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Questions, actions, and resources for tough times

By May 23, 2022No Comments

Part 4 of a four-part series on how SEL and great academics support each other

Teachers in hallway meetingThis blog series began with a look back at Pete Hall and Tonia Gibson’s visit to Liberty Union High School District in Brentwood, California, last summer. After the chaos of the pandemic, students were in no condition to learn, yet teachers were obligated to make that happen. It was unwinnable.

We’re happy to report that the principles of social-emotional learning have heavily influenced Liberty Union’s approach to reopening. District leaders believed us when we said high-quality instruction creates its own positive learning environment, and that students will benefit from this feedback loop.

“Considering SEL before diving into content has really helped teachers focus on what matters most academically,” says Tonia. “Sometimes in schools so many things just have to happen, or so it seems, but district leaders are becoming choosier about what they ask teachers to do. This has allowed teachers to pause a little, and focus on what their student’s SEL and academic needs really are. They could break away from the deficit mindset of filling learning gaps and stop trying to ‘catch up’ students by teaching two grade levels’ worth of content at a time, which we know doesn’t work at all.

“Instead, teachers worked together to understand what their various students’ points of need were and used high-leverage strategies such as differentiation, to meet kids where they were—teaching the current year’s curriculum and content through a lens of understanding that some essential skills and understandings may need to be (re)taught in order to move forward.”

Times are tough, there’s no disputing that fact. There’s a parallel reality, meanwhile: During tough times, we have to identify what’s most important to us; prioritize our time, energy, and other resources; and isolate the strategies that are likeliest to yield the results we crave—and need—to recover from the pandemic’s interruption to schooling and learning. By incorporating the elements of a human-focused classroom into evidence-based teaching strategies—some of the same strategies the research has been imploring us to use for decades—we can strengthen our student-centered learning environments and accelerate student learning outcomes simultaneously.

System leaders have an immense responsibility and a remarkably clear opportunity to help our teachers—our star performers—by removing obstacles and clearing a path to make high-quality core instruction a staple in every classroom, every day.

We’d like to leave you with some resources and discussion prompts that can help your school undertake this journey.


The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning, or CASEL, has been working for nearly three decades to embed SEL in classrooms.

Pete and Bryan teamed with Alisa Simeral, Bj Stone, and Bess Scott on Pursuing Greatness: Empowering Teachers to Take Charge of Their Professional Growth, which shows teachers how to cast off the busywork and create a learning environment that truly serves students.

Prefer your learning interactive? McREL created an online PD course called Pursuing Greatness: Nurturing a Positive Learning Environment based on the book.

Reflective discussion prompts

Why is it important to couple student-centered classroom approaches with evidence-based teaching strategies? Do you agree with the authors’ assertion that this strategy is most likely to result in higher levels of student achievement? Why or why not?

As a team, engage in a crosswalk of the five attributes of healthy, student-centered classrooms and the five evidence-based strategies presented in Part 3 of this series. Where is there overlap? Can you identify ways that the teaching strategies meet the social-emotional needs of students? Are there gaps? What might you need to be aware of—and enact with intentionality—in order to maximize the benefits to your students along both fronts?

Taking things off teachers’ plates has always been a hot-button topic. As a teacher, what suggestions do you have? As an administrator, what ideas do you have? How might you engage in a thoughtful, transparent, solution-oriented dialogue that helps you to streamline the responsibilities, expectations, and duties of our star performers?

Bryan Goodwin is the president and CEO of McREL International. He’s the co-author of Learning That Sticks, a columnist for Educational Leadership, and a frequent conference presenter.

Pete Hall, the executive director of Education Hall, taught preK–8 in three states, then served as a principal for 12 years in three Title I schools. He’s the author or co-author of many works on teaching and learning, including McREL’s A Teachers’ Reflective Impact Journal: Pursuing Greatness Every Day, as well as the YA novel Chasing the Show.

McREL is a non-profit, non-partisan education research and development organization that since 1966 has turned knowledge about what works in education into practical, effective guidance and training for teachers and education leaders across the U.S. and around the world.