At Inside SEL, our mission is to act megaphone, amplifying the great work being done by leaders in education and social-emotional learning across the country. On a regular basis, our team speaks with administrators, educators, entrepreneurs, researchers, and policymakers who are innovating within the field of SEL and works to help share their stories.
In late October, our team connected with Michael Handley, founder of New Wave Programs — an organization dedicated to helping improve communities through schools, after-school programs, and other youth organizations by teaching social and emotional learning through chess.
Nick Woolf: Tell us a little bit about your background — what spurred you to become a teacher initially?
Michael Handley: During my final week of senior year at the University of Oregon, where I was studying Philosophy and Business, my family endured a tragic loss. This event brought me from Oregon to California, where I dabbled working in the wine and golf industries. When I met my wife, we both realized that we didn’t feel like we were making much of a positive difference in our current professional roles, so we both decided to try and start substitute teaching and find ways to work with the local youth.
After realizing the impact we could make by working in education, we motivated each other to go back to college and to earn our multiple-subject teaching credentials to become elementary school teachers. I have always loved working with and inspiring youth, and teaching gave me the opportunity to make a living while doing it!
Nick Woolf: Describe your experience working as an elementary school teacher.
Michael Handley: Working as an elementary school teacher was an eye-opening experience. I’m not sure many people understand how much actually goes into being an educator. I sure didn’t at first, and it was very overwhelming at times. Seeing the positive impact I was making in my student’s lives is what kept me motivated to continue teaching to the best of my abilities and to show up with a smile each day.
Nick Woolf: When were you first exposed to the concepts, research and strategies within the field of social and emotional learning?
Michael Handley: During the first year of study in my California teaching credential program. I had an absolutely amazing and inspirational mentor through the California State University Monterey Bay, whom also happened to be my wife’s mentor as well: Mrs. Georgia Grijalva from the CalStateTEACH program. She always expressed confidence in me that I would be an amazing teacher, and it really helped keep me going during the harder days when I wanted to give up. She oftentimes had to remind me that there was a lot more to teaching than providing non-stop absolutely perfect lessons that covered state standards, and to stop beating myself up when my lessons didn’t go as planned. She was always passionate about me providing more SEL opportunities for my students, especially those from disadvantaged situations because she knew how crucial they were. Georgia really shaped the style of teacher I became, and I couldn’t be more thankful. This was back in 2012 and I really began seeing the absolute need for more structured SEL programs in schools throughout the next several years. The more that I learned and the more that I provided these positive community-building social emotional experiences for my students, the more I fell in love with what SEL can do for a community.
Seeing the positive impact I was making in my student’s lives is what kept me motivated to continue teaching to the best of my abilities and to show up with a smile each day.
Nick Woolf: What was the genesis behind you starting New Wave Programs? (And, on a similar note, when did your love for chess first begin?)
Michael Handley: In 2016, when I was working as a 4th-grade teacher in a small community in Monterey County California, my wife gave me the exciting news that we would soon be welcoming a baby into our lives! My wife still had one more year to clear her teaching credential so we decided that I would take the upcoming year off to raise our newborn. During that year off of teaching, spending my time mostly warming up bottles for my angel baby daughter, I caught myself complaining to so many people about the issues that I saw within education. Mostly with how stressed teachers are, how bored and depressed so many students are, and how so many communities are really failing to connect students with community leaders in positive ways.
One day, when looking into my daughter’s eyes, I realized that I needed to stop complaining so much, and that I needed to spend my time thinking of a way that could help fix those issues instead. This was really the moment when everything that New Wave Programs is today became a thought.
Shortly after that revelation, I kept reflecting back to my teaching days and thinking about which activities for students felt truly meaningful and needed. Day after day, when I pondered that question, it would always come back to a Social-Emotional Intelligence Through Chess learning unit that I created over Christmas break for my 4th-graders. There’s always been something special about the game of chess, and tying it to these lessons on social emotional intelligence seemed to mean so much more to my students than any standard mathematics lesson ever did. Little by little over the rest of that year, I kept whittling more and more time out of our class schedule to teach more SEL Through Chess. I called it Life-Strategies Through Chess, as my goal was to give my students sustainable strategies they could use in their lives for having social-emotional intelligence. The most exciting part was that once students started feeling better about themselves and their acceptance in our class, I noticed their scores on all the other subjects skyrocketing! That’s when I knew that I just hit on something special. As I kept thinking about that learning unit, I knew I had to turn it into an actual curriculum so that I could help reach many many more students, schools, and communities. It took a long time, research, and fine-tuning, but with the help of some amazing people, we eventually created an SEL curriculum unlike any other. That’s when New Wave Programs was formed!
Nick Woolf: How has the experience been founding a new company and leading it for the past 3+ years?
Michael Handley: This has been one of the most rewarding, yet challenging experiences of my life. There is so much to learn, so many avenues to explore, so much dedication and time required. I’m driven by the work that we are doing and by all the amazing people that have come into my life to show support in this vision. In the beginning it was really slow, but things take time to build and now after 3 years into it we’ve reached over 1,200 students and are expanding into so many other locations it’s beyond amazing. During the first two years, I would spend hours and hours in the middle of the night finding email addresses and phone numbers so that I could email and call principals and after-school directors. It’s so cool to now be getting emails and phone calls in our direction, and now more and more from schools outside of California! We are also getting a lot of interested investors and well-to-do community members and businesses reaching out offering to help us with our cause. It’s opening up so much opportunity for expansion in ways I only dreamed of years ago.
Nick Woolf: What have you learned from working with schools and speaking with educators, students and parents with regards to common pain points or themes when implementing social-emotional learning programs?
Michael Handley: I’ve been learning so much as I work with educators from this new perspective. I have a personal connection to the work they do, and I am so happy to be able to help make their career more meaningful in this way. What I keep finding more and more is that no one has ever helped community leaders (such as police officers, firefighters, and other local officials) build the foundations for long-lasting programs within their communities. They want to spend time in schools, but there are few effective pathways to get them involved and engaged.
On a similar note, I’m finding that schools and after-school programs really want to provide more SEL learning opportunities and to get community leaders involved. Every presentation and workshop that I’ve ever held always ends with leaders being so excited that we’ve come up with a solution and means to help them bridge that gap and to create those powerful, sustainable learning experiences. The overarching theme is that everyone within education is starting to understand the “why” and “what” of SEL more and more; it’s the confusion and practical ways for implementing the “how” that’s lacking.
Nick Woolf: Projecting forward 10 years from now, where do you hope New Wave Programs will be as a part of the larger SEL ecosystem?
Michael Handley: Although the grand vision of New Wave Programs is constantly evolving and growing, I’m focused on really helping to progress this trend in education for more emphasis on social and emotional learning. It is SO needed. Our company has already begun to create several additional programs that focus on SEL and we are in the process of partnering with some amazing people and organizations that will help us reach many more. I can only imagine what the next 10 years of growth will look like, especially seeing how far we’ve come in these last 3, but I know it will be exciting and that it will help positively change a lot of lives.
The overarching theme is that everyone within education is starting to understand the “why” and “what” of SEL more and more; it’s the confusion and practical ways for implementing the “how” that’s lacking.
Nick Woolf: Where can interested individuals learn more about New Wave Programs and your services?