Guest article by summer 2021 fellow Chelsea McGraw
When educators feel supported in taking chances and meeting individual students’ needs, they are more enabled to step out and try new interventions to make learning relevant for their students. Incredible barriers to learning can be overcome.
A classroom where social-emotional learning (SEL) is a priority for educators and for students is one where a learner triggered by a past trauma is immediately tended to, where a learner who struggles with language feels brave enough to speak up and receives support and where a learner who is ready for a challenge is nurtured to grow beyond what they’re learning. SEL creates a thriving classroom culture.
As more and more students in the U.S. speak English as their second language, culturally-relevant social and emotional practices are imperative for developing an inclusive classroom environment where students and teachers can grow together. I have found my international teaching experience to be particularly useful in navigating conversations about classroom culture, especially as it pertains to English language learners. When I taught in Malaysia, for example, I learned a phrase, “malu malu kucing,” which means “shy, shy cat.” Many of my brightest Malay students were very “malu malu kucing” when it came to speaking English, and I knew I had to put myself in their shoes to learn from them. So, I began – awkwardly – to learn the Malay language.
When my children witnessed me learning, it helped them open up to being brave, making blunders and participating more meaningfully in the learning process. Then we could begin working on our classroom culture. We could bravely discuss racial and gender identities, fears and choices, and I could understand their half of the conversation so I could meet them and empower them with culturally relevant material. This is key to being a culturally responsive educator. This learning experience was possible for my students because of my community’s support as I participated in the process. The community actively engaged in supporting SEL in curriculum, after school programs and departmental exchanges with our developed counseling center to best support all student groups and teachers.
In Sampson County, North Carolina, where I am currently teaching, the need for cultural responsiveness is very similar as many of my Hispanic students are “malu malu kucing” when it comes to English. My practices in the classroom tend to be unconventional because of my background teaching overseas , and it has been effective in ensuring student success.
Despite a need for SEL evidenced in school data tracking from 1995 onward, many educators still don’t have the support they need to deepen a learning environment that nurtures social and emotional development. EdWeek’s Research Center shares that only 29 percent of teachers “said they received ongoing training in social-emotional learning that continued throughout the school year” and one-fifth of teachers never received this opportunity in their job to reflect upon or improve their SEL skills. And new challenges to our practice due to the COVID-19 pandemic brought to light the lack of teacher training provided for close-up cultural responsiveness and the tools and experiences needed to meet the social-emotional needs of a diverse set of student identities and experiences. With distance learning, creating classroom culture with the support SEL provides has become more important than ever.
But there’s hope, as some school districts have found tools to build an SEL-supported classroom culture. Some schools that have had success in engaging in questions intersecting identity and cultural relevance seem to also have one factor in common: a personalized, competency-based learning approach. For example, in the EASTCONN region of Connecticut, free interactive digital training sessions have been supporting teachers in incorporating SEL into their lessons from trauma-informed approaches. West Fargo Public Schools in North Dakota has taken a similar whole child approach where guidance counselors have been introducing SEL techniques to teachers in regular training sessions. Together, social workers and health workers have partnered with teachers and the community to uplift all participants in distance learning to succeed.
Educators cannot afford the time to be “malu malu” when change is needed to provide equitable and effective educational opportunities. And to make the changes necessary to build strong, culturally-responsive classrooms, all educators deserve to have continuous capacity-building support, the proper tools and meaningful partnerships.
Chelsea McGraw, a Teach for America Alumni (2018, ENC), and U.S. Fulbright Alumni (2015, Malaysia), has invested 10 years in education and mental health to improve the quality of learning for youth in at-risk regions. She received her master’s degree in Counseling Psychology from Chatham University, and now she is pursuing Healthcare Policy and Management at Carnegie Mellon with a focus on the intersection between mental health and education within policy work.