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.”