Since starting my teaching career six months ago, I have learned that I can’t expect my students to learn effectively unless they first feel cared for and comfortable in my classroom.
Yes, you read that correctly: I’ve been a teacher for six months. That is my current amount of experience as an educator. I teach physics to students between the ages of 16 and 18, and I recently turned 23.
I have realized that of the many challenges on my journey as a young teacher, the most pressing is the need to care for my students’ social and emotional needs while still maintaining the boundaries of professionalism—establishing that I am their teacher, not their peer. Due to our closeness in age, it’s not uncommon for my students to view me as more of a friend than an authority figure. Additionally, the way I teach social and emotional learning (SEL) in my classroom often brings out students’ vulnerability, which may make them feel closer to me.
When it becomes apparent that students need to be reminded of our respective roles in the classroom, it can be awkward, but I find that it’s best to talk honestly and clearly with the student. Despite—or perhaps even because of—these discussions about our respective roles, I’ve been able to develop a series of successful approaches to teaching social and emotional development.
Incorporating SEL Into the Curriculum
One strategy I have worked into our daily routine is something I call a “belonging beginning,” in which students start class with a high five or a fist bump and go around the room sharing one good or tough thing that they are experiencing. During this activity, student statements can be as surface level as “I got a new haircut and I look good,” or as deep as “I feel like I have no more tears left to cry.” I think our closeness in age allows for an emotional and social closeness that helps students feel empathized with and cared for in a way that they don’t always get to experience.
The other day one of my students shared that she was processing the loss of a grandparent, which started a discussion about losing those we love. We talked about growing through loss and becoming stronger, more complete people through the grieving process. I gave a piece of myself in this discussion—that at 23 I still struggle with a loss I experienced at their age.
Additionally, I try to weave a social and emotional or service element into every physics assignment I create. “Inclined Planes for a Purpose” is a lab in which we research and model handicapped-accessible ramps made to the specifications of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Activities like this one drive the academic success in our class, but they also foster an attitude of compassion, which I’d argue is as important to students’ personal development, if not more so.
Another way I try to incorporate a social and emotional piece into our work is through Phun Physics Phridays, in which, once a month, we take a chunk of our Friday class to explore how the same engineering approaches and practices we hone in class can be used to help people in need. Last Friday we explored how water-purification technology makes clean water more accessible to people around the world. I like these exercises because they answer the question “Why are we doing this?” and show students that the processes we learn in class can directly affect people’s lives.
I have also found less structured ways to incorporate SEL into our packed physics curriculum. Last week I ran a March Madness bracket in which students were seeded by a random entrance card and then competed in a bracket, racing their classmates to solve a problem. As students were eliminated, they were drafted to the team of the student they last faced, and this continued until half of the class was competing together against the other half. We cheered each other on every step of the way. It was great to see some of the students engage with peers they wouldn’t normally work with.
All in all, these activities and approaches enable the relationships I have with my students—as well as the relationships they have with each other—to grow, and they show that being a young teacher can be an asset.