FERMIN LEAL/EDSOURCE TODAY
Students Reginald Quartey (left) and Silas Wilson talk about their experiences in a panel on ways to improve school climate during EdSource's Symposium 2016.

Reginald Quartey handed in a perfectly fine paper to his English teacher at Oakland High School last year, and his teacher handed it back with a less than stellar grade. To Quartey, this was a good thing — to be seen as the thoughtful, ambitious student he is.

“He saw that I was capable of turning in papers that had deeper analysis, so he graded me tougher than most of my classmates,” said Quartey, a student advocate with the nonprofit group Californians for Justice.

For Quartey, who is 17 and on track to become the first in his family to go to college, the key mechanism for improving K-12 schools can be distilled into a single word: relationships. And how California schools find the money, time and will to support these relationships — up and down the education hierarchy — will help to determine the success of school reform, according to panelists who discussed social and emotional factors in education last week at an EdSource symposium in Oakland.

“How we relate to each other in the building is our social and emotional learning,” said Michael Essien, principal of a San Francisco middle school.

Both the new federal education law and the new state school accountability system call out the need to address the “whole child” in instruction, discipline and assessment. But many panelists spoke instead of the need to develop what might be called the “whole adult” — school staff who have the time, training and self-awareness to manage an educational culture in flux.

The culture shift includes moving away from rote-learning and toward Common Core State Standards-inspired discussions of ideas and moving away from a zero-tolerance discipline policy toward a nuanced look at why students are disengaged and disruptive.

“Today, it’s a new day,” said Ellen Moir, founder and chief executive officer of the New Teacher Center, a Santa Cruz-based nonprofit that offers teacher mentoring programs to districts across the country. Moir called developing the social and emotional skills of the adults who work in schools “the single most important area we can be working on together.”

Teachers who change jobs often report high levels of dissatisfaction with administrators, she said. “They are in communities where they don’t feel supported, communities where they don’t feel that their voice matters,” she said. Like students, she said, “teachers are hungry for relationships, too, and so are principals and so are the district leaders.”

She recalled the advice she gave recently to a group of mentors: “The single most important thing you can do for your new teachers is care.”

Social and emotional learning is academic jargon for what many teachers already do — teach students how to listen respectfully, manage stress and set personal goals. It includes clear instruction about expectations and the reasons behind them, such as “We are quiet in the library because students are concentrating on reading.” And the idea, according to the Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning, is to embed these concepts into academic instruction.

Most often, social and emotional learning is directed at students. But Michael Essien, principal of Martin Luther King Jr. Academic Middle School in San Francisco, said it has everything to do with how staff and students treat each other.

“How we relate to each other in the building is our social and emotional learning,” Essien said. “It is literally the relationship that exists between teachers and students in action.”

When he was assistant principal, he said, disciplinary referrals to the office were soaring. With 520 middle school students, the school had 1,963 office referrals one year and 2,150 referrals the next, adding up to “a significant amount of time” out of the classroom.

“It was my job to figure out what was going on in the relationship between students and teachers,” he said.

What he found, he said, was an “escalation cycle.” A middle school student would refuse to do what the teacher said — open a book, for instance. The teacher would confront the student to the effect of: “Don’t do that again. I’ve told you before. Stop it right now or I’m going to have to call home.” For the student, Essien said, those words might stoke confrontation. The student would talk back. The teacher would argue. Both were caught in a cycle of building emotions.

Teacher training ensued: how to de-escalate a conflict by using a neutral tone of voice, speaking quietly, allowing a student physical space and choosing words that describe the situation, rather than invoke the teacher’s authority. If that doesn’t work, Essien said, teachers are told to stop talking with the student, pick up the phone to the office and call for a “push-in.” That’s a visit to the classroom from a school counselor, administrator or other staff member, who then sits with the student.

Essien will intervene himself. “Now, where are we in the lesson?” Essien said he might ask the student. The argument doesn’t get a chance to escalate; the student doesn’t get a chance to get out of class. The classroom becomes a “neutral zone” where teachers can teach, he said.

Perhaps nowhere is the need for relationship-building greater than in matters of school discipline, Quartey said. He told a story. “One thing our school does are tardy sweeps,” he said, describing school staff roaming the building and courtyards and detaining students who are not in class. “Tardy sweeps are a way to ‘encourage’ students to be on time to their classes,” he said. “How does making a student miss the majority of their class teach him to be on time?” he asked.

He had another idea. “Instead, schools should focus on why the student was late in the first place, and whether this is a recurring issue,” he said. “And if it is a recurring issue, they should answer, ‘Why does it happen?’ and ‘How can we help them out?'”

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  1. Joseph Prasad 6 months ago6 months ago

    I do agree. Relationships are important. Being a high school student myself (I actually went to middle school with Reginald Quartey), my grades did drop when I ceased to have important relationships. I stopped caring. Made me realize it mattered more. Speaking of Reginald, glad to see him doing well.

  2. Daniel Bernhardt 10 months ago10 months ago

    I am a teacher at MLK Middle School, and Michael Essien is our leader. I have never felt more of a sense of community at any job in my career. Push-in really works, and it keeps my high-needs kids in my classroom and calm. And I rarely have to use them anymore :) We're also using the PAX good behavior game, and I can't imagine teaching without it. Thank you … Read More

    I am a teacher at MLK Middle School, and Michael Essien is our leader. I have never felt more of a sense of community at any job in my career.

    Push-in really works, and it keeps my high-needs kids in my classroom and calm. And I rarely have to use them anymore 🙂 We’re also using the PAX good behavior game, and I can’t imagine teaching without it.

    Thank you for the great article. Good things are happening at MLK.

  3. Alice Levick 10 months ago10 months ago

    Exciting stuff. I am a mathematics teachers and I am fully supportive of this idea of growth mindset and social and emotional learning. I have the class quietly respecting everyone, some working all the time, some working some of the time. If I had support in the classroom to call someone to sit with a student and take them to the next level of assisting them to work consistently in class, the academic … Read More

    Exciting stuff. I am a mathematics teachers and I am fully supportive of this idea of growth mindset and social and emotional learning. I have the class quietly respecting everyone, some working all the time, some working some of the time. If I had support in the classroom to call someone to sit with a student and take them to the next level of assisting them to work consistently in class, the academic level would increase and their well being would be supported. I will keep listening and be encouraged by your efforts. thank yoy

  4. Paromita Mitra Bhaumik 10 months ago10 months ago

    Learning is as much a social as well as neurological process. Most of our learning takes place outside the classroom in the form of interaction with others and by the process of modeling. Hence relationships are the keys inspiration and teaching.

  5. Jonathan Raymond 10 months ago10 months ago

    Amen!!!!! The relationships between students, educators (faculty and staff), AND parents, families and the community are key. These form an "education triangle" and as they go so goes young Jonny. At every intersection - classrooms, schools, districts, communities, the state and philanthropy have an opportunity and responsibility to strengthen these relationships. If we are really going to create a new North Star for public education - educating and developing the whole … Read More

    Amen!!!!! The relationships between students, educators (faculty and staff), AND parents, families and the community are key. These form an “education triangle” and as they go so goes young Jonny. At every intersection – classrooms, schools, districts, communities, the state and philanthropy have an opportunity and responsibility to strengthen these relationships.
    If we are really going to create a new North Star for public education – educating and developing the whole child rather than the no child, we need to get out of the “reforming business” and into the relationship building business. We can start by trusting the young people we are charged with educating and developing.

    And it’s not an either/or. Both young people in the system and the adults working with them need support, care, high expections, and nurturing. Let’s remember that without personal growth there is no system growth.

  6. Sandra Thorpe 10 months ago10 months ago

    After 45 years in education including one year as vice principal in charge of discipline and attendance, I could not agree more with this article. My charter school, Juan Bautista de Anza uses Arabian horses to teach our three "C's", Communication, Compassion, and Creativity. We do not have bullies or fights like I had daily in my role as vice principal. WASC found the Horse Wisdom class amazing when they observed the changes … Read More

    After 45 years in education including one year as vice principal in charge of discipline and attendance, I could not agree more with this article. My charter school, Juan Bautista de Anza uses Arabian horses to teach our three “C’s”, Communication, Compassion, and Creativity. We do not have bullies or fights like I had daily in my role as vice principal. WASC found the Horse Wisdom class amazing when they observed the changes just one day made in new students.