing the real work of disrupting it. So, actually, again, on my website, I’ve developed a completely free resource to provide families, parents, educators with SEL and racial equity resources, so that they can start and not take detours, but being on a path to actually dismantling these oppressive systems, and actually do the work.
I think another equity detour sometimes from teachers, is thinking, “Well, I teach in a school that’s all white, or mostly white, so therefore, this isn’t really something that applies to me.”
And sadly, I get that a lot. Or, “I’m a Black educator, and I work in an all-Black school.” The reality is that if you’re in an all-Black school, if you’re in an all-white school, we all must be doing this work.
Because even if you’re in an all-white school — a white educator with white students — it’s still your job to be an ally to help those students to understand ways that their privilege is showing up, or ways that they might be able to dismantle systems for other people around them. You also might want to examine why is this a space where no Black people are, in and of itself.
And same thing in Black communities, you have to be able to take a step back, and examine, why is this neighborhood school that is in this high poverty stricken area all Black? But across town, it’s an all white school?
You must be able to step back wherever you are, and observe how the conditions have been systematically designed to discriminate and separate people, which without a doubt, leads to more unjust inequities…
Look, so you started by asking what gets me fired up. This conversation right here gets me fired up, because I work in a high poverty area in an all-Black school. And so many times, people blame the kids in that school for being in the condition that it’s in, and that’s not true. We have to look at the entire system, that has led to that school being in the condition that is currently in, in the first place.
And this has been through years of policies of Jim Crow, a racial segregation and discrimination, and housing policies, and redlining, which has led to these very conditions that we’re in, which means that these kids are forced to go to these schools where they lack resources, where they don’t have curriculums, where they don’t have access to textbooks, where there’s police, that’s over police inside of these schools, which swings to the criminalization of these kids.
So, getting back on track to answer your question, what that means is: whether you’re in that all Black school or that white school across town, you must be able to educate all of those kids so that they can understand, how these systems have been created and are leading to systems that continue to perpetuate harm being done to these kids.
Why schools must also care for teachers’ socio-emotional needs
That’s right. Well said. I want to shift topics a little bit before we close out, and talk about socio-emotional wellness amongst staff members, because I know you’ve done a lot of work in that area too.
I think so often, we hear teachers being told to practice self-care, and to center the socio-emotional needs of their students, but at the same time, the culture of the school is the opposite of that. There’s no real change on the institutional level to make teacher self-care possible, or to center the socio-emotional needs of teachers.
So, I know you were really clear from the very beginning, you’re in this for the kids. And I want ask about your take on this: what should schools be doing to take care of teachers’ mental and emotional health? How does that fit in with your mission about centering the needs of children?
Right. We’re in it for the kids, but we can’t be in it for the kids if we’re not taking care of ourselves. Again, we have to move beyond this performative piece; we have to move towards action. I’m all about being action oriented.
And I think it’s important for district leaders, for building leaders, that they have to listen to the needs of teachers. And then take action to meet their needs in an authentic and caring way. If you want teachers to practice self care, give them more planning time, and less burdensome responsibilities. If you want teachers to practice self care, give them the gift of time, instead of adding more and more on their plate. If you want teachers to practice self-care, then show your appreciation and gratitude for them, by acknowledging all of their hard work in the form of shout outs, gift cards, incentives, and again, paid time off.
If you can’t commit to those things, then administrators and districts, honestly they should keep their disingenuous rhetoric to themselves. If you’re not about the action, we’re not here for it. So, that’s what I think needs to happen if we’re serious about self-care.
Yeah, I think that’s super important. It is disingenuous — that is a powerful word here — because it’s really hard to ask teachers to check in on their students and to follow up with them and differentiate for their needs when no one’s doing that for teachers. That care is not being modeled in the system. It’s a pretty cold, heartless system for a lot of teachers, but they’re expected to be super empathetic towards students. And if you’ve never had anyone treat you that way, it’s really hard to know how to give that to your students.
Right. And my fear is that we are going to have teachers come summer 2021 leaving the field in droves. We’re going to have teachers who are going to retire. It’s going to be a mass exodus from the field. Why? Because they’re not having their needs met. And when teacher’s needs aren’t met, there is no way possible that they are going to be able to adequately address the unmet needs of children.
So it must be a priority, it must move beyond just being words, it must move into action.
And one of the things that I’ve been lucky to do at my school is to have conversations with staff and educators about what it is that you need. And then being able to advocate at the school leader level, as well as the district level as well, about these are their needs. This is what they need to actually be able to do their job.
This is what they need to be able to get out of their car in the morning instead of just sitting in the parking lot, dreading coming into that building. And if we’re not serious about it, then we’re going to have a ton of staff leaving. I’ve been fortunate to be at a school that’s aware. Our admin is serious about prioritizing the need. I’ve been having conversations with my school leadership and the district level, of about prioritizing a really big initiative that we have coming up in the spring. I don’t want to give too much away, but it’s going to be something that’s transformative.
And if you don’t have school level leaders and district leaders who are in the business of implementing something transformative for your staff, then hey, we got a lot more work that we need to do to make this a reality for our teachers … they deserve it.
I might have to do a special write-up on my website. We’ll see.
I want to close out with a takeaway truth — something for teachers to think about in the week ahead. What is something that you wish every teacher understood about socio-emotional learning?
I’ll keep this one short, look, I’ve been so fired up! But for me, equity, justice, and culturally affirming practices must be at the core of everything SEL, and that genuine, authentic, social-emotional learning must be accredited from the work of a Black man, Dr. James Comer.
About our guest
Dr. Byron McClure is a National Certified School Psychologist currently redesigning a high school in Southeast, D.C. His work centers around influencing systemic change and ensuring students from high-poverty communities have access to a quality education. Dr. McClure has extensive knowledge and expertise in mental health, social emotional learning, and behavior.
Dr. McClure has done considerable work advocating for fair and equitable discipline practices for all students, particularly, for African-American boys. He has designed and implemented school-wide initiatives such as SEL, restorative practices, RTI, and trauma responsive practices. As a result of this work, led by Dr. McClure, his school recently won the 2019-2020 Whole Child Award. Dr. McClure has presented across the country as a panelist, featured, and keynote speaker. He believes in the power of dreaming big to make dreams come true!
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