My grandmother, Denolis Moore, is a retired teacher. The family recently threw her a 90th birthday party, at which many of her former students talked about instances when my grandmother had helped them get through a personal struggle that was hindering their academic performance. Reflecting on these conversations, I realized that my grandmother seemed to work intentionally to develop students’ character and academics while simultaneously meeting their social and emotional needs.
In this different era, teachers face an overwhelming landscape of educational initiatives, and we often find it difficult to strike a balance between academic development and meeting our students’ social and emotional needs. How do you make time to support your students emotionally, and how has that helped them academically?
—Michelle Neely, Teacher, Henry B. Gonzales Elementary School, Dallas, Tex.
Create a Safe Atmosphere
Although time is a big issue for us teachers, attending to students’ social and emotional needs is not a waste of time, but an investment. If students feel threatened or insecure, learning will be difficult. If we dedicate some time to make students feel that mistakes are part of the learning process, they will understand that we are there to help and not to judge. For students to feel comfortable and safe in a classroom, teachers must use specific strategies that create the necessary atmosphere—such as regular class meetings in which students can express their concerns.
—Patsy Pouiller, Deputy Head, Primary, St Andrew’s Scots School, Buenos Aires, Argentina
Meet Students’ Individual Needs
As a classroom teacher, I had my students complete the following statement on an index card on the first day of the school year: Two things I would like you to know about me as a person are ____________. I received so much insight and information about family situations, celebrations, learning styles, and likes and dislikes of the young people I worked with. During the year, I would revisit those cards often to remind myself that I had a classroom of individuals. Rather than rely on planned social time, I took opportunities every day to teach positive social interactions whenever the opportunity arose. Learning to read my students’ demeanor and body language allowed me to determine when they needed extra attention or understanding.
Over the years, however, I found the most important way to help my students feel supported was to design meaningful instruction that met their individual needs and challenged them to reach their full potential. Believing in students more than they believe in themselves is an amazing way to contribute to their lifelong emotional and social health.
—Lori Mora, Assistant Principal, Deer Valley Middle School, Phoenix, Ariz.
Establish a Support Network
In our school, we have created a network of administrators, teachers, special education professionals, and counselors who continually share information about our students. By understanding each student’s life within the school, I can support the work that my students are doing in their other classes. I can also learn from teachers who have had success with students who are having difficulty in my class.
At a classroom level, it’s important to give students voice so they become full participants in their own education. In my experience, meeting the emotional needs of our student doesn’t “just happen” because we care—it requires specific and measurable processes that are embedded in the way we do our work.
—Joanne Eliuk, Program Leader, English and Literacy, Iroquois Ridge High School, Oakville, Ontario, Canada
Keep Tabs on Students
I agree that it is difficult to balance academic excellence and character development. My school has built in a time to facilitate character development activities and discussions each week. In addition, I try to find some time when I can connect with my students on a more personal level. This might mean making small talk with them during lunch or sharing some personal anecdotes during appropriate teachable moments. It is also important to be observant and keep mental tabs on students who may be struggling with family and other issues. I periodically check in with the school counselor about these students. It is also important to maintain an approachable attitude so that students feel safe to share with me.
—James Han, Teacher and Research Activist, St. Anthony’s Primary School, Singapore
Build Small, Real-Life Connections
The difference between good teachers and great teachers lies in the nature of their relationship with their students. As an administrator, I know right away when I walk into a class whether the teacher has connected with his or her students. Such teachers can sometimes be observed taking time to relate to students about their everyday life—for example, talking about how the local hockey team played the previous night or about a favorite movie. As a classroom teacher, I tried to take some time to find out something about each of my students that allowed me to connect with them. When we make those small, informal, real-life connections, we created a more relaxed atmosphere that supports academics—students seem to feel a greater level of trust and to be more willing to accept extra academic support.
—Andre Potvin, Principal, Notre Dame High School, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada
Each month in Educational Leadership‘s “Among Colleagues” column, practicing educators will draw from their own experience to share advice about challenges their colleagues face. This month’s participants are some of the 2011 ASCD Annual Conference Scholars.