Beyond Shame and Blame in the Classroom

On February 12, a New York Times story linked to a video of a teacher in a well-known New York City charter school losing her temper and humiliating a first grader. Reactions were swift and varied. Don’t coddle kids. Some kids are tough to teach. This is just one moment in a teacher’s work. The school is good—look at its test scores.

This video itself, and some reactions to it, reveal a faulty understanding of the kind of educational experiences students—especially the most vulnerable—need to succeed in school, career, and civic life and of the role the adults play in creating those experiences.

Social and emotional conditions help students learn
Student learning is significantly compromised when students don’t feel emotionally and intellectually safe. Our research points to the importance of students experiencing social and emotional as well as academic support from teachers. Other scholars’ studies, including evidence-based CLASS assessments of the quality of instruction, are consistent with this finding.

One positive real-world example: In Anchorage, Alaska, How to Teach Math as a Social Activity builds on social and emotional learning and student-developed learning norms among a community of learners (and we should note that the program in Anchorage is one of the eight districts in the Collaborating Districts Initiative, which AIR is evaluating). Our soon-to-be-published research on the first four years of research of this systematic effort found that in Anchorage, attendance was significantly higher in the first, third, and fourth years of implementation in elementary school and in the second and third years in middle school. Both middle and high school GPAs were significantly higher in all four years after the district-wide focus on social and emotional learning was adopted.

Learning is more than test scores
Learning is more than what test performance measures, particularly learning that prepares young people to succeed in college, career, and civic life

Although test performance is often a proxy for learning, learning is also about developing such skills as problem solving, critical thinking, communication, and self-management. Social and emotional learning, research shows, is key to acquiring these skills as well as to mastering and applying academic subject matter.

A teacher publically berating a student and tearing up her work does not tee-up future deeper learning. The sensibilities critical to deeper learning become easier to develop when students individually and collectively own their learning, respect diverse perspectives, and feel safe taking academic risks.

Teaching is complex and more than what students’ test scores reveal
Developing students’ social and emotional competence and their ability to master and apply academic knowledge depends on effective curricula and sound pedagogical practices. In turn, these practices depend both on teacher technical skills and their own social and emotional competence—the knowledge, skills, and attitudes needed to manage their emotions, be aware of their behavior’s effects on others, and learn from student’s behavior.  

Teaching is stressful, to be sure. But socially and emotionally competent teachers can prevent that stress from harming their students—critically important since adults with authority and power who lose their temper and punish a student model the very bullying and lack of self-control that we want students to avoid. What was captured on the video may well have been a momentary lapse. But the consequences of such lapses can linger. And preventing them requires 100 percent reliability—the same standards surgeons and air traffic controllers strive to meet in their high-stress occupations, even though unnerving surprises happen in the operating room and the skies aren’t always calm and clear.

A hard truth here is that teaching is a demanding job that not everyone can do well. Many teachers and principals simply aren’t well-prepared for the emotional challenges of working with students who may experience prejudice, struggle habitually with hunger, watch a loved one die, battle a behavioral disorder, or lack access to quality health and dental care.

And some teachers may not be prepared to work with diverse learners whose backgrounds differ from their own. While most American teachers are white, middle class, and female, only 49 percent of students are white and twenty percent live in poverty. Almost 10 percent are English language learners.

The onus shouldn’t be solely on teachers here. Conditions for teaching are co-created by principals, districts (or charter agencies), states, and the federal government. Districts and charter agencies in particular have a choice. They can focus mainly on short-term test performance or—as Anchorage, Austin, Cleveland, and five other districts in CASEL’s Collaborating Districts Initiative do—emphasize teaching and supporting social and emotional wellness as well as academic growth for all their students. 

The memes we’d rather see
The video that’s making waves is about being test-driven rather than learning- and learner-driven. It’s also about a profession in dire need of more support—from recruitment to preparation as well as professional development, support, and retention. In contrast, videos of classrooms look different when students are getting the educational experiences they need to succeed academically and thrive emotionally and where educators are well equipped to educate, support, and encourage today’s diverse youth.

If warmer, more supportive learning environments and rigorous teaching are to become the norm, then we’ll need to strive to:

  1. Strategically recruit people into the teaching profession: candidates with the knowledge, skills, and dispositions needed to work with students in a caring and supportive way.
  2. Ensure that all teachers understand child and youth development, the impacts of trauma, and other childhood adversities.
  3. Prepare teachers and principals to meet the needs of diverse learners. Infuse diversity, inclusion, self-awareness, and cultural competence throughout all teacher preparation programs.   
  4. Support teachers’ capacity to care by building their social and emotional competencies to manage stress, connect with every student, and differentiate instruction and support. Help them assess their own feelings, interests, values, biases, and strengths.
  5. Stay focused on the social and emotional conditions for learning and long term mastery, not just short-term test performance.
  6. Assess conditions for learning and school and classroom climate through actionable confidential student and family surveys. Use this and other evidence to improve learning and support student development.
  7. Assess conditions for teaching through confidential teacher and staff surveys and use this and other evidence to improve teaching and support for teacher development.

Whether just once, or habitually, a teacher losing her cool is a problem for her, her students, the principal of her school, and the profession. She (or he) is responsible, even in stressful settings, but so are those who should be supporting her from her first teacher-preparation course throughout her career. The videotaped teaching moments that we want to go viral are like the one of Anchorage. They show that diverse learners can be engaged and academically supported and that students can collaborate with each other and their teachers to promote the academic and social and emotional learning of everyone in the class.  

David Osher is an AIR vice president and Institute Fellow. He is also principal investigator for The National Center on Safe Supportive Learning Environments, The National Clearinghouse on Supportive School Discipline, and The National Technical Assistance Center for the Education of Neglected or Delinquent Children or Youth.