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School Climate Change

Using social emotional learning in troubled times

By Larry Jacobs

I did a show on Education Talk Radio on February 21 with MCH Data. They just finished a new survey of K-12 principals (which, btw, you can request at www.mchdata.com) and it turns out that principals are very concerned about school climate.

No, not the temperature of the classrooms. If we wanted to know that, it’s easier to gauge it in Mexican schools anyway, where its “Chili today, Hot tamale” as the old joke I first heard in third grade goes.  Nope, we are not talking temperature here, but rather ‘attitude,’ the state of the students relating to each other and their school and the school to the community. And frankly, we are in hot times; again not the temperature.

Speaking of surveys, The Southern Poverty Law Center recently did a survey of school attitude in light of the recent presidential election by contacting 10,000 educators. The gist was, per Mediaite.com, that “90 percent of respondents indicated that school climate has been negatively affected since Donald Trump campaigned for and won the presidency. 80 percent reported heightened anxiety and concern on the part of students worried about the impact of the election on themselves and their families.”

hand stop bigotry stampOver a quarter (of respondents) said they observed “specific incidents of bigotry and harassment that can be directly traced to election rhetoric.” They reported graffiti (including swastikas), assaults on students and teachers, property damage, fights, and threats in the observations. 40 percent heard “derogatory language directed at students of color, Muslims, immigrants and people based on gender or sexual orientation.”

Don’t blame President Trump, please. That’s way too easy.  Blame us.

I’ll tell you why!

Getting back to The SPLC survey, The Boston Globe reported on it by stating that “half of those (educators) surveyed said they were hesitant to discuss the election because of heightened emotions” and that “some principals told teachers to refrain from discussing the election in any way.”

How’d that work out? Obviously not well as incidents occurred everywhere and some are not being well handled. For example, in a suburban Boston high school, a kid taped a swastika to a recycling bin. When administration found out about it, they did nothing. N-O-T-H-I-N-G! Three teachers responded differently. Two teachers discussed it in class. For their efforts, they were formally reprimanded with a letter placed on their permanent record. Ha… see there is one after all!

The third teacher withdrew a letter of college recommendation for Swastika Boy.

That teacher was suspended. Oh, I kid thee not… for 20 days.

I have no idea how the school administration handled the offending student because of privacy, but rumor has it that if he promised to behave in the future, they’d give him Czechoslovakia.

head in sandGood job avoiding the subject. It just doesn’t do anybody any good to hide one’s head in the sand, because when you do, you just kicked in the butt. Ask the ostrich with red backside if you don’t believe me!

In case we forgot, the whole reason for public education was to create civic responsibility. Even in crazy times, schools must teach that and must also take the time and energy to calm things down. If they don’t, they, and we, pay the price, considering that with all the high emotion of the election and hoopla, the US only got about a 55 percent turnout.

We have to confront emotions and attitude, and we have to teach our students to handle them, plain and simple. And there is a way to do it. It’s called Social Emotional Learning, and I do many shows about it these days. Here’s the definition, according to EdutopiaFind and share resources for creating a healthy school culture by helping students develop skills to manage their emotions, resolve conflicts, and make responsible decisions.” Many folks put the word “mindfulness” into the mix as well.

SEL is a new thing. And like many today, when I was a classroom teacher, had it been brought up, I would have probably given the old “teacher eye roll’ as in “here we go again.” And I would have been wrong… because these are different and stressful times unlike when I was a teacher when we simply worried about if Athens would declare war on Sparta. Many kids are stressed today. If you’re stressed, you don’t learn. We have to be on top of that!

Man, what a golden teaching moment too many schools missed by not discussing the election and using SEL tools and services. It doesn’t have to be a separate thing either. It can be and should be part of what we do every day as educators, and it needs to be incorporated right into our curriculum because when children get these skills, they are learning control and rationality and the ability to better accept other points of view.

graphic on stressAnd when the students learn how to manage their emotions and resolve conflicts, imagine what you have just taught them. And it is well proven that solid SEL improves academic performance too.

Too many schools (from one on up) avoided the election. That is scary because this was, I remind you, an American presidential election. Think the campaign was nuts? I think avoiding it was even nuttier! How the hell can we possibly justify not teaching it, as in “some principals told teachers to refrain from discussing the election in any way.” Is that the America we want?

Of course not, but some schools got scared because the kids might lose control, so engage your school in SEL and use it to improve academics and calm things down,  talk things out and then teach civic responsibility!

And you didn’t even have to take sides. There is a great website at www. Procon.org. It’s a neutral site that gives the reader both sides of every issue clearly and objectively. They’ve been on my show too. In my next column, I’ll talk civics education.

School climate matters. You can learn more at schoolclimate.org, Jonathan Cohen’s group. You can learn more about Civics if you wish to read ahead at icivics.com which Madam Justice Sandra Day O’Connor founded and here a few links to my podcasts on Social Emotional Learning:

How Social Emotional Learning Affects Academics

Social Emotional Learning and Mindfulness

Assessing Social Emotional Learning

Further Reading
  1. Northwest Herald – Fox River Grove School District 3 optimistic about social-emotional learning curriculum
  2. Yale News   Creating a Community of Emotional Learning in Connecticut
  3. Education Dive –  SEL part of NYC charter’s foundation
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