Two Hundred Heads Are Better Than One: SEL Planning for Our District

By Lindsey Neves, North Attleborough Public Schools

Anyone who has been in the field of education knows this: We can’t do it alone. Whether it be planning units, managing a cafeteria full of third-graders, or adopting a new framework for report cards district-wide, it’s as the saying goes: “Two heads (or two hundred heads) are better than one.” There’s a certain power that happens, comes with collaboration. It’s not just a lovely word hanging on a flag for when NEASC comes around; it’s the way we have democratic discussions, try innovative approaches and embark on a path of sustainable change.

As a member of the Social and Emotional Learning Steering Committee in the North Attleborough Public School District, I had the fortunate opportunity to attend a conference on November 8th, 2017, hosted by the Social and Emotional Learning Alliance for Massachusetts that offered guidance on how to implement such change. Held at Old Rochester Regional High School in Mattapoisett, MA, the regional event featured Jim Vetter, Executive Director for SEL4MA, and Rachel Poliner, an educational consultant who specializes in district-wide SEL implementation.

Throughout the day, Jim and Rachel guided us through the necessary steps in shifting our focus from a district that looks at the academic status of students to one that looks at the whole child. Breaking the process down into concrete steps, they led us through reflective and informative exercises that included assessing our assets and needs as a district, examining the current reality, formulating goals and objectives, brainstorming stakeholder participation, planning for stakeholder engagement, addressing concerns, anticipating stages and strategies, and working for real impact.

Having this time and direction was invaluable as we begin our journey as a school system adopting SEL. We’ve seen the changes happening for a while; rates of anxiety, depression, and self-harm have increased. Students report feeling constantly stressed, overwhelmed, and disconnected from their school communities. As workers in the field of education, we are the first responders to such issues. Many of us are already practicing SEL and have been for a while; the interest in doing some comes from the instincts that led us to this profession in the first place.

We all want to see our students succeed academically. Yet we also want to see our students become effective collaborators and leaders, and happy, balanced people. Moving forward with a systematic approach ensures that SEL is not going to be “just another initiative” but an honest examination of how we can continue and, I would argue, improve in making a difference in the lives of our students. But as my decade in the field of education has taught me, this profession–especially when it comes to professional development–can often feel like a world of unrealistic ideals. I can remember several instances in which I have sat in a hard wooden chair at the end of a long day listening to people talk about what they wanted to happen, without ever hearing them address the how. Such negligence can often leave educators feeling unheard, unprepared, and set up to fail. After all, the how is the most challenging and crucial part!

At SEL4MA’s regional event, we had the rare chance to have a conversation about this aspect of the process. Jim and Rachel not only showed us the steps we need to take to start positive (and manageable!) change, but gave us the space and time to realize that we had just as many questions as we had answers. In essence, there was a lot that we still needed to unpack, solidify and/or make more concrete in our implementation. Members of the Steering Committee posed inquiries such as “How are we going to approach this? Should we start with curricula or culture first? What does an ‘SEL District’ even look like? What have other schools done that was successful? How are we going to handle setbacks? How are we going to work with the resistance that comes, naturally–and understandably–from feelings of discomfort, anxiety and initiative fatigue?”

At the end of the day, as a group, we learned that we still have a long way to go, with several unknown answers along the way. But as Jim said, change is messy, and as Rachel said, we are social beings, so with that, I’ve concluded that embarking on this messy journey with the insight and support from others is a great place to start.