Michelle Rosenfeld Hughes was born in 1960 to two public school teachers, grew up in New York City, and attended public schools. She spent the first twelve years of her teaching career as a progressive public middle school teacher in Red Hook, New York. In her twelfth year of teaching, No Child Left Behind policies took hold and, after struggling to find ways to continue real teaching and learning, like many, she found it impossible to remain teaching in the system. She left public education to begin the middle school program at High Meadow School in Stone Ridge, NY, in 2001 and assumed the headship in 2010. High Meadow is an independent not-for-profit progressive school serving 165 children from Nursery to 8th grade. In addition to her work in schools, Michelle is a writer of fiction and essays on education. She received her BA in Visual Arts from SUNY New Paltz and her MA in Elementary and Museum Education from Bank Street College of Education.
Fitting Caring In: Social-Emotional Learning By Fiat Or Accident
It has been a challenge in this nation of ours to come to a common vision for our educational system. We are still a nation of states, and as with everything else, we have widely varying values and expectations with regards to education. There is a deep disconnect between research and reality, theory and classroom, when it comes to broad adoption of social-emotional literacy education and caring practices. If we have the research in place that overwhelmingly supports a framework of social-emotional literacy education in the classroom, then what is the hold-up?
Along with many other questions about best practices, the Common Core Standards, and Race to the Top, we’re in an ongoing debate about whether schools should be responsible for the social-emotional development and literacy of children. And the variety of opinions is perhaps widest of all for this particular issue. There are schools and entire districts that embrace social-emotional literacy (SEL) programming for its potential to reverse trends in anti-social and violent behavior, create a safe and productive teaching and learning environment, and increase attendance and test scores. Other schools and entire districts eschew SEL because they believe it is not the role of the school to become involved with the ethical or social-emotional aspect of a child’s life. Still others point to mounting pressures of the standards movement, decreases in state aid, and lack of time as reasons why these programs are desirable, but not viable.
Here’s the thing: whether or not we set out to provide social-emotional literacy education, we are providing one. Whether by fiat or accident, our children are learning about self-awareness, empathy, and the navigation of conflict from watching the adults and older children around them, and they are navigating the unwritten rules of the hallways and playground. Humans are social animals, built to survive in the setting into which they have been thrust, and they will learn what they need to get by, even if what they learn is maladaptive. With brains that operate in complex and interwoven ways, it is not possible for teachers to teach only math or reading. When we teach our children, we teach the whole child—the intellectual being, the emotional being, the social being—even if we do not intend to do so.
For this series, I talked with a small group of educators to learn more about the insight they have to impart regarding SEL programs, and what they were doing to "fit caring in" to a teaching and learning day increasingly out of their control. The teachers I interviewed are veteran public school teachers of more than twenty years who have made reputations on running classrooms that foster personal growth and responsibility, self-awareness, and empathy. In some cases, pre-packaged programs like Responsive Classroom and Mindfulness have complemented their teaching methods. In other cases, they have crafted their own approaches over years of building their classroom practice. All but one are from New York State, and represent the range of rural, small city, or big city schools.
In the following six weeks, I’ll explore the responses of the interviewees to questions that arise out of the work of educational theorists such as Nel Noddings, Daniel Goleman, Paolo Freire, and William Glasser. I also invite you to consider questions like the following for yourself.
- Nel Noddings describes two types of caring. Natural caring is person-to-person, beginning with parent-to-child. Ethical caring is for ideas, knowledge, and social causes. Is there reason to cultivate both in the learning process and the classroom community?
- What is the role of self-awareness and emotional intelligence in the development of academic knowledge and skills (both for teachers and for students)?
- Are there basic human needs that must be met for all members of a learning community to fully and willfully engage in teaching and learning?
- What are the obstacles to addressing these essential facets of teaching and learning, how are you navigating around them, and what is your approach?
- In what ways might teaching be viewed as social activism?
Teachers rarely get to share about their practice. In most articles about education, including one that was recently published in the New York Times Magazine, we hear from principals, theorists, and district and state leaders. We read about teachers, but we rarely hear from them. And I think this speaks to the very core of the problem we face in education—the ones delivering the education to our children are rarely consulted and almost never trusted in matters of educational development and decision-making. Even as we increase the educational qualifications of teachers, we decrease their decision-making powers in the classroom. The critical expertise of this small but varied sampling of educators might shed light on what teachers bring to their schools and classrooms as researchers and practitioners.