SEL as a Foundation for Equity Work

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.

Throughout the past year, we have been incredibly fortunate to help build and interact with an amazing community of educators, administrators, researchers, parents, students, and other proponents of whole child education. Many of our readers will write to us with their own stories and opinions about the future of education, and we view it as part of our goal to help share high-impact stories with as wide of an audience as possible.

The following piece was authored by Sandra Azevedo, a former school psychologist and current Coordinator for Continuous Improvement at the Butte County Office of Education. It serves as a powerful reflection on how important it is for adults to be constantly building and improving their own social-emotional learning skills in order to engage in equity work.

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The sweet spot is well south of perfection.

As I walked into a much-anticipated meeting last week about a deeply personal equity-related issue, I was creating a mental list of all the ways in which I was going to cue myself to temper my emotions; namely, my anger. After all, I am a professional educator and worked as a school psychologist for two decades. Emotions and behavior are “in my wheelhouse.” I knew that I wouldn’t burst into a violent rage, but I suspected I might cry or raise my voice. Sure enough, I did both for a few short moments.

Here’s the thing: very few adults ever fully master their own social and emotional competencies. And, imperfection, I argue, is perfectly okay. I was not perfect in my emotional regulation or self-management, but I was perfectly authentic and vulnerable and human. It is very possible that the most impactful moments of my messaging came at those times in which I failed to harness my emotions and was unable to fully control the tone of my voice, the tears in my eyes, and the passion in my words. While I am seeking to continuously improve, I embrace being well south of perfection. What I aim for is to hit the sweet spot that contains a sufficiently managed response while allowing for full expression in the myriad of ways that I demonstrate my humanity.

Consider this: perhaps our “less than perfect” is today’s “just right.” When we fall short of our own expectations, we must – first and foremost – extend compassion to ourselves. We need to foster our own emotional safety in order to be able to open ourselves up to experiences that feel less safe; that force us to venture outside of our comfort zones. We need a growth mindset and high expectations for ourselves while simultaneously leaving expectations of full self-management mastery at the door. This, too, is social-emotional learning. Besides, how would we develop empathy if no one ever cried or expressed anger, disappointment or sadness? Why would we be driven to compassionate action if everyone was perfectly composed and emotionally stoic? How would we become motivated to do better if everything we did was met with a placid grin? Emotional discomfort, both felt and witnessed, can be a powerful driver of improvement despite its unpleasantness. And it’s how we respond to that discomfort that matters most in matters of equity.

“Do the best you can until you know better? Then when you know better, do better.”

Maya Angelou

In the past few years, I transitioned from working as a school psychologist to supporting districts with implementation of a multi-tiered system of support (MTSS). As a result of this work, I have internalized the five competencies from the Collaborative for Academic Social and Emotional Learning (CASEL) framework: Self-Awareness, Self-Management, Social Awareness, Relationship Skills, and Responsible Decision-Making. I have noticed that I am constantly categorizing personal and inter-personal situations by the competencies that seem relevant. I have yet to be able to find one that I can’t categorize into one of the five. Being able to recognize and label my own emotions and behaviors by competency has effectively expanded my awareness and enhanced my ability to manage my emotions and behaviors. How powerful might this have been had it been part of my entire upbringing? How powerful might this be for all students?

CASEL’s Core Competencies for SEL

And now, as momentum in education is building around equity work, I have realized how vital strong SEL skills are to an educator’s ability to navigate the emotions and skills necessary to engage and enter meaningfully into it. One’s own social and emotional capabilities are not static; they can vary depending on how issues of equity intersect with personal and professional circumstances, experiences and beliefs. Personally, in regard to some equity matters, I have lived experience, competence and passion. In others, I have a lack of consciousness.

I have been attempting to build my capacity around holding courageous conversations about race. I am a middle class, middle-aged white woman. The more I come to recognize my own “whiteness” and privilege, the more discomfort and shame that arises. I am learning to contain that discomfort and engage in critical self-reflection about my biases and behaviors. Becoming highly self-aware of what is happening in my body and in my mind, naming the emotions and holding them compassionately is allowing me to open more deeply and humbly to engage in vulnerable discourse.  

Being able to recognize and label my own emotions and behaviors by competency has effectively expanded my awareness and enhanced my ability to manage my emotions and behaviors. How powerful might this have been had it been part of my entire upbringing? How powerful might this be for all students?

Sandra Azevedo

There are expectations on educators that dictate we must always be emotionally controlled and unflinchingly polite. This can be a barrier to overcome because examining biases, discriminatory actions and issues of inequity often require disrupting and challenging the status quo. To some, that can look like emotionality, impoliteness, and even insubordination. Strengthening our own SEL competencies helps us commit to listening deeply even when it is hard. It simultaneously helps us when we need civilized discourse, empathy and compassion. Like most complex situations, it’s an “AND”; and SEL is critical to both.

Addressing equity is not easy work. Without a heightened awareness of the need to cultivate our own social-emotional learning skills before we enter into conversations about equity, we risk causing harm to others, damaging meaningful relationships and failing the students and communities who most need us to be their champions. I don’t know if I made a dent in addressing inequality at my meeting last week. I don’t know if I’ll make a dent in addressing inequality this week. I do know that I showed up well south of perfection. I welcome others to join me there.

Sandra Azevedo
Butte County Office of Education
Coordinator, Continuous Improvement

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