Senior Mira Shortt holds up a list of potential stressors brainstormed by the class. (Photo by Finnegan Belleau)
Senior Mira Shortt holds up a list of potential stressors brainstormed by the class. (Photo by Finnegan Belleau)

Teachers at York create Social Emotional Learning lessons for students returning to school

August 27, 2021

To say that last year held many challenges would be an understatement. The pandemic presented a unique year for students and teachers alike in the form of remote schooling. Seeing this, a group of teachers from York worked together to develop SEL (Social Emotional Learning) training for students throughout the district. These lessons were taught over two days in students’ second period classes during the first week of school.

“Last year coming off of the pandemic one of the things that we talked about often was that students are not okay,” English teacher Brianne Kennedy-Brooks said. “We felt passionately that it would be a disservice to come back to school and pretend that all of that didn’t happen. Me and Mr. Johnson are both instructional coaches here as well as being teachers and so we play a role in the professional development of the staff, where we help teachers improve their practice and support their students.”

Alongside fellow teachers Matthew Johnson and Jessica Noble, the group came up with the idea for SEL training to help students manage their stress and readjust to in-person schooling. They also wanted to address the pandemic and talk through the issues it raised.

“We put together a proposal at the end of last year to pitch this idea to the administration,” Kennedy-Brooks said. “Over the summer, they let us know that was something they were on board with us doing. So we just came up with four learning targets, two to be covered on the first day and two to be covered on the second day. We wanted to have experiences that we felt like anybody, regardless of your comfort level, could come in and do. We also wanted to give a fair amount of choice and autonomy on the teacher’s part, so we gave them a number of ways to approach these learning targets.”

The plan was to have students receive SEL instruction from their second period teachers. This meant that instructors would have to receive training on how to approach the material with their class.

“We offered sessions during our institute days where teachers could come in and hear us present about the lesson and get used to it a little more,” math teacher Matthew Johnson said. “As teachers we’re all comfortable teaching lessons that we write, but it’s a lot less comfortable when someone else is giving you the content. We wanted to make sure that teachers were prepared.”

After months of preparations, the SEL lessons took place last week on Thursday and Friday. Teachers gave a presentation on mental health, after which they had the class participate in relaxing activities such as Yoga or coloring.

“SEL was a relief from the normal structure of my day and allowed me to focus on something else for once,” senior Calvin Wiersum said. “This break gave me time to get to know my teacher without having to worry about content.”

The purpose of the SEL instruction was not only to help students develop strategies for the upcoming school year, but teachers as well. Teaching the staff at York how to work through their problems and bond with their students was a key focus.

“I would say in my second period class we were able to work through those lessons and at the very minimum create a bond that I don’t have with my other classes,” Johnson said. “It’s important to let students know this is a safe space and that your teachers care about you. I think that teachers and students got out of it what they put into it, and if they were willing to talk about these things, I think that definitely helped them make a lot of strides in their relationship between kids and their classroom environment.”

While the goal of the recent SEL sessions was to address student mental health following the pandemic, teachers have expressed interest in continuing this program moving forward.

“I’ve been teaching for several years and I can say that even pre-pandemic there has been a large difference in students’ emotional health,” Kennedy-Brooks said. “There has been an increase in anxiety and depression and even students being hospitalized for these sorts of conditions. I really think this was the kickstarter of prioritizing this. We just really hope this is the start of focusing on the student as a whole person instead of what your grades are on the transcript.”

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