Q&A: Jennifer Cutler on SEL in Ashland Public Schools

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The mission of SEL4MA is to advance and support effective social-emotional learning practices in all schools and communities in the state of Massachusetts. In our work with teachers and administrators, we often hear about great examples of educators across the Commonwealth who are passionate about implementing and integrating SEL in their districts. Our goal is to help serve as a megaphone, amplifying the great work being done by leaders in SEL throughout the state.

The following post is the second in our new Massachusetts SEL Community Highlights interview series, in which the SEL4MA Communications Committee Chair Nick Woolf spoke with Jennifer Cutler, Director of Counseling & Social Emotional Learning at the Ashland Public School District.

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Nick Woolf: Thanks so much for your time, Jen! To get us started, can you explain your current role in Ashland?

Jennifer Cutler: Sure! As the Director of Counseling and Social-Emotional Learning for the Ashland Public School District my responsibilities include overseeing and expanding the counseling and social-emotional initiatives district-wide. Basically, I think that this role is going to change and expand over time. But what I’ve been focusing on, since I started working here in October 2018, is really taking a very close look at how our school counselors are functioning, what their positions entail, and how they are currently addressing social emotional learning in Tier 1 and Tier 2.  I’m also evaluating what is in place currently throughout the district in terms of social-emotional support programming in each school. What curriculums are being used, how SEL is being integrated in classrooms on a daily basis, and really starting to plan out what professional development is needed for all staff.

I’ve also been starting to reach out to parents, surveying them and getting an understanding of how much they know about SEL. Many of them are excited and ready to get involved, so we will make sure they are included in district improvement planning and that their voice is heard. I want to ensure that we do not make any decisions in a silo and have a really collaborative approach to social-emotional learning.

NW: Can you tell me a little bit about your career path and what inspired you to go into the field of education?

JC: So, I’m going to go back quite a bit. When I was in elementary school, I had a specific teacher who really served as a personification of great social-emotional learning. She believed in the whole child; cultivated a sense of community in her classroom; she knew each of us on a personal level. For me, that was a time when I was able to come out of my shell, being naturally introverted but feeling like someone cared about me and supported me, which led me to be able to take some academic and social risks.

I think all of my experiences in education really started with that belief that you’re teaching the whole child, and that you won’t see academic progress unless you are meeting the basic needs of children. As an educator, I wanted to form positive relationships and give students the skills they need to lead successful lives.

NW: How do you think the landscape of education has changed since you first started in the field?  

JC: What I’ve noticed in the past fifteen years is that our population of students has progressively become more and more stressed and, as a result, they have greater needs for mental health support. I think that the level of stress that middle and high school students face today has significantly increased, but I also feel like their ability to cope with stress has decreased. We used to only focus on health and wellbeing for a small number of students; now, I think it’s something that needs to be universally taught to make sure all students our schools are equipped with the strategies that they need to be successful.

NW: That’s super interesting, and it gets me thinking about the impact of technology and social media on health outcomes. What are your views on the balance of educational technology and its potential to enhance or promote social-emotional learning, mixed with some of the parental concerns around privacy or screen-time?

JC: We recently had a really interesting conversation about how we can make some changes (in terms of technologies) in our schools, and how can we – as educators or as parents – think about incorporating technology into our children’s education. You obviously want children to have in-person social interactions, and there are a lot of issues today with cyber-bullying. When it comes to the use of technology in the classroom and how teachers are using it, I think it’s about being really deliberate with what tools we use and how we are keeping our students safe.

NW: Shifting the conversation towards policy – it seems like right now, the state is trending in a positive direction in terms of emphasizing SEL. Do you think that policy on social-emotional learning can impact programming throughout the state? 

JC: I think it is important. I know that one thing that I run into when I’m talking about SEL to teachers is that it’s not an actual requirement for them. It’s a fair point, because they have so much on their plates already. In order to really help teachers learn best practices and start to integrate SEL into their curricula, I think we need requirements about it and encourage more professional development in this area. 

Overall, though, I’m really pleased with where we are as a state. It’s great that the Commissioner is focusing on social-emotional learning and some areas around deeper learning that are really important. The national focus on SEL is growing as well, so it’s nice because more and more parents are aware and familiar with it. I would like to see Massachusetts continuing down this path, building on what we have now and helping educators view SEL as a foundation upon  which they can layer their academic subjects.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Nick Woolf is a graduate student at Tufts University specializing in social-emotional learning and educational technologies. A volunteer with SEL4MA since August of 2018, Nick is the Communications Committee Chair and a member of the SEL4MA Steering Committee. At Tufts, Nick serves as a graduate research assistant for the Initiative on Social-Emotional Learning & Civic Engagement (SEL-CE) under fellow SEL4MA Steering Committee member Deborah Donahue-Keegan. He is also a graduate fellow at Panorama Education and the founder and editor-in-chief of Inside SEL, one of the country’s leading education blogs covering SEL.

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This Month in SEL [March, 2019]

This month in SEL: the Aspen Institute releases a new “School Action Guide” for principals, MDR publishes a new report about the growth of SEL programs in schools, the Committee for Children launches its out-of-school time SEL program, and more!