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Centering Equity within Social Emotional Learning in Teacher Preparation and Development

Wendy Burke of Eastern Michigan University, Paul Gorski of Equity Literacy Institute, and Lori Piowlski of National University are presenters at the virtual 2021 Annual Meeting session, Advancing Equity through Social Emotional Learning on Friday, February 26, 11:15 a.m. – 12:30 p.m. In this article, Burke shares her experience in preparing educators to attend to the social emotional learning needs of P-12 students.

My point of entry into thinking about the relationship between equity and SEL began about 12 years ago when I became involved in a grant program for Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs (G.E.A.R-U.P). This program provided me the critical professional learning I needed while working for six years with a cohort of 60 middle schools as they matriculated from middle school into high school and then post-secondary institutions. I witnessed the many inequitable and often discriminatory practices within classrooms these students experienced while trying to lift themselves out of poverty.

Soon after, I collaborated with site coordinators of a 21st Century Community Learning Centers Program called, Eastern Michigan University (EMU) Bright Futures that provides afterschool programming at 26 sites for elementary through high school students. The Weikert Center’s framework of Positive Youth Development and prosocial approaches were used to support, mentor, and acknowledge students. During this time, I read a very compelling report called, Preparing Youth to Thrive: Promising Practices for Social and Emotional Learning (Smith, McGovern, Larson, Hillaker, and Peck, 2016) which chronicled the lessons learned from eight outstanding afterschool programs and how they were able to promote positive youth development by attending to students’ social emotional learning. This seminal research illustrated how educators in the out-of-school times possessed a set of knowledge, skills, and what many teacher preparation programs refer to as “professional dispositions” that made it more probable that they would be able to connect with and nurture youth, all youth, in a way that advanced SEL through equitable practices. Wondering #1 emerged: What could educators and teacher educators learn from such programs so that youth were not stuck in a perpetual loop of being re-stigmatized or re-traumatized for what they did not bring with them into the classroom?

Leaders in the EMU Bright Futures program helped me to think deeply about why so many educators were disengaged and experiencing high levels of burnout. As many of us know, teacher burnout is unfortunately not a new phenomenon, but we were hearing stories of so many educators who said they loved the students and teaching, but they just couldn’t do the work. Any. More. The collective needs of students, their families, colleagues, including the administrators was reaching a fever pitch. As my good friend and mentor Lynn Malinoff would say, “The system is not healthy. The adults are not thriving.” Wondering #2 smacked me in the face: How can we better prepare educators who want to engage students in learning but not be completely emotionally and psychologically depleted at the end of the day, week, and year? And wondering #3 entered my dreaming state: What kinds of professional learning would benefit future teachers to center equity while addressing social and emotional learning for themselves and for their future students?

What I began to realize was these afterschool programs did not begin with the framework of stratifying, grouping, or assessing youth. They sought to engage students by first nourishing their bodies with food, engaging them in activities that involved their voice and choice, and providing them brave places to share their authentic selves. And sometimes they danced and sang together. Instead of using an approach that allowed youth to remain in the program only if they were quiet and compliant, they encouraged them to be themselves in community with others. Realization #1 was affirmed: Attending to equity while attending to SEL requires seeing students for who they are and who they aspire to be as educators who know how and are committed to becoming equitable leaders of others’ learning in the classroom. It demands listening, acknowledging, and trusting students’ stories and not looking away when it’s difficult to hear and to know.

We created the EMU SEL Collaboratory and met weekly. Many educators joined our conversations at various times. Lauren Kazee was one such inspirational collaborator who was leading SEL work as a mental health advocate for the Michigan Department of Education. Lauren was championing the need for SEL competencies for all educators and youth programs. During these many conversations, we were mindful that we all were noticing a dramatic increase in levels of anxiety and depression among youth and adults in classrooms and schools. I personally also did not want to see SEL competencies be used as another way to stratify, blame, or shame students or adults through some elaborate evaluation system that was grounded in a normative (READ = white, middle to upper class) perspective and expectations for how any of us are “supposed to behave.” Through many observations and conversations, I noted that a probable cause of students’ and teachers’ not thriving in classrooms was an outcome of the overemphasis on measuring, assessing, and managing them rather than connecting, listening, and caring for them with empathy and compassionate honesty.

I wasn’t alone in my observations and soon we were in conversation with others across the state who were also becoming increasingly concerned about the well-being of youth and educators. We created the Michigan Alliance for Social and Emotional Learning (MiSELA) as a way to share ideas, scholarly endeavors, and champion a perspective on SEL that promoted the well-being of every person in the educational system.

I knew at the time that if we wanted to create such learning environments for youth, we had to think differently about how we were preparing educators. In 2017, a team of us created a partnership with The Neutral Zone, an award-winning afterschool program where “Teens Lead, Create, and Innovate.” We launched a two-year partnership to build a community with our preservice teachers during which all of us were working to learn about our identities, implicit and explicit biases, examining privilege, and building peer-to-peer mentoring and support systems all while eating, laughing, and sharing our real stories. Our preservice teachers thrived in sharing joy and honesty about lived experiences and reported that this experience fundamentally changed the way they thought about the kind of teacher they aspired to be.

During the two years of this partnership, my esteemed colleagues, Iman Grewal, director of the student led group called NEXT, Students for Place and Community Based Education, Ethan Lowenstein, director of the Southeast Michigan Stewardship Coalition, and I met regularly to reflect on what we were experiencing to inform the designing of a new program for secondary educators. The new program would model this new approach that brought all of this focus on how we were with one another within the conversation about learning to teach while learning how to enact Place and Community Based Education. First, we acknowledge each person’s being and their identities, lived experiences, and narratives. We provide a brave space for future educators to speak the truth about the many experiences they had as students in the K-12 classroom and at times acknowledge the hurt, discrimination, and suffering. Next, we focus on students’ sense of belonging to our teacher preparation community that is committed to their well-being as human beings and success as an aspiring educator. Finally, we address their becoming educators who are expected to carry forward a focus on being in community with youth while helping them to thrive. As we continue to engage in this work, we recognize our primary driver is to humanize our approach to preparing and developing educators while in community with them.

Our approach isn’t scripted nor a priori. We hold students of teaching to the highest of standards in terms of their readying themselves to care, nurture, and teach, but we don’t penalize or marginalize them for lacking the skills, knowledge or professional dispositions when they first enter our program. Our attention to their social emotional learning comes from a place of recognizing that our students come from a diverse array of backgrounds and experiences. We acknowledge and recognize that some preservice teacher students have been harmed by inequitable practices and policies and our approach is the starting point for disrupting the cycle of the blame and shame.

Equity in teacher preparation begins when we actively and consciously strive to see our students for who they really are and recognize that attending to their social emotional learning does not involve a prescriptive set of expectations. We can be part of the healing as long as we are brave in our conversations, hold steady with our commitments and purpose, and know that many are seeking communities of learning and practice in which to thrive. When we develop future educators’ capacity to be in community with P-12 students, we promote healing in the whole educational system. We believe this approach embodies the centering of equity within social and emotional learning with, in and for community.

Wendy Burke is a professor and department head in teacher education at Eastern Michigan University, Ypsilanti, Michigan.

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