SEL to Me

How My Student Showed Me the Power of Positive Relationships

January 25, 2023
Ashley Cullins
SEL Editorial Manager
How My Student Showed Me the Power of Positive Relationships

“Oh, no!” another teacher said, looking at my roster. “You have Devin*. I’m so sorry.”

I was teaching tenth grade. The school year hadn’t even started yet.

The teacher claimed that Devin had serious anger issues and had been tasered by a school resource officer in ninth grade.

Then I met him. Devin was kind, thoughtful, and helpful. But he felt misunderstood and disconnected at school—an experience that 40 percent of parents list as a top stressor for their teen. As a result, he often showed his anger in ways that got him into trouble.

About halfway through the school year, Devin got angry at another teacher, yelling and cursing at him in class. Soon he was banned from using scissors in science, then forbidden from bringing a backpack to school. With no evidence, administrators assumed he might conceal a weapon. 

Making matters worse, the way adults at school viewed Devin soon trickled down to the way his classmates saw him. Students joked, “Uh-oh, here comes the future school shooter,” or pretended to hide behind their desks when Devin approached.

One day, he told me how much this treatment hurt him. “I’m not a scary guy,” he said.

“I know. You’re a great person,” I said. “I’m sorry some people don’t see you for who you are. I understand why you might feel angry when that happens, and those feelings can be hard to manage.”

That simple moment of feeling understood transformed Devin’s attitude in my class. He started coming to my classroom during lunch just to talk. Sometimes he helped me set up activities or tidy up. When he struggled with classwork, he asked me questions instead of missing the assignment. 

I’ll never forget the day he told me, “This class is like my sanctuary. It’s the only place I feel completely safe and comfortable.”

I thought about how every student deserves a place like that. How every student should feel safe, comfortable, supported, and seen at school—and what a difference it would make if every child experienced that throughout their educational journey.

After that school year, I left the classroom to work as a copywriter for a social and emotional learning (SEL) program. I knew very little about SEL, but I was intrigued and eager to learn. I got my chance when, as part of my orientation, I attended a seven-day event about SEL with teachers, parents, and administrators from all over the country.

It was a revelation. This is what every student and every teacher needs, I thought. This is what Devin needed. This is what I needed.

I realized that in my classroom, I was using SEL even before I knew what it was. It was natural and instinctive. It came from the heart. I think that’s true for most educators.

I knew that to learn from me, my students needed a positive relationship with me. To learn, they needed a safe and comfortable classroom environment where they felt welcome and supported.

With Devin, I did a lot of things right. But as I learned about SEL, I realized how much more I could have done. And Devin wasn’t the only student I could have helped more. The more I learned about SEL, the more I understood many of my former students and their unique needs. For weeks, I thought about every student and every situation I could have responded to more effectively.

I’m not in the classroom to apply what I’ve learned anymore, but I’m in a position to spread the word about SEL and why it’s essential to every student’s education. I deeply believe that positive relationships, supportive school environments, and social and emotional skills have the power to transform students’ school experiences and life outcomes.

Every student needs and deserves to feel valued, understood, safe, and connected in school. I hope one day we’ll live in a world where every student like Devin and every teacher like me has SEL in their schools.

*Name has been changed to protect privacy

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