Relationship Building

Program aims to build social-emotional learning for educators

PHOTO: Jaclyn Zubrzycki
Teacher coaches at Fairley High School in Memphis learn about social-emotional skills at a workshop in 2014.

Jocquell Rodgers, a literacy coach at Fairley High School in Memphis, is reading from a stack of cards that describe everyday interactions that might happen at any school. Her task: Determine whether the adult responses the cards showed would help build healthy, secure relationships.

“‘Jamie is often late to the class,’” she reads. “‘When you confront her, she explains that she commutes over an hour to school. You say, ‘I live far away from school and I get here on time!’”

Exercises aimed at building empathy are common in classrooms across the nation, as educators seek to prevent bullying and improve students’ social-emotional skills. But this exercise is focused on the social-emotional development of teachers and school staff, not students.

The premise is that self-aware and emotionally stable educators are better equipped to build relationships with students, which translates into safer, more stable learning environments, which in turn promotes the emotional and academic health of students.

Megan Marcus founded FuelEd because she thought teachers could benefit from learning more about the psychology and neuroscience behind relationships.
Megan Marcus founded FuelEd because she thought teachers could benefit from learning more about the psychology and neuroscience behind relationships.

The exercise for Rodgers and other teacher leaders at Fairley High School was part of a workshop led last fall by Megan Marcus, the founder and chief executive officer of FuelEd Schools, a Houston-based program focused on equipping educators socially and emotionally to develop better relationships with students, parents, colleagues and others.

Throughout the 2014-15 school year, Fairley’s teachers and teacher coaches are participating in a pilot program and learning about what FuelEd refers to as the “science, skills and self-awareness of relationships.” In addition to attending workshops, they have access to unlimited one-on-one therapy sessions conducted via video-chat, and to occasional guided group therapy sessions with colleagues.

Pondering the response given to Jamie in the scenario she was reading, Rodgers laughed. “You know, I probably would say that,” Rodgers said. “‘Well, we need to get to school on time, because that is our policy!’”

She determined, however, that the unsympathetic tone of the response was not the best way to build a strong relationship, even though the message — that being on time is important — was appropriate.

Shifting the focus

Social-emotional learning has not traditionally been part of teachers’ training or ongoing professional development. That’s a mistake, Marcus argues.

“We’re training teachers as technical instructors,” Marcus said. “What about the fact that they’re put in the position of being a counselor, a mentor? They wear all of these hats.”

“There’s an empathy gap for adults,” she said. “A lot of people who work in schools find it easy to relate to kids, but there’s little tolerance for the feelings and the problems of adults. That may be part of the reason there’s such high turnover in the profession.”

That focus resonates with Zachary Samson, the principal at Fairley, which is run by Green Dot Public Schools, a Los Angeles-based charter management organization. “Teaching is really emotionally and socially demanding as well as intellectually demanding,” Samson said. “Oftentimes we disregard the social-emotional component of being a teacher, and I think that’s the most difficult to process without support.”

FuelEd was inspired by Marcus’ work as a researcher for “The Social Neuroscience of Education,” a book written by Louis Cozolino, a professor of psychology at Pepperdine University. Marcus said she found that teachers were eager to learn more about neuroscience and psychology.

The program was piloted in 2012 at Yes Prep, a Houston-based charter school network that is slated to expand to Memphis. This year, about 600 teachers in Memphis, Houston and Spring Branch, Texas, are participating in the program.

Intense need

At the Memphis workshop, Rodgers and five colleagues were asked to identify whether the cards depicted behaviors that promote “secure attachment” — a consistent, responsive and validating relationship — or “insecure attachment ” — one that is unresponsive, inconsistent and judgmental.

FuelEd is based on the idea that "secure attachment"—strong, positive relationships—can help create better learning environments for students and working environments for teachers.
FuelEd is based on the idea that “secure attachment”—strong, positive relationships—can help create better learning environments for students and working environments for teachers.

Marcus said up to half of all students have insecure attachment styles, based largely on relationships at home. In some schools, particularly those serving large numbers of students who live under the stress of poverty, the percentage is far higher, Marcus said.

“You have students coming to class looking like ’bad students.’ Teachers may read a behavior as disrespect,” Marcus said. “But behind every behavior is an attachment style.”

Fairley’s teachers and students are under particularly intense academic pressure: The school is in its first year of operation by the state Achievement School District (ASD), which intervenes in schools ranked in the state’s bottom 5 percent. Fairley’s governance was shifted from Shelby County Schools to the ASD, which chartered the school to Green Dot, which has three years to improve the school’s academic performance or risk having its charter revoked.

“The good news is that teachers can compensate” through awareness of their own and students’ needs, Marcus said. “It is well-researched which behaviors promote secure attachment.”

Balancing priorities

At the training at Fairley, the teacher coaches noted that the goals of promoting emotional security and improving academics sometimes seem to conflict. “To get the work done in a school, we can’t get caught up in everyone’s feelings,” one said. “It’s not that I don’t care; it’s just that other things take precedence.”

A colleague was more blunt: “Sometimes I feel like I’m aware [of others’ feelings]. I just don’t care. I need you to get to this place, or I need you to get to this level of teaching.”

Samson said the program is too new to gauge impact and that turning its lessons into practice will take time. “It’s really something we have to do continuous training on,” he said.

Marcus acknowledged that finding schools willing to carve out time for the program can be a barrier. “Teachers are so busy. … It’s perceived as an add-on,” she said.

However, she hopes to bring similar programs to other schools in Memphis and throughout the nation, while also raising awareness about the importance of teachers’ social-emotional health.

“Our larger vision is to fill this missing piece in teacher preparation,” she said. “Relationships are the air we breathe. No learning happens without a relationship. It’s not an add-on. You can’t do anything without it.”

a 'meaningful' education?

How a Colorado court case could change how public schools everywhere serve students with special needs

Dougco headquarters in Castle Rock (John Leyba/The Denver Post).

The U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday grappled with the question of what kind of education public schools must provide students with disabilities, hearing arguments in a case that originated with a complaint against a suburban Denver school district and that could have profound implications nationwide.

The case involves a student diagnosed with autism and attention deficit/hyperactive disorder. His parents pulled him out of his Douglas County elementary school, saying he wasn’t making enough progress and the district’s response was lacking.

They enrolled the boy in a private school for children with autism and asked the district to reimburse them for the tuition, arguing their son was due a “free appropriate public education” as required by the 1975 Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

The law spells out the requirements states must meet to receive federal money to educate special-needs students. The district declined, saying it had met the standard of the law.

The family eventually filed a lawsuit against the district. Lower courts all sided with the district, reasoning that it had provided the child “some” educational benefit — the standard cited in the federal statute at issue.

Lower courts across the nation have varied in their definition of the proper standard. The high court arguments Wednesday centered on whether “some” benefit was good enough, or whether special-needs students deserve a more “meaningful” benefit.

Jeffrey Fisher, an attorney for the boy’s family, told the justices that as a general rule, individualized education plans for special education students should include “a level of educational services designed to allow the child to progress from grade to grade in the general curriculum.”

Throughout the arguments, the justices expressed frustration with what Justice Samuel Alito described as “a blizzard of words” that the law and courts have used to define what’s appropriate for special needs students.

Chief Justice John Roberts said regardless of the term used, “the whole package has got to be helpful enough to allow the student to keep up with his peers.”

Neal Katyal, an attorney for the school district, argued that providing children “some benefit” is a reasonable standard.

“That’s the way court after court has interpreted it,” he said. “It’s worked well. This court shouldn’t renege on that.”

Ron Hager, senior staff attorney for special education at the National Disability Rights Network, attended the oral arguments Wednesday and said he was optimistic the lower court’s ruling would be overturned.

He said if the Supreme Court does overturn the federal Tenth Circuit Court’s ruling and requires a higher standard, it won’t necessarily come with major financial costs for school districts. Instead, he said, it will nudge them to be proactive and provide teacher training and intervention services early on instead of waiting until problems — and the expenses associated with them — snowball later.

Marijo Rymer, executive director of the Arc of Colorado, which advocates on behalf of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, said she was heartened to see the case advance to the Supreme Court. Establishing a clearer standard on what constitutes a fair and appropriate education for students with disabilities is a civil rights issue, she said.

“It’s critical that federal law, which is what this is based on, be reinforced and supported, and the court is in the position to deliver that message to the nation’s schools and the taxpayers that fund them,” Rymer said.

Both Hager and Rymer acknowledged that even if the Supreme Court establishes a new, higher standard, it could be open to interpretation. Still, they said it would send a strong message to school districts about their responsibilities to students with disabilities.

Summer remix

Ten stories you may have missed this summer (and should read now as the new school year kicks in)

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Gabrielle Colburn, 7, adds her artistic flair to a mural in downtown Memphis in conjunction with the XQ Super Schools bus tour in June.

Labor Day used to signal the end of summer break and the return to school. That’s no longer the case in Tennessee, but the long holiday is a good time to catch up on all that happened over the summer. Here are 10 stories to get you up to speed on K-12 education in Tennessee and its largest school district.

TNReady is back — with a new test maker.

Last school year ended on a cliffhanger, with the State Department of Education canceling its end-of-year tests for grades 3-8 in the spring and firing testmaker Measurement Inc. after a series of missteps. In July, Commissioner Candice McQueen announced that Minnesota-based Questar will pick up where Measurement Inc. left off. She also outlined the state’s game plan for standardized tests in the coming year.

But fallout over the state’s failed TNReady test in 2015-16 will be felt for years.

The one-year void in standardized test scores has hit Tennessee at the heart of its accountability system, leaving the state digging for other ways to assess whether all of its students are improving.

Speaking of accountability, Tennessee also is updating that plan under a new federal education law.

The state Department of Education has been working with educators, policymakers and community members on new ways to evaluate schools in answer to the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA, which requires states to judge schools by non-academic measures as well as test scores.

Meanwhile, issues of race and policing have educators talking about how to foster conversations about social justice in school.

In the wake of police-related killings that rocked the nation, five Memphis teachers talked about how they tackle difficult conversations about race all year long.

School closures made headlines again in Memphis — with more closings likely.

Closing schools has become an annual event as Tennessee’s largest district loses students and funding, and this year was no exception. The shuttering of Carver and Northside high schools brought the total number of district-run school closures to at least 21 since 2012. And more are likely. This month, Shelby County Schools is scheduled to release a facilities analysis that should set the stage for future closures. Superintendent Dorsey Hopson has said the district needs to shed as many as two dozen schools — and 27,000 seats — over the next four years. A Chalkbeat analysis identifies 25 schools at risk.

Exacerbating the challenges of shifting enrollment, families in Foote Homes scrambled to register their children for school as Memphis’ last public housing project prepared to close this month amid a delay in delivering housing vouchers to move elsewhere.

The new school year has officially begun, with the budget approved not a moment too soon for Shelby County Schools.

District leaders that began the budget season facing an $86 million shortfall eventually convinced county commissioners to significantly increase local funding, while also pulling some money from the school system’s reserve funds. The result is a $959 million budget that gives most of the district’s teachers a 3 percent raise and restores funding for positions deemed critical for continued academic progress.

The district also unveiled its first annual report on its growing sector of charter schools.

With charter schools now firmly entrenched in Memphis’ educational landscape, a Shelby County Schools analysis shows a mixed bag of performance, while calling on traditional and charter schools to learn from each other and promising better ways to track quality.