“This experience changed my life profoundly, both personally and professionally, and because of it, I will be able to affect a positive change in the lives of others.” — School superintendent
This was one of many inspiring testimonials we received from our inaugural Summer Institute for Educators, which wrapped up two weeks ago. We designed the six-day training to equip teachers and administrators with tools to enhance their social and emotional well-being and the well-being of their students, drawing on the latest scientific research.
But, as that testimonial suggests, something deeper happened over those six days—something that we here at the GGSC did not anticipate.
Many participants spoke of the institute as “life-transforming” and “the best professional development experience ever” — wonderful feedback, for sure. Yet it left me wondering why this was such a powerful experience for everyone involved.
After listening to participants’ reactions, and reflecting on the institute myself, I’ve come to the conclusion that in addition to the science and tools, the institute helped fill a cavernous gap for many in the education profession: the need for compassionate connections to ourselves and to each other.
Why is this important? Educators and administrators spend their days in relationships with students, parents, and each other, yet their training doesn’t necessarily cover the social and emotional skills required to nurture those relationships. Plus, before they can teach social-emotional skills to others—perhaps before they can teach anything to others—they first need to address their own emotional needs and deepen their self-awareness. Otherwise, they risk emotional exhaustion and detachment—or complete burnout. And it’s their students who suffer as a result.
But, as we discovered at the institute, it doesn’t have to be this way. Providing teachers and administrators with the knowledge, tools, and, most importantly, the experience of building self-awareness and positive relationships can re-awaken the passion and vitality they had when they first became educators. As one participant wrote, “I have never been this excited/motivated going into a new school year.”
Here are some of the key lessons we learned for giving educators the inspiration and skills they need to build more positive, caring classrooms and schools.
1. Convey a vision of possibility
As a teacher and later an administrator, I knew my job was to help students learn the content and help teachers facilitate that learning. But I always felt something was missing. Education had to be about more than just the three Rs.
That feeling was confirmed years later, during my doctoral studies, when I found myself in a constant state of awe from the grand theories of positive human development and organizational psychology I was learning. Here, at last, was the missing piece I had been looking for in my work as a teacher and administrator: the science of how to reach our greatest human potential, both individually and collectively.
Many participants came to the summer institute with a similar hunger for a more inspiring, human model of education, but they lacked the knowledge and skills to crystallize their vision—or turn it into action. The summer institute gave them the tools to help make that possible, through workshops covering topics such as the importance of positive emotions and how to maintain them, the role of self-compassion in overcoming fear of failure, and how mindfulness can cultivate emotional balance—all of which can help both teachers and students reach their potential. As one teacher coach wrote:
“I came to GGSC with very little prior knowledge about the topics. … Since arriving… I feel a hope for the future that had become fairly diminished when constantly being bombarded with all of the negative the world has to offer. My thinking has been changed! … I feel renewed and a part of something far bigger and more important than I had imagined.”
2. Never underestimate the power of a safe, caring learning environment.
Science tells us time and again that a safe and caring classroom is key to student learning. Why? Because feeling safe and cared for generates positive emotions, and positive emotions cultivate creativity, foster resiliency, generate stronger connections to others, and, happily for teachers, make us better learners.
Many teachers and administrators, including those at the institute, work hard to create this kind of learning environment, but too many have never experienced it themselves as students. We wanted to turn the tables and show the participants what it feels like to be on the receiving end of what they are trying to do in their classrooms and schools everyday.
So the GGSC staff went into the institute with the intention of creating the safest, most caring learning environment possible. For example, at the end of each day, we asked the participants for feedback about what was working and what needed changing. The following morning, we told them what we were going to do about the requested changes. This simple act of respect brought forth the following response from a high school counselor: “We were treated like professionals AND as humans.”
Another simple act of care involved placing a small gift, like a chocolate, on every participant’s chair each morning. Through this small gesture, we hoped to convey to the participants that we valued them and the important work they do—a message not often heard by those in the education profession. We were very happy when one head of school wrote, “The level of care was exceptional! Clearly you live the greater good.”
3. Build the human network.
Many of the institute participants told us that they were lone wolves in their schools when it came to implementing social-emotional learning. So we wanted to make sure that everyone went home feeling like they’re part of a network of educators that could support one another and share ideas in the months and years to come, even once the the busy-ness of the new school year begins to usurp their time.
To develop these bonds, we tried to infuse a sense of belonging from the beginning by dividing the 62 participants into families of six and assigning each person a coaching partner. Following each workshop, participants reflected individually or discussed with their coaching partner and/or family how the science impacted them personally and professionally. One high school counselor told us:
“I really liked the coaching pairs and families. I didn’t think I would and I really got close to my family and feel sad saying goodbye to them. We really developed a bond that helped me feel a sense of belonging.”
Because research has shown that play is also an important part of building empathy among people, we played hard! Everything from spaghetti-and-marshmallow towers to laughter yoga to a drum circle and dance party (complete with the Wobble). A lot of laughter was heard ringing through the halls of UC Berkeley.
In the end, we here at the GGSC recognize that our efforts were only half the equation. The openness, generosity, and respect that each participant brought to the learning process made up the other half. It was a memorable week and we are eternally grateful for the privilege of spending it with such a wonderful group of professionals who are dedicated to creating a thriving educational landscape.
To close with the words of a participant:
“This is one week out of only a few others in my life experience that I know I was exactly where I was meant to be.”