Posted by The Aspen Institute on Tuesday, May 2, 2017
The Aspen Institute’s National Commission on Social, Emotional, and Academic Development visited Cleveland this month to see first-hand how the district approaches social and emotional learning.
In a Facebook Live interview, Jim Shelton, a member of the Commission and president of education for the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, asked Jillian Ahrens, a first grade teacher who is also a vice president of the Cleveland Teachers Union, about her extensive experience with social and emotional learning. Ahrens is a member of the Commission’s Council of Distinguished Educators.
They were joined by Chris Harried, a Commissioner and graduate student at the Johns Hopkins University School of Education, who reflected on his visits to two Cleveland schools to learn more about their approaches to SEAD. Here are some excerpts from the interview.
Jillian, you’ve played an important role in seeing social and emotional learning scale across the district. Can you talk a little about that?
Sure. In October of 2007, we had a school shooting. That was the day in our system where we said we have to change. No one should ever feel that way again. The [Cleveland Teachers Union] went to the district and said, we need to be a partner, and we’ve been planning with the district since Day One.
We want our students not just to learn social and emotional skills, but to embody them inside and outside of the classroom.
Typically, unions are looked at as doing wages and benefits, but to us, how we interact with students and how we teach our students is union work. It was very important to us that all 4,000 of our members as well as all 40,000 kids engage in this work in a meaningful way.
How has this actually influenced the way that you teach?
I’ve been teaching for 18 years. Before the SEL focus, often times, teachers tended to teach how they were taught themselves. This initiative has forced me as a teacher to really reflect and to be intentional, to make sure that I understood my students, that I understood their emotions, that I understood how they were building relationships in the classroom, how they were learning tools to self-manage, and to really make changes both in explicit SEL instruction as well as in every facet of my day. How am I making sure that my students are getting what they need to interact with other students, and with me, in an appropriate way?
Chris, you had the opportunity to go into two schools yesterday. Talk a little bit about your experience.
It was great! It was interesting to see the dynamics of the schools and the interaction between the staff members and the students and to get a better understanding of the cultures of the schools. It was interesting to see how the needs of the students were similar, but they were approached differently, based on the different schools.
Jillian, what do people who come to Cleveland often miss about the work that’s being done here?
The Cleveland schools have had a lot of ups and downs in our history. There’s good work going on, but sometimes, we are trying to fight a perception of what Cleveland schools are.
We check in with our students twice a year on safety, on challenges, on SEL skills in grades 2 to 12 and we’re seeing growth on these metrics across the district. It’s an exciting time.
How do you talk about the SEL work now versus when it began?
Teacher buy-in has been a huge undertaking. When we started the work, I would talk to teachers who would say, ‘I teach math, not feelings.’ We are really trying to find our teachers’ concerns and obstacles and help people find their place in this initiative. After eight or nine years, we’re not perfect. We have some places where buildings are implementing it more deeply than others. But we want to make sure where it’s not being used well, that we can help make it better. That is a priority to our district and to our union.
Students interact with the academic content better when they have relationships with their teachers and with their peers in the classroom. To make sure that’s done in an intentional way is very important.
Chris, you’re a student in a school of education. Does anybody talk about this there?
It’s a conversation that’s still in its infancy. It takes a while for things to really be mainstream. I know from the conversations we’re having with veteran teachers, and now with newcomers, that there’s an understanding of what’s needed, but the language and the vocabulary may not necessarily be there. We just need to do a better job of promoting the vocabulary that they can use so we can all be on the same page.
We as adults have to demonstrate these SEL skills if we want to see them in students. That means understanding the importance of community-based schools. Children don’t exist in silos, so why do we have to model that with our schools? We need to use schools as an anchor institution for the community.