Last summer, the Greater Good Science Center hosted its first annual Summer Institute for Educators (SIE), a six-day residential program that brought together more than 60 teachers, counselors, and administrators from across the country and around the world. Guided by a lineup of expert speakers, participants studied the science of social-emotional learning (SEL) and learned strategies to promote social and emotional well-being in themselves and their students.

The response was overwhelmingly positive, and in the months since the Institute, many participants have stayed in touch and shared with us the impacts that their SIE experience has had on their personal and professional lives. Here are a few of those stories.

Krista Schroth: “You have to start with yourself.”

Krista Schroth, a Teach for America (TFA) corps member working as a high school science teacher in a low-income, rural community in North Carolina, came to the SIE expecting to learn tips on how to use SEL and positive psychology in the classroom. What she didn’t anticipate was how much of an impact it would have on her personally.

Krista Schroth laughs with other participants at the 2013 Summer Institute for Educators © Ann Shulman
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“The thing that I took away the most from it, which has been with me constantly, day after day, is that you have to start with yourself,” she says. “If we are happy and healthy and showing ourselves compassion, then it’s easier for us to show others how to do that.”

In addition to incorporating specific SEL strategies and principles—such as meditation, talking about emotions, and the benefits of gratitude—into her own classroom, Krista was so inspired by her experience at the SIE that she decided to advocate for SEL on a larger scale. This past November, she created and presented a workshop at an annual TFA conference attended by hundreds of corps members. She reports:

I did a session on social-emotional learning, and the feedback that I got was tremendous. It was overwhelming and very inspiring to see, because I get paranoid that I’m one of the only people who cares about this in my area—and the feedback was so polar opposite to that. People were like, ‘I want more—help me design this for my classroom!’ So it has definitely been really, really impactful.

Maria Talamantes: “What kind of classroom would you like to have?”

Where the SIE made the biggest impression on Maria Talamantes, she says, was in revealing how deeply students’ emotional states can affect their ability to learn. From the presentations on SEL—especially those on emotional intelligence and empathy—she realized that making students feel heard and comfortable in the classroom is essential to their success in school and in life, and she came away with concrete ideas for how to do that.

This past fall, Maria put these ideas into practice while teaching a special education class at an under-resourced continuation high school in a predominantly Latino and African-American neighborhood of Southern California. In addition to mild learning disabilities, literacy needs, and behavior issues, her students struggled with the stigma of having been transferred to a school for “problem” students.

On the first day of class, she asked them, “What kind of classroom would you like to have? How do you want to feel in your classroom?” At first, the students couldn’t believe a teacher was actually asking them about their feelings; some even thought it was a joke. But when the shock passed and they realized she was serious, students began to write wishes on the board: “to be respected,” “no laughing at people,” “no bullying,” “to learn new things,” “to be helped,” “to be normal.” After discussing the meaning of each idea and the importance of emotions, they began learning vocabulary to express their emotional states instead of dismissing them as merely “mad” or “tired.” What’s more, they agreed to do a five-minute emotion check at the beginning of every day. Maria describes:

Within two weeks, their self-management improved dramatically, while they seemed happier. They behaved politely towards each other, their stress seemed to diminish, and they even reminded each other about the list on the board when someone acted inappropriately. Speaking about emotions or feelings was not shunned or mocked, and the classroom behavior improved. The whole classroom environment seemed to change, and some staff noticed it, saying that it felt warm and peaceful.

For me it was an exciting adventure because I was able to apply tools I learned, and discover if and how they worked with my students. I also learned that students like to participate in creating and maintaining a respectful classroom. As an educator, my desire is to create a safe and caring classroom community in which students feel inspired and motivated to find their voice, learn, and develop socially and academically. My students were able to accomplish this through the social-emotional intelligence skills they learned. These skills will serve them well in their community.

Andree Scown: “It inspired a sense of hopefulness for myself, for education, and for the world in general.”

After years of working in the educational system, most recently as a district superintendent in central Oregon (while simultaneously working toward a Ph.D.), Andree Scown had started to hone in on some deeply-rooted problems. She was particularly concerned about what she saw as a lack of attention to the social and emotional side of leadership, both in the workplace and in higher-education training.

Participants and organizers of the 2013 Summer Institute for Educators © Jason Marsh

Then she came to the SIE, which she describes as “transformative … both personally and professionally.” Over her six days, Andree says she realized how critical it is for school leaders to understand and model SEL principles in order to effect change throughout the school environment. While there are many SEL efforts aimed at teachers and students, she says, “One of the things I really recognized was that educational leaders are lacking in training.”

Participating in the SIE inspired Andree to come up with a way to remedy that: the newly-founded Center for Social and Emotional Leadership, which she has conceived as a training center where leaders from all sectors, from education to the corporate world, can come to learn about developing social-emotional skills in themselves and their organizations. Andree says:

I felt like I wanted to make a broader impact with all of this, and hugely feel my experience at SIE this past summer helped guide that. . . . I think to me it inspired a sense of hopefulness for myself, for education, and for the world in general. That was very big for me. So, clearly, I was highly impacted by my experience!

Tom Podgorski: “The uncharted frontier is that soft-skills side.”

For Tom Podgorski, a high school economics and sociology teacher in Riverside, California, the SIE produced “a light-bulb moment.”

While in graduate school in economics, he explored the distinction between “hard” skills, referring to traditional academic and vocational skills, and “soft” skills such as being able to identify and regulate emotions. As a teacher, he recognized that his school, like many others, has some significant soft skill deficiencies—such as attendance and discipline problems and low homework completion rates—that could be harming students’ academic performance as well as their quality of life. While at the SIE, particularly in workshops on mindfulness and emotion regulation, he realized that SEL could be the key:

When I heard about all of that, it was like a light bulb went off for me. It was a perfect match between what I had been doing myself in the teaching of economics and the social-emotional learning component, and that light went off that this was about application, and how I could further that.

Tom Podgorski (center) and other SIE participants take part in a team building game © Emily Campbell

Since the SIE, with support from a new principal who is “totally on board,” Tom has been working on a research project comparing California school achievement scores with data on soft-skill indicators like attendance and discipline. Preliminary results suggest that soft-skill issues are associated with lower standardized test scores even at some relatively high-achieving schools. These schools may not be viewed as problematic, but compared to other similar schools that are higher in soft skills, they actually may be underperforming. Tom is using this finding to build a presentation making the economic as well as educational case for incorporating SEL into secondary schools.

He has also integrated SEL principles into his economics and sociology classes, asking his students to assess their own “human capital”—the value of both their hard and soft skills in relation to their future goals—and prompting them to think about what happiness really means, as well as how to achieve it. “The uncharted frontier is that soft-skills side,” he says. “Huge returns can come from that.”

For further information

We here at the GGSC have been delighted to learn about these and many other stories of the classrooms, lives, and communities touched by the 2013 Summer Institute for Educators. And we trust that 2014 will inspire even more of them.

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