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.”

Behind the brawl

Three things to know about the Tennessee school behind this week’s graduation brawl

PHOTO: Arlington Community Schools
Arlington High School is a 2,000-plus-student school in suburban Shelby County in southwest Tennessee.

Arlington High School is considered the crown jewel of a 3-year-old district in suburban Shelby County, even as its school community deals with the unwelcome attention of several viral videos showing a fight that broke out among adults attending its graduation ceremony.

The brawl, which reportedly began with a dispute over saved seats, detracted from Tuesday’s pomp and circumstance and the more than $30 million in scholarships earned by the school’s Class of 2017. No students were involved.

“It was unfortunate that a couple of adults in the audience exhibited the behavior they did prior to the ceremony beginning and thus has caused a distraction from the celebration of our students’ accomplishments,” Arlington Community Schools Superintendent Tammy Mason said in a statement.

Here are three things to know about the 13-year-old school in northwest Shelby County.

With more than 2,000 students, Arlington is one of the largest high schools in Shelby County and is part of a relatively new district.

It’s the pride of a suburban municipality that is one of six that seceded from Shelby County Schools in 2014 following the merger of the city and county districts the year before. (School district secessions are a national trend, usually of predominantly white communities leaving predominantly black urban school systems.) More than 70 percent of Arlington’s students are white, and 6 percent are considered economically disadvantaged — in stark contrast to the Memphis district where less than 8 percent are white, and almost 60 percent are considered economically disadvantaged.

The school’s graduation rate is high … and climbing.

Last year, after adding interventions for struggling students, the school’s graduation rate jumped a full point to more than 96 percent. Its students taking the ACT college entrance exam scored an average composite of 22.5 out of a possible 36, higher than the state average of 19.9. But only a fifth scored proficient or advanced in math and a third in English language arts during 2015-16, the last school year for which scores are available and a transition year for Tennessee under a new test.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Education Commissioner Candice McQueen visits with students at Arlington High School during a 2016 tour.

The school was in the news last August when Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen visited its campus.

The commissioner spoke with students there to kick off her statewide listening tour that’s focused on ways to get students ready for college and career. McQueen highlighted the school’s extracurricular activities and students’  opportunities to intern for or shadow local professionals. She also complimented Arlington for having an engaged education community. 

poster campaign

How one Memphis student is elevating the conversation about school discipline

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Posters created by junior Janiya Douglas have amplified student voices about the culture of White Station High School in Memphis.

Now in her third year of attending a premier public high school in Memphis, Janiya Douglas says she’s observed discipline being handed out unevenly to her classmates, depending on whether they are on the college preparatory track.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
From left: Janiya Douglas and Michal Mckay are student leaders in Bridge Builders CHANGE program.

“We’re heavily divided in an academic hierarchy,” said Janiya, a junior in the optional program for high-achieving students at White Station High School. “It’s obvious students are treated differently if they are in traditional classes.”

Janiya also has observed racial disparities in how students are disciplined, and the state’s data backs that up. White Station students who are black or Hispanic are suspended at significantly higher rates than students who are white.

Frustrated by what she’s seen, Janiya took her concerns last Friday to the hallways of White Station and hung 14 posters to declare that “our school doesn’t treat everybody equally.”

By Monday morning, the posters were gone — removed by school administrators because Janiya did not get prior approval — but not before other students shared images of some of the messages on social media.

Now, Janiya is seeing some fruits of her activism, spawned by her participation in Bridge Builders CHANGE, a student leadership program offered by a local nonprofit organization.

In the last week, she’s met with Principal David Mansfield, a school counselor and a district discipline specialist to discuss her concerns. She’s encouraged that someone is listening, and hopes wider conversations will follow.

The discussions also are bringing attention to an online petition by the education justice arm of Bridge Builders calling for suspension alternatives across schools in Memphis.

White Station often is cited as one of the jewels of Shelby County Schools, a district wrought with academic challenges. The East Memphis school is partially optional, meaning some students test into the college prep program from across the county.

But Janiya and some of her classmates say they also see an academically and racially segregated school where students zoned to the traditional program are looked down upon by teachers. Those students often get harsher punishments, they say, than their optional program counterparts for the same actions.

“Our school doesn’t treat everybody equally. A lot of groups aren’t treated equally in our school system,” junior Tyra Akoto said in a quote featured on one poster.

“If we get wrong with a teacher, they’ll probably write us up. But if a white student was to do it, they’ll just play it off or something like that,” said Kelsey Brown, another junior, also quoted in the poster campaign.

A district spokeswoman did not respond to questions about disciplinary issues raised by the posters, but offered a statement about their removal from the school’s walls.

White Station is known for “enabling student voice and allowing students to express their opinions in various ways,” the statement reads. “However, there are protocols in place that must be followed before placing signs, posters, or other messages on school property. Schools administrators will always work with students to ensure they feel their voices are heard.”

PHOTO: @edj.youth/Instagram
Members of the education justice arm of the Bridge Builders CHANGE program

To create the posters, Janiya interviewed about two dozen students and had been learning about about school discipline disparities as part of the Bridge Builders CHANGE program.

State discipline data does not differentiate academic subgroups in optional schools. But white students in Shelby County Schools are more likely to be in an optional school program and less likely to be suspended. And statewide in 2014-15, black students were more than five times as likely as white students to be suspended.

White Station reflects those same disparities. About 28 percent of black boys and 19 percent of black girls were suspended that same year — significantly higher than the school’s overall suspension rate of 14 percent. About 17 percent of Hispanic boys and 7 percent of Hispanic girls were suspended. By comparison, 9 percent of white boys and 2 percent of white girls were suspended.

Shelby County Schools has been working to overhaul its disciplinary practices to move from punitive practices to a “restorative justice” approach — a transition that is not as widespread as officials would like, according to Gina True, one of four specialists implementing a behavior system called Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports, or PBIS.

“The whole goal is to not get them suspended, because we want to educate them,” said True, who met this week with Janiya and several other students from Bridge Builders. “When students are cared for emotionally, they perform better academically. As counselors, that’s what we’ve been saying for years.”

Janiya acknowledges that she didn’t follow her school’s policy last week when hanging posters without permission at White Station. But she thinks her action has been a catalyst for hard conversations that need to happen. And she hopes the discussions will include more student input from her school — and across the district.

“Those most affected by the issues should always be a part of the solution,” she said.

Correction: April 10, 2017: A previous version of this story said Janiya put up 50 posters at her school. She designed 50 but actually posted only 14.