Commentary: Returning To The Classroom With A New Focus On Social And Emotional Learning

As 2017 National Teacher of the Year, I’ve been out of school for a year, traveling the country to talk to people about the beauty and importance of education.

The last time I was in my classroom, I had a student I'll call Natasha. She was tall, with proud eyes and a stubborn streak. She was a talented creative writer. And she never came to school.

The other teachers and I tried everything we could think of to keep Natasha in school. We contacted her guardian and made an attendance plan. We worked with her one-on-one on the rare days she materialized. But it wasn’t enough. One day, Natasha walked out of school in the middle of the day and just never came back.

As an educator, I believe it’s my responsibility to make sure all of my students have the supports they need in school to grow into productive, thriving adults. This fundamental belief has driven my life’s work. So when I think about returning to Room 005, I think about Natasha: What could I have done differently so she felt safe and welcome in school? How can I do better the next time a student like Natasha walks through my door?

Education policy has historically focused on students’ academic achievement in the classroom – test scores, graduation rates, etc. — but a new wave of research shows us that hard studies alone are not enough. In order for students to reach their full potential, we – educators, coaches, guidance counselors, school principals and all caring adults – must invest in students’ social and emotional learning.

No two students are exactly alike, and there is no one-size-fits-all approach to help them grow.

Educators like me are shifting our focus to address students’ social and emotional learning needs, yet students from low-income households and young people of color are still disproportionately left behind. According to a recent report by the Aspen Institute Education & Society Program,

“U.S. schools systemically provide fewer resources to students of color and students from low-income families, including less funding, fewer enrichment activities, less rigorous coursework; lower-quality materials; curriculum that doesn’t reflect their background and culture; and unequal access to highly effective teachers. This not only hobbles their individual chances for success, but also undermines shared growth in an economy where most jobs that pay a living wage require some form of post-secondary education.”

We know that the real-life impacts of systemic inequality are lasting and pervasive. And as a result, those who are historically underserved often end up trapped in a vicious cycle of poverty. It’s on us to disrupt the systemic inequality that has set students behind for generations. But how?

One way to do this is to recognize and respect the cultures of the students in our classrooms. For example, Aspen Education notes that “many schools and classrooms are built on more individualistic and competitive models of learning,” whereas in many communities of color, people value collaboration over competition. To teach in a more culturally-responsive way, we can build group work into our curricula and emphasize the importance of the collective in our classroom communities. Learning should not be a competitive sport!

We also have to remember how important it is to engage respectfully with our students’ families and communities as we move forward with SEL initiatives. Our own implicit biases can lead us to make harmful assumptions, like deciding that students’ families are disinterested in this work. Instead of assuming, we need to build relationships and listen to families’ hopes and dreams for their students. If we move forward from the shared vision that we all want students to grow into thriving adults, we can partner with families and communities to reinforce the link between “relationships and rigor.”


Ultimately, social and emotional learning reminds us that no two students are exactly alike, and there is no one-size-fits-all approach to help them grow. When we apply a racial equity lens to every aspect of this work, we can better support our students as whole people and address their unique needs.

I am returning to the same classroom this fall, but I am not the same teacher. By acknowledging systemic inequality and applying a racial equity lens to all that I do, I can be more responsive to my students’ individual needs, while working to create more equitable outcomes for all. I encourage other educators to do the same, so we can build schools and classrooms where all of our young people, including our Natashas, can grow.

Sydney Chaffee is the 2017 National Teacher of the Year. She currently teaches ninth grade Humanities at Codman Academy Charter Public School in Boston.

Headshot of Sydney Chaffee

Sydney Chaffee Cognoscenti contributor
Sydney Chaffee is a high school humanities teacher at Codman Academy Charter Public School in Boston and the 2017 National Teacher of the Year.



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