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I realized the importance of social-emotional learning early in life, long before I became a teacher.
As a child, I moved with my family from Argentina to the United States. I quickly fell in love with learning, inspired to work hard by an amazing math teacher — but, more importantly, also to be kind and compassionate. She led by example, and she pushed me to dream big.
But while I worked hard in school and was at the top of my high school class, I was denied college scholarships because I wasn’t yet a U.S. citizen. It was a heartbreaking blow, but one I would overcome and learn from. In fact, each chapter of my life has taught me the empathy and professional skills that I now use as a high school math educator.
Before teaching Algebra 2, I was an EMT (emergency medical technician), a Starbucks barista and a real estate agent. I learned how to treat people with compassion. Each of those jobs taught me the importance of listening, empathy and mental-health awareness.
At the same time, I was constantly questioning my place in the world and never completely fulfilled. I know many students relate to this feeling. I’m now in my dream job, and these struggles and valuable life experiences help me connect with my students in a real way. This connection means even more during the current health crisis, as the coronavirus pandemic has shaken up the education system with a shift to online learning.
Now schools are formulating plans to reopen, most likely with some combination of online and in-person learning.
The sudden adjustment from a physical classroom atmosphere to one that’s fully online can be jarring — and it’s a switch that redefines the relationship between teachers and students. Young people today already face myriad challenges inside and outside the classroom that can affect concentration and learning. If students cannot effectively communicate the emotional unrest that’s distracting them, we as educators cannot effectively reach them.
To help address this issue, a social-emotional approach to education can bridge this communication gap between students and teachers, no matter the classroom environment.
I am an Algebra 2 teacher at an online high school, and while many school days involve variables and coefficients, students often ask for help in subjects beyond those covered in the classroom. Since virtual teachers don’t interact with their students in person, I’ve seen how developing strong connections and a robust class culture requires innovation.
Every day before classes begin, I ask my students to select one of four “emojis” that best represents their mood: happy, sleepy, stressed or a face that implies “I don’t want to talk about it.” This helps me determine who may be having a rough day or who might have trouble focusing on school if another issue is competing for a student’s attention.
In practice, social-emotional learning is much more complex than simple emojis or “I’m here for you” messages — but these small measures add up and contribute to a healthy, well-balanced classroom, regardless of its set-up.
When I began teaching in the virtual sector, I did expect challenges. How would I engage with students? How would I foster classroom culture? What I didn’t expect was just how many challenges today’s students face, as staggering statistics document. In 2019, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that one in six U.S. children between the ages of 2 and 8 years old has a diagnosed mental, behavioral or developmental disorder.
To address these issues, our education system must equip teachers with the tools they need to teach young people how to ask for help through social-emotional support. Unfortunately, many teacher-training programs don’t offer these kinds of skills. I completed my bachelor’s degree last year, and never once did I have any kind of professional development that addressed social-emotional learning. Thankfully, I found excellent resources elsewhere — such as in Indiana’s Department of Education newsletters and in social-media resources, including LinkedIn. But not every teacher uses these platforms, and they’re not meant to host this kind of professional learning.
Likewise, the social-emotional aspect of education needs to translate into a healthy work-life balance for teachers as well. Teaching is one of the most challenging jobs in the world — a challenge that just became greater now that many teachers have been forced to adapt classroom lessons to distance-learning for the foreseeable future. We need more support programs for teachers who are feeling stressed or burnt out.
At Western Governors University, where I am pursuing my master’s degree in science curriculum instruction, I participate in weekly sessions with my counselors to check in and share how I am feeling. “Letting it all out” is a great stress-reliever for me as an educator. The profession desperately needs such support networks; teachers can’t nurture their students if they aren’t taking care of themselves first.
The same math teacher who taught me the importance of kindness and hard work in high school also inspired the words I live by every day: Love students first. Secondly, keep them safe — and teach them third. If students don’t feel loved or safe, they won’t learn.
Yes, my teacher taught me calculus but, more importantly, she taught me compassion. Giving our students and teachers validation, inspiration and hope, especially in this unprecedented time of uncertainty, will go a long way in ensuring that our approach to learning is truly holistic.
This story about social-emotional learning and teaching math was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up here for Hechinger’s newsletter.
Daiana Wheeler is a high school math teacher at Indiana Digital Learning School in Fort Wayne, Indiana.