I have been in education long enough to have seen my share of buzzwords come and go. When I started my career 10 years ago, teaching “grit” was all the rage, but that era of character education shortly met its well-deserved end (a topic for a different day).
Similarly phased out have been phrases such as “21st-century skill-building,” “college-ready,” “positive behavior intervention system” and “data-driven instruction.”
While none of these phrases represent anything bad in and of themselves, they failed to have a lasting effect on education because they were used and misused in ways that rendered them meaningless.
It seems to me that SEL — social and emotional learning — may be the next term to end up this way.
SEL is very much in vogue right now. School leaders, teachers, parents and boards are all preoccupied with ensuring that plans for SEL are in place. As is often the case with these phenomena, corporations are seeking to capitalize on the heightened interest.
Not a day goes by that I don’t see targeted ads on social media for “classroom-ready” SEL programs and tools.
The teachers who take up special places within students’ hearts and memories were SEL champions even before the existence of this neat little acronym.
This added attention risks obscuring the empathic work excellent teachers already do in their classrooms.
Just as with the other buzzwords, there is absolutely nothing wrong with prioritizing the social and emotional learning of students. After all, students do their best learning when their social and emotional needs are taken care of.
My problem is not with the term, but with the myriad “new” and “innovative” approaches borne from its recent rise in popularity.
Think about your favorite teacher from your days in school. Chances are that the reason you loved them had way less to do with academics than with how they made you feel as a person — even if they also fostered incredible academic growth.
That is undoubtedly because of the teacher’s commitment to you as a social being, capable of a wide spectrum of emotions. The teachers who take up special places within students’ hearts and memories were SEL champions even before the existence of this neat little acronym. Such educators understand, even without a buzzword, that if their students feel visible, safe and understood, they will do their best learning.
However, separating their practices from everyday teaching is dangerous.
The specific practices of SEL should be the foundations of any classroom, regardless of grade level or content area. While some educators may need additional coaching, support or guidance, nobody should be led to believe that SEL is separate from other fundamental educational practices.
Relegating classroom culture fundamentals to a specific “SEL Block” is the most concerning practice I have seen emerge from this trend.
To be clear, including a designated time within the day to check in with students on a personal level is fantastic. This has been the focus of so-called homeroom advisory and other morning class periods in schools for decades. But terming this “SEL” time establishes a divide that poses several issues.
First, if SEL approaches are only used at a single time of day, class culture will suffer throughout the rest of the day if teachers don’t take it upon themselves to maintain these practices.
Second, SEL approaches work best when allowing students to apply their learning about social and emotional intelligence to real world situations.
I would go as far as to say that if you aren’t implementing SEL practices throughout the day, you aren’t fully committed to SEL at all.
Great teachers embed SEL-like practices in each lesson and interaction with students. Their wealth of knowledge on this subject should not be dismissed just because it doesn’t come from a pre-packaged SEL curriculum.
New and developing teachers honing these practices should not be led to believe that they only belong in a designated part of the school day, nor should they view them as separate from other instructional and classroom management strategies. Great teachers respond to students’ social and emotional needs continuously within the authentic context of class, rather than through a scripted SEL curriculum.
Our students deserve teaching that resists fads and responds to their needs.
While I would never suggest that SEL development be dismissed, I hope its definition can be expanded to include tried-and-true practices, so that it doesn’t disappear when the next flash-in-the-pan focus comes along.
SEL has been and always will be central to good teaching, no matter what it is called.
Hayley Lindner is an educator with over ten years of experience. She is currently working on her Ph.D. in curriculum and instruction at Louisiana State University.