Teachers poked fun at each other and made off-the-cuff remarks about the everyday stresses of working at low-income schools during a recent conference in Nashville. It’s a little-known fact that laughter is key to making students memorize lessons, a trainer told teachers in between quips about Teach For America recruits and unruly students.

The conference was geared toward training teachers to help students cope with social and emotional stresses that can sometimes distract from classroom learning.

Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools has installed new learning standards, built academic academies in high school and increased the demands on teachers. But the district has also made a concerted effort to get teachers and students to bring a positive attitude to the classroom.

In 2012, they became the first district in the state – and one of only a handful in the nation –to hire a director of social and emotional learning. The director, Kyla Krengel, trains the district’s staff, from principals to bus drivers, on ways to help students cultivate skills like anger management, relationship building, and mindfulness. The thinking is that happier kids, with fewer discipline problems and the skills to cope with situations ranging from arguments with their best friend to extreme poverty, will more easily be able to focus on classroom lessons, leading to higher test scores.

“It’s not a curriculum that you have to sit back and teach,” said Tony Majors, the director of support services for Metro Nashville Schools. “It’s how you interact with children, it’s how you interact with adults.”

More than 400 educators from across Tennessee and eight other states attended last week’s conference at Cane Ridge High School in Antioch. The conference was sponsored by Metro Nashville Schools and Alignment Nashville, a non-profit committed to bring together community resources to help support public schools. For the first time this year, the conference was expanded to include more than 300 people outside the education sector, including mental health professionals and representatives from juvenile court.

Metro Nashville's director of social and emotional learning, Kyla Krengel, speaks at the conference.
Metro Nashville’s director of social and emotional learning, Kyla Krengel, speaks at the conference.

Teachers should share with students tasks that they find challenging, and tell students the tactics they use to overcome those challenges, said the keynote speaker, Sara Rimm-Kaufman, a professor at the University of Virginia’s school of education.

Knowing that even adults find certain tasks difficult helps students feel like their struggles with academic material aren’t exceptional or insurmountable, she said. Throughout the conference speakers like Rimm-Kaufman emphasized that social and emotional learning is as much about teachers’ state of minds as students’.

“We’ve got to make sure we take care of our teachers, as well as our students,” said Dottie Critchlow, Nashville’s head of instructional support.

An example of how teachers’ own feelings impacts classroom learning caused one outbreak of laughter in a session called “Brain Scans to Lesson Plans” led by Tara Brown, president of an education consulting agency.

Brown was reminding teachers that students can sense their attitude by how they carry themselves in the classroom, which impacts the overall learning environment.

“Kids in poverty read non-verbal cues, too,” Brown told the classroom of teachers. “We’ve all seen scared little white teachers from Teach for America and lord have mercy, we know they’re going to get chewed up and spit out.”

Brown told teachers that showing their enthusiasm and excitement for teaching will demonstrate to students that they are “actually worth listening to.”   

Rimm-Kaufman also specifically addressed how social and emotional learning can help students master new Common Core math standards. In Tennessee, curricula based off the standards often promote group work. She said that show-and-tell in the morning, where students learn to listen and ask each other questions, helps students work together on complex math problems later in the day.

Tara Brown talked about how teachers can build more positive relationships with students, often evoking loud laughter.
PHOTO: G. Tatter
Tara Brown talked about how teachers can build more positive relationships with students, often evoking loud laughter.

Administrators in the Metro Schools say they can feel a difference in schools since the district expanded social and emotional learning through a grant from the NoVo Foundation and the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL). But that difference can be hard to measure.

Krengel’s next project is to quantify the impacts of the districts’ work on social and emotional learning, which is so often manifested in intangibles, like laughter and relationships. She’s working to combine data on school discipline, attendance, drop-out rates, test scores, and classroom observations so Nashville can help share the impact of their work with other districts.

“The district is open to finding what really works,” she said.