How would you react if you learned that one of your students felt that you don’t treat them like a full person, with a life and responsibilities beyond the classroom?
This is a real scenario we encountered during a focus group last school year with a group of high school students in Florida who were asked to provide feedback on their teachers. My colleagues at the Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning (CASEL) were there to gather data on how teachers can help students thrive by focusing on the learning conditions they have the power to create within their classrooms.
One student candidly shared that he felt like his teachers weren’t invested in him as a human being, because the amount of homework that he was assigned didn’t take into account his commitments outside the classroom and other barriers to studying.
But through the practices of social-emotional learning — specifically, SEL for adults — this challenge became an opportunity, and the teachers at this school leaned into a process of reflection, collaboration and ongoing feedback from students that supported a shift in their approach. They began to view assignments and learning holistically, and started taking into account the students’ lives and external challenges.
This may seem like a small change, but we’ve seen time and time again that when we provide educators the support and tools they need to form stronger relationships and build empathy, they’re able to convert that into better outcomes for their students.
The value of the implementation of SEL practices for children has become widely discussed and recognized. But if our goal is to help students reach their full potential, we must prioritize the health and well-being of our educators too. James Baldwin once aptly said, “Children have never been very good at listening to their elders, but they have never failed to imitate them.” During this back-to-school season, this quote serves as an important reminder. After all, teachers are the adults with whom children spend the most time outside of their homes. Building a comprehensive support system for adults in schools will require us to change how we think about and value educators. This year, let’s make progress on this front by implementing more SEL for adults to create a positive learning experience for students and educators alike.
So, what steps can we take to prioritize the well-being of our educators and put adult SEL into practice?
One way is to invest time in building a strong and supportive community among teachers.
In recent years, many teachers have felt a sense of hopelessness and cynicism as they return to schools with limited resources to address the increased social, emotional and academic needs of students. Creating opportunities for educators to connect, build community and learn together during staff meetings or smaller group collaboratives can alleviate feelings of isolation and provide much-needed mutual support. Professional development can be about much more than just individual growth — it can also elevate our common humanity and celebrate our basic human need for connection, mentorship and accountability.
Even the simple practice of building in a welcome or opening activity in a meeting could go a long way. That kind of exercise allows time and space for a quick check-in among colleagues prior to jumping into the business of the day, which can strengthen the reality that we are human beings first, even before we are educators.
Exercises to improve educator mindfulness can also be a game-changer, as they reduce job stress and burnout while promoting positive interactions with students. When educators can prioritize their well-being, they become even more effective at supporting their students’ growth.
Educators can yield positive results by adding in opportunities for intentional reflection. Even just taking a few minutes at the beginning and end of each day to set intentions and consider what went well and what can be adjusted can help prevent emotional exhaustion. In addition, school and district leaders can incorporate mindfulness practices into professional development sessions to support a culture of well-being in educational environments. By dedicating time and effort to practices that center educators, they prioritize opportunities that enhance their quality of life and positively influence the overall classroom atmosphere.
Increasing Access to Resources
Although individual practices such as mindfulness can make a difference, to truly improve educators’ day-to-day experience, we need to build comprehensive networks of support, including access to resources.
Schools continue to struggle with chronic understaffing while educators are left to manage overwhelming workloads, burnout, low pay and unrealistic demands. These are problems that no educator can solve on their own, which is why it is crucial to prioritize time and space for open conversations between staff and leadership. By offering resources such as counseling and mental health support to staff, schools can create healthier environments for both students and teachers.
Picture this: a classroom filled with engaged students who feel seen, valued and supported to achieve their highest potential. What would it take to get there?
For one thing, it requires an educator with the knowledge of and access to tools to help students thrive, an educator whose passion for teaching is nurtured — not extinguished. It requires knowing each student’s strengths, fears and dreams to better tailor instructional approaches and connect with them more deeply. It means having the emotional bandwidth and skillset to understand students on a more personal level, to model social-emotional competencies and equip students with the skills and knowledge they need to succeed.
This is the positive learning environment we can create if we introduce adults to SEL and help them implement it in their lives. And it isn’t confined by classroom walls. Adults can more easily foster effective learning environments for their students by integrating SEL practices into their routines and understanding their own social and emotional development as an ongoing journey.
Adult SEL helps educators develop professionally, collaborate effectively with colleagues, and form authentic partnerships with caregivers and students, creating stronger communities. When we take action to improve the emotional well-being of educators, we support their personal growth, reaffirm their sense of self-worth and empower them to explore their identity to find deeper satisfaction in their profession, reinforcing their commitment to stay and continue to enrich the lives of their students. Investments in adult SEL are investments in the heart of education — the educators themselves — and create a brighter, more empathetic and fulfilling learning journey for everyone involved.
So this back-to-school season and beyond, let’s prioritize SEL — not just for our children, but for their educators and caregivers, too — and change how we think about and approach the well-being of our teachers and students.