The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (casel.org) defines social emotional learning (SEL) as “the process through which children and adults acquire and effectively apply the knowledge, attitudes, and skills necessary to understand and manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships, and make responsible decisions” (casel.org). A tall order.

With all of the focus on developing SEL competencies in K-12 students, we must start with the teacher. It seems obvious, but are schools, districts, and professional development programs valuing this as a priority? Teachers are notorious for giving, giving, giving, and not necessarily taking the time to value their own personal growth and well-being. Yet, to startle us all to face reality, Haim Ginott dramatically claims: “As a teacher, I possess a tremendous power to make a child’s life miserable or joyous…. In all situations, it is my response that decides whether a crisis will be escalated or de-escalated and a child humanized or dehumanized.” Wow.

Most teachers know that the best way to teach something effectively is to model it. If we aren’t actually embodying SEL competencies for our students (e.g., self-management, self-awareness, social awareness, responsible decision-making, and relationship skills) then teaching those skills will be a hard sell. If you need a rousing call to practice self-care, this is it.

The only way to respond is to put the oxygen mask on ourselves first. Then assist the children around us. In my workshops for teachers and school professionals, I draw on several key texts (as well as a substantive research base) for developing key SEL competencies in teachers (and their students, of course). Some of my favorites include:

Self-Compassion (Kristin Neff): points to the value of self-compassion (composed of self-kindness, a sense of common humanity, and mindfulness) over self-esteem and self-criticism, which emphasizes social comparison

Focus (Daniel Goleman): discusses three ways to enhance attention, including ways to foster 1) inner (“cognitive control”) 2), other (empathy and concern for others) and 3) outer (systems thinking and dynamics)

The 5 Dimensions of Engaged Teaching (Laura Weaver & Mark Wilding): features practical strategies for developing one’s professional practice in five ways: 1) cultivating an open heart, 2) engaging the self-observer, 3) being present, 4) establishing respectful boundaries, and 5) developing emotional capacity.

And, as an added bonus, Teaching with Fire: Poetry that Sustains the Courage to Teach (Editors: Sam M. Intrator and Megan Scribner). This book is a wonderful gift to yourself and/or a treasured teacher colleague as it features personally relevant poems selected by educators from across the country, accompanied by brief reflective pieces on leadership and teaching.

Take the time to dive into one of these texts and nurture your own personal growth. You, first.