By Shira Hammerman
[The following is part of an essay series on Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) in Jewish education presenting low-barrier methods for infusing SEL into the work of Jewish educators. These ideas are stepping stones on the path to creating a more comprehensive and coordinated SEL approach. If you are interested in learning more about how to enhance your work with SEL in your educational setting, congregation, organization, etc., we encourage you to contact the authors. The series is edited by Joey Eisman (Teachers College, Columbia) and Dr. Jeffrey Kress (William Davidson School – JTS).]
What happens when a presenter asks an auditorium filled with educators, how they are feeling? Usually people look around wondering if the question is rhetorical or sincere. After all, how often is the question asked perfunctorily, without real interest in the answer? This is what transpired at the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ’s Quest for Teaching Excellence, a professional development program that convenes educators from the four local day schools for meaningful learning opportunities. When we realized the presenter was sincere, the question sank in and we envisioned how schools and classrooms can be transformed into spaces where such questions are asked, answered, and supported on a continuous basis.
In 2017, Quest introduced SEL as an area of focus at our biennial conference. A team from the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence showcased their RULER method, which builds emotional intelligence in classrooms at various levels of instruction. We also held 20 breakout sessions on related topics that provided additional avenues to address the five SEL competencies: self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision making.
Quest’s journey into SEL has profoundly shifted our mindset as professional development providers. In addition, each of our four schools has chosen its own path to integrate SEL into its practice. Our work brings to light four cornerstones for consideration by schools who wish to embark on similar journeys:
1. Support Your Teachers First
Develop teachers’ social and emotional intelligences and tend to their needs as a first step in your process. Supplement SEL training with learning opportunities that directly address teacher emotional well-being and mental health. Simultaneously, provide faculty members with time and space to process their teaching, learning, and ongoing interactions by increasing teachers’ break time (even just a few minutes to breathe can go a long way!), creating space for faculty members to meet and decompress, and emphasizing teacher networking and peer learning.
2. Develop Language That is Specific and Shared
Teach vocabulary that effectively expresses emotions and names social and emotional challenges. Individuals without the words to describe nuanced feelings can become overburdened by the weight of their emotions and are unprepared when their emotions conflict with others. Consider using RULER’s Mood Meter for direct vocabulary instruction, employing role-play and visual arts to differentiate among various emotional terms, and infusing language arts, history, and Chumash with conversations about characters’ emotional development.
3. Create a Positive School Climate Where Emotions Are Supported
Actively demonstrate to students and colleagues that their emotional well-being is being protected. While it may take years to develop a culture of trust that truly supports social and emotional development, start by taking time to create shared goals and rules within each learning space and establishing fair and forward-thinking consequences for individuals who overstep rules and boundaries. Teachers and administrators who model social and emotional competency when addressing students, colleagues, and parents can profoundly change a school culture. Simultaneously, consider whether the pace of activity within your learning environment allows ample time for students to process and regulate emotions throughout the day. If not, slow down.
4. Design Opportunities to Reflect, Reset, and Reorganize
Establish a set time for students and teachers to articulate their emotions and safeguard the time from being usurped. This may take the form of a morning meeting, advisory periods, a closing circle, weekly class meetings, or ongoing mentoring sessions among colleagues. To deepen the impact, incorporate rituals for participants to express hopes, dreams, and challenges while interacting with peers. Within this space, be prepared to talk students or colleagues through emotional challenges, providing guidance and support. Use the sharing that takes place during this time to guide your planning and next steps. Also, remember that you are not alone. If you do not know how to respond to someone, find who can. And if you are feeling the heaviness of the conversations, take time for yourself as well.
With these four cornerstones as a starting point, each Quest school has adapted a variety of tools and techniques for its unique settings. Among others, we have turned to Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) to enhance our theoretical understanding of the topic, to RULER to guide instruction towards emotional intelligence, and to Responsive Classroom to sharpen our social and emotional lens as a means toward enhanced classroom community, engagement, and instruction. Our work is ongoing as SEL evolves from a new initiative into a mindset that guides our schools and professional learning community. We welcome partners to join us in this endeavor! If you are interested in SEL in your school, I encourage you to check out the organizations named, or you can review SEL programs using the Explore SEL Tool made by the EASEL Lab out of Harvard.
Shira Hammerman is the Coordinator of the Quest for Teaching Excellence at the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ. She is an educational consultant who supports teachers and schools through professional development, curriculum writing, community building and research. Shira can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Quest for Teaching Excellence is a program of the Greater MetroWest NJ Jewish Day School Initiative. The Initiative supports academic excellence and affordability among the Golda Och Academy in West Orange, Gottesman RTW Academy in Randolph, Jewish Educational Center in Elizabeth, and Joseph Kushner Hebrew Academy/Rae Kushner Yeshiva High School in Livingston. It is supported by the Jewish Federation of Greater Metrowest NJ, the Jewish Community Foundation of Greater Metrowest NJ, the Paula and Jerry Gottesman Family Supporting Foundation, and the Greater MetroWest Day School Community Fund.
- Osher, D., Kidron, Y., Brackett, M., Dymnicki, A., Jones, S., & Weissberg, R. P. (2016). Advancing the science and practice of social and emotional learning: Looking back and moving forward. Review of Research in Education, 40(1), 644–681.
- Lerner et al. (2015). Emotion and decision making. Annual Review of Psychology, 66:1, 799-823.
- Hawkes, N. & Hawkes, J. (2018). The inner curriculum: How to nourish wellbeing, resilience and self-leadership, Melton, Woodbridge, United Kingdom: John Catt Publication.