Getting in touch with the heart

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Editor Veronica Anderson

Editor Veronica Anderson

Teachers who are best at getting their students to perform better know there’s more to it than delivering content. Just ask Nikki Williams and Barry McRaith of North Lawndale College Prep Charter High School.

Seniors in this teaching duo’s English course are required to write a personal essay every week, an exercise that certainly gives students’ fledgling writing muscles a regular workout. But these papers also serve another purpose: providing a glimpse into students’ minds and hearts so that teachers can understand what may be helping or hurting them in school. 

Essays turned in so far this year have raised a range of social and emotional issues that students are dealing with at home:  losing a friend or relative to violence, witnessing a shooting, absent fathers, and sometimes mothers, panic attacks, pent-up anger.

The papers also shed light on who or what has helped them deal with their troubles. Grandmothers and relatives receive their due. So does spiritual faith. One student credits a leadership camp in Aspen for boosting her confidence in unforeseen ways. And, notably, a number of students say teachers help them cope.

Forming solid interpersonal relationships with students can be the toughest part of a teacher’s job. It involves not only listening and understanding where students are coming from, but also teaching them how to understand and better manage themselves. Those who are adept at this deceptively difficult task have a leg up because they understand the root causes of students’ negative behaviors and can respond in effective ways. That paves the way for students to make positive changes in how they act and their ability to focus on school work.

The value of teaching teachers and students social and emotional skills recently has begun making headway here. But some remain skeptical that it will have bottom line impact on test scores and other student performance measures.

“People often consider social and emotional learning and academic learning mutually exclusive,” says Steve Zemelman of the Illinois Network of Charter Schools, who is writing a book on North Lawndale Charter students. “But the two really go together. Good teachers understand that without supporting and respecting and listening to kids, they won’t get the highest performance from them.”

It’s been four years since Illinois became the first state to set grade-level standards for social and emotional learning. Only recently has local leadership taken up the charge to put something systemic in place in Chicago’s public schools.

Researchers have linked social and emotional learning to higher student achievement and better student behavior. The Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning (CASEL) also notes that students who participate in social and emotional learning efforts show fewer signs of emotional stress.

Now the challenge will be to persuade principals and teachers that adding one more initiative into the district’s already short school day will be worth the effort. Clearly, it’s making a difference for students at North Lawndale College Prep.