Supporting Students by Supporting Teachers

Students in grades 5 through 8 travel to Meigs Academic Magnet School throughout the Metro Nashville Public school district for the rigorous magnet program the school offers. Meigs recognizes that to advance students’ academically, they need to address the needs of the whole child and the whole teacher.

Students at Meigs are held to high expectations by parents, teachers, and themselves. It’s not uncommon for students to experience high levels of stress, and, oftentimes, lack the skills to manage this stress and anxiety. That’s one reason why the school began integrating social emotional learning (SEL) into its daily routine last school year.

In fall of 2016, Meigs’ Principal, Dr. Samuel Underwood began implementing a five year plan for integrating SEL on a school wide level. As Dr. Underwood explains: “We must move slow to go fast.” He understands that SEL can be difficult, and at times uncomfortable, for teachers to implement, particularly since many teachers never experienced SEL in their own K-12 education. The case study, Supporting the Whole Teacher, from the Aspen Institute National Commission on Social, Emotional, and Academic Development illustrates this point,  highlighting the need for teacher preparation and professional learning to both build teachers’ own social and emotional competence and prepare teachers to foster these skills in their students. Ensuring that teachers are able to confidently address students’ social and emotional skills became a priority at Meigs and one that they knew shouldn’t be rushed. Under the guidance of SEL Facilitator, Susan Purcell Orleck, Meigs launched a number of initiatives in order to prepare teachers to do this work, including: professional development opportunities, model lessons, and sets of easy-to-use resources.

Professional Development Opportunities

Offering a wide variety of professional development opportunities has been instrumental in supporting staff members as they launch new SEL initiatives. Regardless of the setting, all professional development is designed to be fun, engaging and respectful of teacher’s time. PD opportunities have been offered during in-service days, weekly team meetings and optional after school workshops.

“The work we are doing around SEL is now a non-negotiable. We have embedded SEL practices in all aspects of the work we do with our students and staff.”  – Dr. Samuel Underwood, Executive Principal

During PD days, Meigs brings the important concept of student choice to the teachers in order to make training more engaging and useful for each individual. Teachers select topics they would like to learn more about by signing up for workshops based on personal interest. So far, every session focused on SEL has been completely full, including: SEL Activities for Your Classroom, Trauma Informed Classrooms, Mindful Breathing and Growth Mindsets. Purcell-Orleck offers similar mini-workshops after school. These optional sessions are used to highlight a particular teaching strategy, resource, or technology tool to share with the teachers. Finally, each grade level team incorporates SEL into its weekly team planning.

The teachers in the building appreciate the training they’ve received. Hilary Maly, a 5th grade literacy teacher shares:

“I look forward to our time with Mrs. Purcell-Orleck every week. I feel as though I can better understand and reach my students with the information that I have learned from her.”

And the students are not the other ones benefiting from this work.

“I’ve been amazed at how an initiative (Meigs SEL) aimed at helping students identify and manage stress has become an important life skill for the adults in our building to embrace as well.” -James Parsons, 6th Grade Self-Contained Teacher

Model Lessons

Each week, Purcell-Orleck visits every literacy classroom to teach an SEL lesson involving read alouds, group discussion and short activities. While this is clearly beneficial for the students, the primary objective is to successfully model SEL focused lessons for the teachers, who spend this time observing and participating directly alongside their students. Each is carefully aligned to the Collaborative for Social, Emotional and Academic Learning (CASEL) core competencies. Purcell-Orleck wraps up every lesson with a mindful breathing technique that can be used by teachers and students inside and outside of the classroom.

Easy to Use Resources

Given the high demands teachers face, Purcell-Orleck recognizes the importance of not adding to their long list of responsibilities and works hard to provide staff members with easy to use resources including social emotional learning program, Move This World, Peace Corner Kits and an online SEL resource library. Each of these contributes to the safe and supportive learning environment found at Meigs.

Students open and close each school day with Move This World, a social emotional learning program that delivers its curriculum through a series of interactive videos. Students learn emotional management strategies, build resilience, and improve communication skills. Once again, teachers participate in the curriculum alongside the students, giving them the opportunity to address personal wellbeing as well. Teachers are also able to access SEL at Meigs’ resource library, where they will find classroom lesson plans, activities, and informative articles.

Fifth grade teacher, Rachel Keim, sees her students putting these resources in action on a daily basis:

“One thing I’m so impressed by is [the student’s] ability to name the stressors they’re feeling. This is something that even adults struggle with. They’re able to identify exactly what is causing them stress and then match it to a Move This World Emoger (emotional management strategy) to help them calm down. It’s exciting for me to watch them work through these emotions in productive ways.”

The Impact

Over the past year and a half, teachers have become more and more comfortable doing this work with their students. The short presentations during grade level planning that once lasted only 5 minutes often stretch to 15 and sometimes even last the full hour, a choice left completely up to the teachers. A transformation has been seen in the students, too.

“Social emotional learning has played a huge role in helping my students
be successful inside the classroom. By being able to work through their emotions in a productive way, my students have been able to better empathize with others, develop new friendships, extend their emotional vocabulary and stay more focused.” – Rachel Keim, 5th grade teacher

Meigs is also making a splash in bringing SEL to teacher preparation programs. Next semester, the school will be working with Kate McGowan of Belmont University to bring teacher candidates into their classrooms to complete student teaching experiences. It will be exciting to see future teachers receive training on these valuable life skills prior to entering the classroom during their first year.

Purcell-Orleck credits the success of their SEL programming to the support of their school leaders:

“Our administrators prioritize both teacher and student wellbeing. They encourage people to take care of themselves and have built a school community where everyone feels comfortable asking for help, advice and support.”

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