by Nate Dycus, Farmington R-3

Allow me to introduce you to a student named “Josh.” His name has been changed for the sake of this article. Josh walks into the school, heads to the cafeteria, eats breakfast and goes to his first-hour class. As class begins, Josh falls asleep and has a hard time focusing on instruction. After many attempts to keep Josh involved, frustrated that he won’t listen to the epic lesson planned, the teacher sends Josh out of the room. The night before, Josh could not sleep because his parents argued and he was worried they might separate. He tossed and turned, concerned for the future of his family. So, naturally, Josh finds school a safe enough place to rest and he just wants to sleep.

Countless students come through our classroom doors with similar stories. Many teachers that would have handled Josh in the same manner as the teacher mentioned above. I am that teacher... I was unaware of the situation with Josh and did not take the time to ask Josh him what was going on in his life. For most of the year, Josh would not listen to me, he did not follow instructions and he did not participate in class. We were disconnected from each other until one day when I invited Josh to eat lunch with me. During our time together, I slowed down to hear the story of Josh’s life. Josh said to me that he was shocked that I was willing to listen to him. He thought I was only worried about his test scores and reading level.

Josh was taken aback because, in that little moment, I slowed down and listened to him. After that lunch together, I always went out of my way to say “Hi,” and to make sure Josh knew that I saw him. After a few encounters, things changed for us. Josh began performing better in my class and even stayed awake. I learned so much from this, especially that social-emotional learning is vitally important. SEL is now the key to helping me connect with the students in my classroom. This is essential at the middle school level.

Odds are, nearly every educator has experienced an incident similar to mine. I recently asked a group of my colleagues, “What is one thing you have learned over the years?” Many said that they have learned to slow down and listen to students - really listen to them. While I have only been a teacher for two years, I have learned that in addition to excellent lessons and amazing extracurriculars, students need teachers who will slow down and listen. Connecting with and earning the trust of middle school students, or any student for that matter, must be at the center of every lesson. As a new teacher in the middle of the pandemic, I entered the emotional battlefield of teaching in a middle school building. Yes, I know... the middle school. Every time someone asks me which building I teach in, they make a face of concern and normally say, “I could never teach that age.” To which my response is normally, “Never say never... No CAP” (this is middle school slang for not lying). I walk down the body spray-scented hallways that lead to my classroom and I overhear conversations full of slang on topics about hot Cheetos, dating, and Fortnite daily.

While the hallways are loud and full, I am often surrounded by students who feel invisible and alone. Students just need someone to see them. We all have students like that... Don't we? Students are longing for empathy and for someone to see them and understand them. This is where social-emotional learning in everyday instruction comes into play! Now, hear me out, this is where some professionals would stop reading because they “do not have time for one more thing.” I agree. I, too, am pressed for time and this next line is not mentioned to make you feel guilty or ashamed of how you run your classroom, but… You make time for what is most important to you. I think we all can agree that our students need emotional support NOW more than ever before. So, how do we provide that in our everyday instruction without requiring a whole lot of extra time? I’m glad you asked...

First, create a classroom environment where every student feels comfortable and knows that they matter. One easy way to do this is to implement the rule that when a student is explaining something or answering a question, everyone should look at them or toward their direction. Some students get anxious when all eyes are on them, so to say “turn your attention towards Susie,” helps the students feel like they are heard and lets the class understand that we, as a whole, need to respect each other.

Partner work and group work is a special and celebrated strategy in my classroom. I break students into groups by printing off shapes and giving them the shape card as they enter the room. Students then move to the table with the corresponding shape displayed. This provides me with the opportunity to make sure that the groups will always be different. Allowing students to work together gives them a casual opening to learn powerful lessons on empathy and collaboration. One of my favorite benefits of this is that it teaches students how to effectively work with others in any setting.

Another essential action is to provide a weekly check-in with each student. I learned about this SEL strategy at a Powerful Learning Conference and it has changed the entire dynamic of my classroom. During each class period, there are students who are silently screaming for help and attention. They want to be heard and understood. Students want to feel safe. SEL provides opportunities for safe conversation and meets the students where they are, both socially and emotionally. Once a week, I send out a Google form asking students to tell me where they are emotionally and mentally. Some of the questions that I include are:

  • Are you feeling anxious about anything this week?
  • Are you excited about anything this week?
  • How are you feeling about school in general?
  • I feel safe at school this week (Agree or disagree)

These questions should change weekly and will help you get to know the students better. Along with the virtual check-in, every Monday I ask students how their weekend was. With a name generator on my board, a name is drawn and that student tells me either a “high/good thing” or a “low/ not-so-good thing” that happened recently. This allows me to connect with them and invest a little time in knowing what life is like for them outside of school. After the students share, I tell the class about my weekend and the things that my family did. With this insight, they can realize that I, in fact, do not live in the school building and that I am relatable... Well, to some degree. This next one is a game-changer! Find virtual calming activities for the students to do after they are done with an assignment. I have created a Google site with online puzzles, animal webcams, relaxing videos, soothing sounds, coloring pages to be creative with and many other resources that help students de-stress. They need to relax, create and, for a moment, disconnect from anything going on in their lives. If you would like the link to the virtual calming room, you can email me at ndycus@farmington. I will gladly send you the link. It is also easy to search on YouTube for relaxing scenery sounds to play while class is going on. Your learning environment will be transformed. Additionally, my favorite thing to do with students is to go outside and read under a tree that sits by our football practice field. There is something really amazing about connecting with nature, reading and soaking up some sun rays. The students always enjoy this activity when it happens. Of course, check with your building leadership on what you can do, but having class outside is amazing if you are able to.

Every teacher has a student that teaches them a life lesson. Josh was the force that pushed me into becoming a teacher who is present and listens to students. I’m not going to leave you hanging; I want to tell you how the story with Josh ends. It hasn’t. Josh still, to this day, stops by and visits. I often go to his games or track meets and, yes, Josh still eats lunch with me from time to time. Our time together is so rewarding for both of us. I want to challenge other educators to slow down and listen. Whether a teacher is incorporates an SEL strategy in their classroom for five minutes or listens to students during a lunch shift (I know, that time is sacred), they can make a difference. Identify the student who needs a listening, safe adult. Try an SEL strategy with a class that is out of control. I promise the class won’t fall behind on pacing or curriculum, and it will not negatively impact control of the classroom. On the contrary, many educators find that when they incorporate SEL, students will “perform” better because they know they are cared for academically, socially and emotionally.