Throughout my career as a learning designer, I’ve supported many new teachers. In the first few years especially, they’re overwhelmed with the pressure to perform well while they’re still building confidence and content expertise. They want to create safe, inclusive, intellectually stimulating classrooms—to attend to students’ social and emotional needs, such as a strong sense of identity and belonging, and a feeling of being useful and valuable to society.
Some of the teachers I’ve worked with struggle with this because they have few opportunities to explore identity and belonging, and many, especially those who live outside their school community, feel that teaching social awareness can be tricky.
When I first bring up the topic of social awareness with teachers, they often want to talk about their students—their culture, race, class, language, and so on. Cultivating awareness, however, really starts at home with teachers looking at themselves and learning how to situate themselves within a social context that is always changing. It’s about learning how to be mindful and reflective, slowing down and pausing before responding so that they begin to perceive social situations differently.
There are three strategies that I recommend for professional development to help new teachers develop their own social awareness, so that they feel more confident and prepared to teach social awareness to students.
3 Strategies for Building in Social Awareness in PD
1. Intergroup dialogue: Intergroup dialogue is when two or more people come together to discuss a topic in order to understand social identities, consider diverse viewpoints, and reflect upon core beliefs. Intergroup dialogue can feel uncomfortable in the beginning, and it’s important to allow teachers to work through any stress or anxiety they may feel around having dialogues related to culture, identity, race, or social justice; otherwise they’ll avoid such discussions in the classroom setting. Helping new teachers become mindful of the social and emotional dynamics of intergroup dialogue in order to effectively facilitate it requires giving them firsthand experience with participating in those dialogues.
We can help teachers build confidence around intergroup dialogue by grounding it in a shared reading given to participants before the training and by setting norms of engagement, which are essential because they help us interact in new ways so that learning and insights can surface. Grounding the dialogue in a relevant text given prior to the PD allows teachers to reflect on the topic and recognize the universality of human experience.
The following are norms of conscientious engagement that I recommend:
- Be authentic and present: Be yourself, trust your intuition, and stay focused.
- Listen deeply: Listen for thoughts, feelings, relationships, and insights.
- Be deliberate: Be intentional and consider the impact of your words.
- Stay open and receptive: Notice emerging ideas.
- Create sacred space: Be respectful, compassionate, and empowering.
Creating opportunities for meaning making and familiarizing teachers with common barriers to authentic presence in a dialogue are critical. Barriers such as bias, judgment, fear, impatience, and hypocrisy will inevitably arise. What do these words mean, and how are they revealed through language and behavior? How might a person deflect or shut down a conversation because of impatience or fear?
2. Rituals and ceremonies: Schools have always relied on built-in rituals, customs, and ceremonies to bring people together. Similarly, teachers are often asked to engage in team-building activities in PD that are designed to foster trust and community.
However, social, cultural, and political dynamics are shifting in ways that may influence our feelings about certain rituals and community-building activities. Some activities may now feel problematic when looked at through the lens of equity and social justice. Asking teachers to engage in a moment of silence, for example, can take on a whole new meaning. When a ritual or ceremonial activity contradicts values or beliefs, or appears superficial, hypocritical, or politicized, participating in it can cause distress for an individual or community.
One way to raise social awareness is to think about rituals in society and how they communicate values and beliefs. Enacting a short ritual or ceremony during a PD and allowing the participants to express how the ritual made them feel can raise awareness of how specific actions or uses of language can elicit different emotions in people.
A follow-up activity for extended learning would be to have teachers observe a ritual or ceremony at their school building (such as a morning meeting or assembly) and be prepared to discuss their observations with colleagues. Did the ritual have the desired outcome, and how could it be modified for greater impact and inclusivity?
3. Bearing witness: It’s not always easy to create safe spaces where teachers can open up and cultivate empathy. Bearing witness is a strategy that aims to validate an individual’s personal lived experience by acknowledging that it is real and true, and that it exists in one form or another as a shared human experience. It involves pairing teachers up and having them engage in personal storytelling and deep listening about a difficult life experience, such as divorce or separation, death, financial hardship, discrimination, and so on.
Bearing witness starts with setting the intention to be with, blend into, and become a part of the experience of another person, by listening in silence and without judgment. It can be difficult to bear witness in this way, listening deeply to another’s suffering. Often, we close our eyes to suffering. This is especially true when the suffering is the result of physical or emotional abuse or atrocities inflicted in time of war, hate, or mental illness. When we pair teachers up and ask them to bear witness with each other, we’re asking them to experience the vulnerability and range of emotions associated with adversity.
Guiding teachers to develop social awareness by opening up with each other can help them foster their students’ social awareness, one step in the process of fostering that sense of safety and belonging that we hope all students have in school.