Many years ago, a classroom of “tuned-out” teenagers taught me a valuable lesson: Caring about, listening to, and relating to them is just as important as content knowledge.
You see, I was just fresh from college when I took my first teaching position. In college, I had committed to learning my discipline and felt ready to transfer my excitement about history, government, and economics to the next generation. I felt knowing my content critical, and it was, but when I stood in front of those young people, I saw they did not share my enthusiasm. History had little relevance; longitude and latitude were foreign; and microeconomics seemed unimportant. More troubling was their disconnect with schooling. Just like the over 60 percent of high schoolers today, they felt disconnected from those seven hours a day, five days a week, and to me as their teacher.
In frustration, I backed up. I learned all their names, and asked them about their lives, dreams, and “turn-ons.” In short, we slowly began to relate, to engage with each other, to become a community. When they sensed I cared about them, trust emerged, and they started to engage—not in traditional ways, but through in creative and unique approaches. I was amazed by their newfound engagement in the subject matter.
Those teenagers taught me a lasting lesson that I have treasured and attempted to carry with me throughout my life. I did not know the phrase “academic, social, and emotional learning” as I now do. I had learned that academic learning cannot occur until learners are listened to, respected, engaged, and trusted.
As I moved from the classroom to administration and from practice to policy, I have attempted to advance the importance of social and emotional learning (SEL) and to support those who are creating the learning environments that promote conditions for dynamic learning. Most recently, I have worked with state policymakers in ways that promote academic, social, and emotional learning, for I believe state policy can promote or inhibit what occurs in every classroom. There is great promise in working with states since they are responsible for ensuring educational opportunity for all of our children. And states are the place where good ideas and individual deeds can become systemic practice.
Much of my professional energy is focused on advancing my understanding of SEL and exploring what should be done to make sure it becomes an integral component of public education. Clearly, the most critical actors are students and those supporting them. Students should be trusted and respected. Their voices should guide state leaders, and they are speaking to us. Supportive adults want SEL to be a component of state and local definitions of student success. They want support in the form of comprehensive standards, guidance and frameworks they can use in scaffolding student learning experiences. They want leaders to align policy and resources to help them provide high-quality learning for each learner. They want more thoughtful assessment systems in which there is a greater balance between state assessments and local adjudications and greater reliance of the wisdom of those interacting with students. They want SEL integrated into teacher preparation programs and greater autonomy in delivery of their ongoing professional growth. And they want efficient and equitable funding reforms. If these ring true, you will recognize them as the policy recommendations from the National Commission on Social, Emotional and Academic Learning.
Yes, we have learned a great amount about what it takes to truly engage learners and promote higher levels of learning. Yes, there is much more to do. My commitment is to continue my personal journey to expand my understanding of what “SEL to Me” means and to continue to advocate as I grow.
Gene Wilhoit is the CEO of the Center for Innovation in Education at the University of Kentucky and served as executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) from 2006 until 2013. Gene is also a recipient of a 2022 Social and Emotional Learning Leaders of the Year (SELLY) Award from CASEL.
The views in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of CASEL.