Helping Educators Rebuild and Reconnect with SEL for Adults: An Interview with Grant Elementary School | By: Committee for Children Grant Elementary School is a public K–6 school in Murray, Utah. We sat down with Sierra Marsh, a school social worker who was part of the Leader Team that implemented Second Step® SEL for Adults at Grant Elementary, to talk about her experience using the program and how she saw it change the staff culture. Sierra, thank you for sharing your thoughts with us on your experience implementing and using Second Step® SEL for Adults. What led Grant Elementary School to adopt this program? This was our first year using the program, but we have used Second Step® Elementary with our kids previously. The first year using Second Step Elementary, our teachers used classroom kits and the second year we transitioned to the digital program. We made the decision to adopt a social-emotional learning (SEL) program for adults because we felt like we needed to get all the teachers and support staff on the same page with various strategies, rebuild our community after the initial COVID-19 pandemic shutdowns and stress, and reinvigorate teachers’ passion for learning in a way that could also prevent burnout. Grant Elementary is a small school with two classrooms for every grade level, from Kindergarten to sixth grade. I was part of the facilitator team for Second Step SEL for Adults, alongside our school principal. In total, 13 classroom teachers, our special education teacher, our speech and language pathologist, our principal, and I participated in the program. We followed the program scope and sequence and the outline closely in our leadership team meetings. But we also made some adjustments to ensure we were supporting our teachers’ accountability with the program, while recognizing there’s a lot on teachers’ plates. We wanted to make it as easy as possible. Overall, it went really well! Like a lot of folks, whenever there’s any change or new program implementation, there’s some hesitancy, because it can feel like, “Oh, here’s another thing that you’re adding, even though we have so much going on already.” But our teachers made it work for themselves. Now that you’re a year into Second Step® SEL for Adults, how are teachers utilizing what they’ve learned? Some techniques and routines discussed in the program were previously practiced at Grant Elementary. For example, many teachers held morning meetings or practiced banking time with their students. But Second Step SEL for Adults provides tools to strengthen these practices and motivated teachers to try something they hadn’t thought to try before. There’s still more work to be done, but the program makes these routines easier for us. The program also helps lift the community culture and break down barriers where teachers could be more vulnerable by asking themselves what their role has been in shaping the community, and how they can use the tools they’ve learned with their students in the classroom.—Sierra Marsh, Social Worker The program also helps lift the community culture and break down barriers where teachers could be more vulnerable by asking themselves what their role has been in shaping the community, and how they can use the tools they’ve learned with their students in the classroom. We plan to continue the program. For example, with Module 3: Equity & Belonging, our goal is to help address concerns of belonging in our school culture with staff and students, based on student feedback we’ve received. I’m also hoping that we as a staff can continue addressing, building on, and referring back to the tools and strategies that we learned and practiced in the first two modules, Building Trust and Managing Stress. How did you implement the program in a way that worked for your staff? Typically, we hold Kickoff Meetings for each module and then staff engage in individual microlearnings. We felt that to support teachers’ accountability with the program, microlearnings could be completed at whatever time worked best for the participants. Then, instead of holding separate small-group meetings to discuss, we would build that time into our already-scheduled faculty meetings. The meeting structure was to meet as a whole group initially, break into groups of five to six people, and then come back together as a full group to discuss and share feedback. Hearing each person’s individual takeaways was meaningful for us. It wasn’t something we initially planned to do, but the individual contributions led us to acknowledge what we wanted as a team. It helped us identify areas where we wanted to create more meaningful time in our community, too. Our administrator was supportive and allotted one of our planned learning community meetings in the month for banking time with students or writing thank-you notes to students, which were two things that we discussed in our group meetings as ways to connect. What kind of relationship-building impact did you see during your school’s implementation of the program? During the pandemic, not being together in the same building had a negative impact on relationships. Coming back together had its own set of challenges, pivoting from remote to hybrid to in-person learning again. The staff was struggling, and it created toxicity in our school culture. This year has been different since using Second Step® SEL for Adults. We use the tools that it gives us to address conversations that previously happened behind closed doors and negatively impacted the culture. We’ve been able to work together to identify what’s contributing to a negative culture and provide more support to and emotional check-ins with each other, which has been helpful. In addition, teachers are starting to model a lot of those supportive behaviors with their students. We’re going through a change this upcoming school year with a new principal and instructional coach joining our staff, and it will be interesting to see how that impacts our community. I’ve met with our incoming principal to get her logged in to our program so she can complete the first two modules over the summer. Second Step SEL for Adults has helped us develop a shared language, and the Building Trust module is one that we’ll go back to often to support new staff and continue to help build trust between us. What role did Second Step® SEL for Adults have in helping your school with teacher burnout? What I’ve seen in my role is that when teachers have the most challenging time, they feel disconnected in one way or another. They either feel disconnected from their grade-level teaching partners, from the administration, from themselves, or from their students. The Building Trust module has helped our teachers connect back to everyone else, be it their coworkers, administrators, or students. The Managing Stress module has helped them find ways to connect back to themselves and their love of teaching. When teachers feel connected to themselves, their teaching community, and their students, I think that is the number one protective factor against burnout. The Building Trust module has helped our teachers connect back to everyone else, be it their coworkers, administrators, or students. The Managing Stress module has helped them find ways to connect back to themselves and their love of teaching. When teachers feel connected to themselves, their teaching community, and their students, I think that is the number one protective factor against burnout.—Sierra Marsh, Social Worker The program has also helped our staff be there for each other and have strong relationships when things get hard—not just in the “Let’s go vent about how hard everything is” way, but in the “We know things are hard, but let’s be together so we can address what’s hard” kind of way. For example, when we found out our principal was being moved to another school, there was disappointment and sadness, but everyone was there for each other more than I’ve seen before. I don’t think that support would have been there to the degree that it was if we hadn’t done this program, because it made everyone more human. Would you say that participating in the program is time well spent? Second Step® SEL for Adults is time well spent—especially if you make sure to structure it so that your teachers feel supported while they progress through the program. If they don’t have leadership support, it may start to feel like it’s another thing to check off their list and they won’t find the value in it. Our biggest challenge at first was making the time commitment, which is why we structured the time into our existing faculty meetings. We wanted to make sure teachers felt like making the time to complete this program was worthwhile and they didn’t have to do it on their own time. When teachers see an administrator taking the time to complete the program with them or adjusting the program based on teachers’ needs, they may be more inclined to feel as though it’s worthwhile. Have you experienced teacher well-being affecting your school culture? There’s that saying: you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink. You can talk all the time about teacher self-care, and what you need to do to practice it, but teachers haven’t been given a lot of guidelines or support in the past on what it looks like to practice self-care in the classroom or at work. To have an impact on ourselves and our community and students, our staff had to ask themselves what change could look like in the classroom. The Managing Stress module provided a way for teachers to practice self-care in their classrooms. It wasn’t them being told to take care of themselves after contract hours and then come back better the next day. It was administration supporting ways to take care of yourself at work and providing some new and different ways for teachers to do that. They’re the ones who need to actually do it to see the change, and I’ve seen some of that at our school. Here’s one example that demonstrates how providing these small tools can make a big difference in managing the hard parts of teaching. A teacher shared with me that she practiced the Cognitive Reframing routine from the Managing Stress module and was able to change how she thought about a student who was misbehaving in her class but not in others. While this reframing didn’t change the student’s behavior overnight or completely turn their relationship around, it did make her experience a little bit more manageable. She wasn’t as exhausted at the end of the day and was better able to identify what that student needed support-wise, and she then could ask for that support from others if needed. She was able to take a step back and recognize that her relationship had been impacted with this student and that there needed to be some relationship rebuilding. She was able to use what she’d learned to understand why he was acting the way he was in her class, which was helpful for managing behavior throughout the rest of the year. Do you feel as though your student SEL program was more effective because the teachers were participating in an adult SEL program? I think so. Although students and adults aren’t going through the same program, the staff can model what it looks like to take a moment of calm or to practice gratitude, and the students are picking up on it. The two programs work well together, because the teachers learn at their level and then put what they’ve learned into practice at the students’ level. The climate of the school has been changing as we have gone through this program together. There have been significantly fewer closed-door conversations, and instead staff are taking their concerns to administration. The school building feels more connected and cohesive overall. There is more unity and community between all the different groups on our staff. I would love to see expansion to extend the program to all classified staff members to further the common language we’ve started. What are some of the changes your staff made throughout their journey? We held a meeting on how we could improve the level of trust in our school. The conversations we had were awesome and brought forward ideas for us to try in the future: to have more social gatherings, set expectations for hard conversations, address sources of frustration, trust ourselves and each other no matter the feedback, be open as a group to express concerns, and to offer and receive solutions. From there, the conversation led to how we wanted to implement the ideas as a community. We made commitments to each other to be okay having tough conversations and asking for help, and we did this by setting clear ground rules for what we call “learning walks,” which is where observers can come to each classroom and watch instruction. Setting clear ground rules for these observations was helpful to get positive feedback and have brave conversations. What changes did you see in teacher well-being? What I saw was that teachers felt like their feedback was being heard, which was really impactful. We also identified things we could improve individually and as a group from the Managing Stress module. For example, we asked how we could better support our sleep, nutrition, and physical activity to help reduce stress. We had several ideas come up, like offering healthier snacks in the breakroom, walking laps at lunch on the school track, and taking advantage of mindful moments. I saw a lot of these things happening after the discussion. The biggest change I saw overall was teachers being vulnerable and practicing self-care in an effective way and creating community between themselves and their students. The biggest change I saw overall was teachers being vulnerable and practicing self-care in an effective way and creating community between themselves and their students.—Sierra Marsh, Social Worker My “why statement” is to be one additional positive adult in a child’s life, which we know is enough to create positive change for students. After going through Module 1 and Module 2 of Second Step® SEL for Adults, I’m seeing connections being made between teachers, making them more open and able to make connections with their students. My “why statement” has grown exponentially—with those connections and relationships that are happening, and with students having more people in their lives that are a positive influence. It’s a rejuvenating feeling. It makes me feel that this work we do in education is worth all the time and hard work that it takes to do. Are there any plans to expand Second Step® SEL for Adults in your district? It’s just our school using the program now, but I wouldn’t be surprised if our administrator, who recently left, starts the program at her new school. I’ve also shared our experience and my thoughts with the risk prevention coordinator for our district, who may decide whether our district would like to start this program at another school. What advice would you give a team that is just starting the program? If you’re getting started with Second Step® SEL for Adults, you should know the program enables all the things we know are beneficial for student and teacher outcomes on a learning level, but also enables them on a personal and community level. It allows you to be very detailed in incorporating all the big picture ideas and things that we know to be good into your school community in an intentional way. There’s room for flexibility. You can talk about what’s going to work to adapt these meetings to your team’s needs. If you are hesitant, I encourage you to not be afraid to jump into the program and know you can adapt.—Sierra Marsh, Social Worker There’s room for flexibility. You can talk about what’s going to work to adapt these meetings to your team’s needs. If you are hesitant, I encourage you to not be afraid to jump into the program and know you can adapt. The program has been helpful for our school because it isn’t just leadership saying what the best practices are. Our whole group of teachers get to explore these best practices in real time and give their feedback before implementing. Participating in Second Step SEL for Adults has been worth it for us. It has given us tools not only to have hard conversations and build and repair relationships on a staff level, but also to support our students through hard times. Being in education is hard, and today it feels harder than ever. I don’t know if we would have been able to address the tough conversations that we’ve had without establishing a baseline of trust or agreed-upon norms for handling these kinds of situations. Second Step® SEL for Adults, especially the Building Trust module, enabled us to build that trust and have these hard conversations. —Sierra Marsh, Social Worker Being in education is hard, and today it feels harder than ever. I don’t know if we would have been able to address the tough conversations that we’ve had without establishing a baseline of trust or agreed-upon norms for handling these kinds of situations. Second Step SEL for Adults, especially the Building Trust module, enabled us to build that trust and have these hard conversations.