The cornerstone of a strong school community is trust. As a principal, I have to trust my teachers, and my teachers have to trust each other. Last school year, after a year-and-a-half of interruptions and being away from each other, our school community needed repair when we returned to in-person instruction.
Our school, Jeanne R. Meadows Elementary in San Jose, California was—like other Title 1 schools—disproportionately affected by hardships triggered by the pandemic, as well as the political and racial unrest that followed.
In addition to the challenge of learning loss, we saw widespread behavioral and interpersonal challenges as students tried to cope with our new normal. We needed to elevate social-emotional learning alongside our academic goals in order for our students to progress.
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We knew our students could not make academic gains until they felt safe emotionally and physically, but our teachers, who had full plates, needed new supports that didn’t feel like “one more thing.” Building on our partnership, we teamed up with nonprofit PowerMyLearning to help our teachers integrate SEL into their academic instruction.
During the 2021-2022 school year, we set three specific goals:
- Build teachers’ capacity to support students’ academic and social-emotional needs.
- Improve students’ behavior and SEL skills.
- Strengthen relationships with families.
Here’s how we addressed these goals and how other schools and districts can benefit from the lessons we learned.
Goal #1: Build teacher trust through flexible PD
To nurture a culture of regular self-reflection, discussion, and planning, we offered “bite-size” professional learning through collaborative workshops and small-group coaching.
Teachers participated in workshops on topics including trauma-based practices, transforming discipline into learning opportunities, and mindfulness. These were not day-long, sit-and-get sessions. Each workshop lasted an hour, and after each session, we would take the pulse of the teachers and gather feedback. This helped us see how the topic fit our students’ needs. Every classroom was different, every grade level was different.
During coaching sessions, teachers identified specific practices from a bank of ideas in the topic’s “toolkit” they wanted to build on. Giving teachers autonomy when it came to what area they wanted to focus on motivated them to try new things and collaborate with one another. As a result, teachers worked “smarter together” and gained confidence as they tried new strategies and shared their wins with one another.
One of my teachers found a new way to connect with her students through dialogue journals. She said “talking” to her students through a journal created a powerful dynamic she had never experienced before. Students told her more in writing than they ever would have in person, and she got to know them on a more personal level. At the end of the year, this teacher told me that, as a result of this empowering approach, “I saw my students’ mindsets shift from just thinking about themselves to thinking about their peers and their community.”
We complemented this work with our design-thinking approach to the curriculum, which focuses on learning from failures and sharing a spirit of continuous improvement. We supported our teachers with professional development opportunities focused on topics such as English learner instructional strategies, foundational literacy, and the MTSS framework.
Goal #2: School community relies on relationship-centered classrooms
Our teachers served as powerful models for students. Through PD sessions on restorative justice, they learned about classroom management and conflict-resolution strategies that restore student-student and student-staff relationships. When students sense that their teachers respect them, they trust their teachers more and, consequently, they stay more engaged and focused on instruction. We saw behavior improve as students learned to regulate their emotions and forge relationships with one another.
As students built trust with their teachers, they gained confidence in themselves as learners. One strategy that took off with our sixth grade was Genius Hours, a student-directed activity where students present a topic that is interesting to them. We had a student create a YouTube video explaining a video game. There was a renewed sense of creativity, curiosity, and love of learning.
Goal-setting has been a great area of success in this work. Last spring, some grade levels had students take the lead during parent-teacher conferences to share their academic progress with their families. They were proud to share how far they have come and exercise ownership of challenging goals that they had created at the beginning of the year.
Goal #3: Honor families
Over the last couple of years, it has become abundantly clear that bringing families into the learning process with compassion and purpose is critical to student success. Research shows that when teachers invite families into schoolwork in a manner that honors families as experts in their own right, teachers can overcome biases and raise their own expectations of their students, creating a virtuous cycle for themselves, their students, and their families.
At Meadows, we have made a concerted effort to engage our families in their child’s academic success. We provided workshops to help families support their children’s well-being with topics including self-care for families, strategies for motivation, navigating cyberbullying and understanding developmental milestones. I’ve noticed a change in the level of engagement during these events and have seen a positive shift in our culture as we strengthened school-family relationships. It has been invaluable to hear parents share personal stories about the motivation tactics they are using to support their child’s goals.
To evaluate our progress toward these three goals, we conducted an independent study—and the results exceeded our expectations. Teachers expressed greater confidence in teaching SEL, which was reflected in improved student behavior and SEL skills. At the same time, though, student achievement in math and ELA was accelerated by integrating SEL practices into instruction. Over an academic year, the proportion of students who met or exceeded district benchmarks increased by 13% on Star Reading and 7% on Star Math.
Making SEL a priority and giving our staff the right resources helped our students beat the odds academically and improved student well-being. SEL didn’t just benefit students, though—it really strengthened our entire school culture. By making Meadows a place where teachers want to stay and grow professionally, we’ve maintained a teacher retention rate above 95%.
Our main goal at Meadows has been developing a sense of belonging so that, no matter what, everyone feels like they’re part of this community and that people care about them. My hope is that our story is an inspiration to other schools to prioritize time to take care of the school community and all of the people in it. Creating learning environments where students can excel academically requires intentionality, focus, and collective will—but is possible!