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Social Emotional Learning: Fluff or Essential?

If you hang around some of my teachers, you’ll probably hear us comment about the importance of Social Emotional Learning (SEL). It should come as no surprise that we learn best from those we like and those who like, and value, us. But it goes much deeper than that.

SEL has gained popularity in education circles, but practices tend to get blurry when they become “popular.” Concepts or programs get distorted as soon as they’re assigned an acronym, like SEL.

Blurry concepts eventually lose their meaning and become all talk and no action. Sometimes, there’s the temptation to pay lip service to a topic, giving the illusion that it’s being implemented. I think this often happens with Social Emotional Learning.

Some might say that all this SEL stuff is just fluff. Some think we go too far in our emphasis of social emotional learning, saying, “it’s too much of a good thing.” To that, I say, we haven’t even scratched the surface.

Don’t let my emphasis on social emotional learning confuse you into thinking I place less value on academic expectations. Experience has taught me that deep learning doesn’t have a chance without positive and trusting relationships, a central component of SEL. Learning will be much greater when we make responsible decisions and manage our emotions, also essential components of SEL.

Inez Taylor

Inez Taylor close to the time I was in her class.

When I was a student, my best teachers built strong relationships around a shared love for the subject or discipline. This didn’t mean I was always happy with the teacher who said, “I’m sorry, that needs to be better.” I remember Inez Taylor, my high school English teacher, challenging the assumptions of something I’d written. I was upset but learned from her hard questions. I rewrote the assignment and made it better because we had a relationship based on mutual respect. I still think of Inez Taylor with fondness.

I remember my best teachers’ passion and sense of urgency. If they got emotional, even bordering on a little angry, it was about our shared commitment to the discipline, the learning. That didn’t damage our relationship but ultimately strengthened it because we realized what we were doing was important.

The following elements are all necessary for deep and lasting learning: social (relationships), emotional (resilience and stability), content, skills, and application of skills to new challenges. I want my kids to have all of this stuff! I think they’re going to need it.

Inez Taylor EHS 1965

Inez Taylor on the left with Elsie Warnock on the right. Approximately 1965

When I asked El Dorado friends if they had photos of Inez Taylor, Mamie Polk found the above photo in a 1965 yearbook. I was pleased to see my mother in the photo. By the time I got to El Dorado High School, she had moved to Barton Junior High School in El Dorado. My mother always avoided teaching in the school I attended. I never knew if this was a coincidence or intentional.

Here’s a post I wrote about others who’ve impacted my learning, including Dee Post, an El Dorado High School teacher who influenced me after I became a teacher. When In Doubt, Write


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I'm Jim Warnock, Principal at Alma Intermediate School. I enjoy learning and sharing with others. If you like the outdoors, check out my other blog: ozarkmountainhiker.com

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