I remember when I first started teaching. My master teacher at the time was spending time in “magic circles” with students. Unidentified at the time, what we now label as restorative justice. She would use that time to have students open up about their feelings and how things were going in their lives. I found it to be something that students did enjoy and allowed them to vocalize any stress or emotions they had within themselves.
I carried this process into my first year of teaching. Being a first year teacher in Lynwood was hard enough but I found this to be valuable enough to try it out for myself. The “magic circle” was a safe area where students could share anything they wanted to. Near the end of the school year a student opened up that she was being abused at home which resulted in her being taken from the home. Although upsetting I never would have found this out without this practice in place. There were no outward signs at all. It was all internalized.
Next year I ended up where I started my student teaching. I carried on using this restorative practice on and off for years. Even as I moved onto teaching at a middle school I used this a few times. But as times changed and more pressure was put on academic performance I did not focus much time on this. The focus of my connections with the students primarily came from understanding their interests and building lessons that engaged them.
I found through my years of teaching that building real relationships are essential to classroom management. Without having all students know that you like them and genuinely care for them it is difficult to have them listen when you need them to. I wanted them to excel academically but also to enjoy school. What I didn’t know was that I was not helping them to be a balanced student. I returned back to my elementary school roots to teach sixth grade. Even though I felt I was doing a good job I still was missing something. I didn’t feel I was preparing them well enough in going to middle school.
This year I was challenged to look into socio emotional learning as defined by the Collaborative for academic, socio-emotional, and learning (CASEL) and implement that with my students somehow. When I looked into it I was intrigued by their five defined components. Having taught 23 years this was the first year teaching a fifth/sixth combination class. This would be a good test to challenge myself. With my students we tackled each component one at a time. What a fantastic journey this has been.
I can’t say I’ve had 100% success with implementation. I will say that all my students have shown academic and behavioral improvements due to my implementation of SEL strategies. Although I have varying degrees of improvement for each child in my class, for some it has had profound effects. I’ve had students build a high degree of confidence and I can say ALL my students have improved their behavior and have become much more responsible in turning in work. Even the students that have come to me later in the school year have benefited by becoming a part of an environment that knew about social relationships and were welcoming.
As I reflect through the year I realized that SEL is just one component of building a successful student. Working in a PBIS school we already have the general guideline for all students to follow in maintaining a positive school environment. The SEL strategies are more individualized by having the students learn better who they are, how they can work with others, and their place in this community. I found that I was missing the third component which was building restorative justice.
Now I have come back full circle to the idea and value of having a forum where students can get a sense of fairness and a safe place to share out. Using a “magic circle” again has helped for students to relieve some of their stress and anxieties. Like the students twenty three years ago these new 21st century students are not much different. They still have much of the same pressures, same worries, and same angst about their futures. I am glad I took this journey to learn and implement SEL strategies with my students this year.
This piece was originally submitted to our community forums by a reader. Due to audience interest, we’ve preserved it. The opinions expressed here are the writer’s own.