Stop the Hot Potato! Imagining An All-Hands Model for SEL Skills in Schools | Liza Garonzik | 7 Min Read

March 1, 2022

For months, headlines have been screaming that today’s students are in crisis. As districts close for mental health days and schools navigate Covid learning loss on top of eye-watering rates of depression and anxiety among students, everyone is rightfully tired and scared. The reasons behind this crisis are infinitely debatable—blame Covid, Instagram, politics, parents!—but here’s what’s not: when it comes to supporting the whole child, schools need an all-hands-on-deck strategy, starting now. 

Social-Emotional Learning (SEL) can feel like a hot potato in schools. Adults across campus lament Gen-Z’s deficits in what feels like “basic social skills,” yet, few faculty have the time or tools to course-correct consistently. Generally, teachers teach courses and engage in student support on an as-needed, highly individualized basis. Student Life staff—like counselors and grade deans—are responsible for the “SEL program” within a school. But too often, they don’t have time to do much more than 30-minute presentations during advisory, with glitchy videos and an emergency phone ringing in the counselor’s pocket. This isn’t fair to anyone. 

Today’s students need adults across campus to take an All-Hands, not Hot-Potato, approach to teaching SEL skills. That begins with building buy-in among faculty and ends with a divide-and-conquer strategy where teachers are responsible for instruction in the skills that align with their curriculum. Sounds nice … but what could that actually look like? 

As a former Humanities teacher and grade dean, and an unabiding pedagogy nerd who believes all teachers have what it takes to teach students these SEL skills, I’ll zoom in on an area I know well: how to integrate SEL into a rigorous high school English course. 

Build Faculty Buy-In

As a starting point, combat the misconception that SEL skills are “just touchy-feely.” CASEL, the leading authority on SEL, is actually called Collaboration for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning: SEL skills set students up for success in learning as well as life. Teachers intuit this, even if they don’t name it. So, try asking them to! You’ll find they have clarion anecdotes about the academic impact of the SEL deficit. 

Take my teacher-friend Maggie’s example:

“I used to be able to assume that students came to class with basic social skills: the kind cultivated around the family dinner table. Students showed up in high school English already knowing *how* to engage in a group conversation, so, as the teacher,…

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Liza Garonzik

Liza Garonzik is the Founder of R.E.A.L. Discussion, a program that trains faculty to (re)teach Gen-Z students the discussion skills they need for success in learning — and real life. Her work is informed by an interdisciplinary research base and experience as a student, teacher, administrator, and trustee in diverse independent schools. Get in touch at [email protected] — there's little she loves more than a great conversation!