March 11 is National Social Emotional Learning Day. At WGU, we are deeply invested in training and programming to promote understanding and adoption of social emotional learning research and best practices – for our students, for our alumni and for each other working in the University and beyond. Research shows us time and again the benefits of SEL, from a happier and healthier workforce to improved student outcomes. In honor of SEL Day approaching, (and because we love to help teachers every chance we get) we have this article for teachers everywhere from Hilary Simon, Senior Manager for Social Emotional Learning at WGU.
This article is for all of you teachers out there. Your jobs are hard right now, but the tremendous impact you can have on human lives remains the same, and the importance of your work has never been greater. Sometimes as a teacher you may feel stress and pressure taking you to a breaking point. Burying those feelings isn’t good for you. Just because you may be the only adult in that classroom doesn’t mean you are alone.
It's also easy in these increasingly busy times to think you don’t have time for self-care. Teachers and parents usually put themselves behind the needs of their students and children.
There are so many self-compassion exercises you can integrate into your day, even if it’s just a one-minute meditation. I know your time is precious, so let’s jump right in with a few ideas and exercises you can start this week to improve the quality of your day and the day of your fellow teachers.
Here are three strategies to help you immediately with the resources you have on hand: Self Compassion, Building Connections, and Tap Out Buddies.
We’ve all read about the importance of gratitude, and many of us in the last two years have started gratitude practices and journals or morning meditations. If you haven’t, consider doing so. But what if you are having a bad day, or are tired, or frustrated? I’m not a fan of toxic positivity.
All emotions have value. We’re all moving so fast these days it’s rare to give ourselves the necessary time to just reflect and be self-aware about our current state. Sadly, this leads to outbursts and reactions vs thoughtful action. So, try to take time to check in on yourself.
Here’s a super quick exercise that helps your body and brain while allowing you to be honest with your feelings and emotions. If you notice you’re tense or worn thin, state what is bothering you out loud. For example, you might say “I’m exhausted today.” Naming our thoughts and feelings tames them. Next, notice something in life that inspires you, brings you joy or reminds you of goodness in the world like a sunny day, a good song on your playlist, your dog wagging its tail, the sound of your child laughing, or one of your students clearing an academic hurdle.
Reflecting on gratitude broadens perspective, builds resources and enhances resilience. Now connect the two thoughts with the word AND and say it out loud. So, it will sound like this: “I’m exhausted today, and it’s a gorgeous sunny day.” By connecting these two polar experiences, we give balanced attention to all aspects of our lives. Over time you can help rewire your brain for improved well-being. (Emmons & McCullough, 2003; Seligman, Steen, Park, & Peterson, 2005; Hill, Allemand, & Roberts, 2013)
There’s a trending myth in SEL work that we’re encouraging people to always (and only) be positive and put blinders on. That’s not true. There’s no shame in saying or expressing your challenges. We all have challenges and reaching out to others about those challenges can build lasting connections that can make us stronger and healthier. As we’ve all seen during COVID, most of us don’t thrive in isolation.
As a teacher you are not alone. There are many adults around you in your day who can help. Asking for help is not a sign of weakness, it’s the mark of courage and admirable self-awareness and it boosts resilience. Here are a few ways to build those healthy connections, to help you navigate challenges and thrive in your professional and personal life.
Get a Mentor Teacher in Your School
It can be super helpful to have a friend who has been teaching longer than you who has been through those first few years of experimental learning. They may be willing to share lessons learned for classroom management and creative problem solving. Most seasoned educators are delighted to support incoming teachers new to their roles by sharing tips and best practices.
Connect in your Break Room
There are mountains of great ideas about how to connect with your team whether virtual or face-to-face. For your break room consider using a whiteboard or bulletin board as a place to connect with each other. I read a great piece of advice yesterday to “spill your bucket” – share what’s on your bucket list. You can put up small cards of your various bucket list dream destinations and all guess who belongs with which destination. You’re likely to find some commonalities that give you more reasons to connect. You could also put up a map with push pins and your names in the places you grew up. You may find out you have someone with a shared history or geography right in your school.
Add a Pot-luck Meal to your Staff Development Days
Nothing says love like sharing food and breaking bread together. By each bringing something made from your own home by your hands and sharing it, we build connections and enhance our recipe collections! And after a day of staff training, it’s a wonderful time to take that last hour and eat, relax, and connect with each other.
Have a Coffee or Lunch Buddy
Sure, you might eat at your desk sometimes, but think about inviting another teacher to join you one a day a week and just take time for an adult conversation and shared stories. You’ll feel much more renewed than if you are multi-tasking grading papers while eating too quickly.
Make a Phone a Friend List
When you’re in crisis, it’s hard to think of who to call. Make yourself a contacts entry in your phone and put who you call for what when you need a three-minute pep talk. Maybe Sally is good for sharing any personal challenges at home, Bob for understanding angst with a job- related challenge and so on. Just put their names and numbers in your contact under Phone a Friend and you’ll be ready to make the most of 3–5-minute leveling connection.
The third strategy I’m offering here is one that requires a prior conversation with your principal or administrator for approval. When I was teacher, we had Tap Out Buddies in our school. If I was in my class and felt like I needed an urgent three-minute break from my classroom to self-regulate, I could “tap in” a colleague while I stepped out. Setting up this system takes some advanced prep and boundaries, but it can really help!
It's very important to put some understandings in place on this tap out program. First, use the tap out strategy to model self-regulation skills and prevent things from getting out of control. Notice your warning signs for becoming overwhelmed (tightness in the chest, clenched jaw and fists, loss of focus) and start the process then, rather than letting something fester until you react and explode. Students can sense that tension rising, and they are likely to react in a similar manner. Don’t wait until Tommy throws his monthly temper tantrum to tap out. Never leave your classroom in chaos.
Second, have something prepared so your buddy who is tapping in has something constructive to do. Your students need some order when you are tapping in or out. Provide clear instructions for the learning activity in progress or consider giving them a reading assignment or reflection exercise so the person being tapped can maintain healthy order in the class.
Third, introduce the process to your students and practice as a class. Involving students normalizes emotions, provides opportunity to model critical self-awareness and self-management skills, and familiarizes them with the tap-out experience, so they feel comfortable and confident whenever it eventually happens. Finally, as mentioned earlier, be sure your plan is organized and in place with your leader’s approval before texting your Tap Out Buddy. Mine was an administrative assistant who could hop into my classroom a few times a year for a few minutes, and that’s all it took to get me to a better place for myself and my students.
The research shows the overarching benefits of SEL for our students. SEL is good for teachers, too. Teachers report SEL helps them to feel happier and more organized, and research correlates high teacher social-emotional competence with lower burnout, stronger relationships and improved classroom climate. So, give yourself some love and a big pat on the back and realize you can self-regulate and flourish with self-compassion and supportive relationships.
You can also access our curated list of free, open SEL resources here in this Learning Community. Thank you and be well!