George Lucas Educational Foundation

The Heart of Learning: The Value of Cultivating Emotional Intelligence

Michael Pritchard is a healer, and a pioneer in the field of social-emotional learning, the often-neglected missing piece in a well-rounded education.
Ken Ellis
Former Executive Producer, video , Edutopia
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VIDEO: Michael Pritchard: Lessons from the Heart

Running Time: 11 min.

The guest speaker, dressed in black, paces slowly in front of the Castlemont High School auditorium stage, sizing up the audience. Tough crowd. Young men hunker down under sweatshirt hoods and baseball caps. Young women, overdressed for this sunny spring day, guard against the chilly atmosphere inside. They lean deep into their seats. No one is smiling.

"I'd like to take a moment of silence for all the young people we've lost on the streets," says the guest, a commanding baritone.

Most of these seniors simply stare back at him. And who can blame them? They are in shock. Like many high schools in America, this one in Oakland, California, has been a war zone. The daily weapons of choice are sharp words, dull stares, cutting laughter. If conflict escalates, as it did last year, when two students were wounded in front of this auditorium in a hail of drive-by bullets, everyone bears the pain of it.

"Thank you. And I'm sure the parents of those young people thank you," says the big man in black, Michael Pritchard. A friend of the former principal, he has come this day to help these students deal with the pain they live with every day -- whether they want him there or not.

Pritchard begins his presentation with barbs. "Ever hear something like this? 'You're ugly!'" he squeals suddenly, à la Porky Pig. "'You look like you fell out of an ugly tree and hit every limb on the way down.'" Giggles. "'Nice jacket. I used to have one like that. Then my dad got a job.'" Appreciative groans.

This is a man who knows how to work a crowd.

A Comedian with a Purpose

After winning the San Francisco International Comedy Competition in 1980, Pritchard toured nightclubs and appeared on TV shows with Robin Williams, Jay Leno, and Jerry Seinfeld. That year, he was also named California Probation Officer of the Year. At ease with young people, Pritchard has raised two sons and a daughter with his wife of 29 years, and has taken in, he estimates, "about a hundred or so" youths who have spent various periods of their lives growing up in his ever expanding extended family.

Pritchard's long-standing parenting gig has provided him with a wealth of comedic material. But the Castlemont crowd isn't buying his routine yet. And when he says, "We're talking to your hearts today," a voice in the back of the auditorium shouts, "Why?"

"Well, I'll tell you why I'm here," Pritchard shoots back. "Because I have two African-American youngsters that grew up with me and my family, and I love them and I'm worried about their lives. You don't know that. You don't know anything about me. I'm just a big, fat guy up here telling jokes. But, listen, we care about you."

Pritchard is a healer, and a pioneer in the field of social-emotional learning (SEL), the often-neglected missing piece in a well-rounded education. For the past two decades, he has been touring the country, talking and listening to students, teachers, and parents. He has written two books and produced a series of award-winning videos that focus on the critical issues of character and emotional intelligence for middle and high school students.

"What I try to teach kids is that we have to be more real about our emotions," explains Pritchard. "Shakespeare said, 'Always give sorrow words. Grief that does not speak whispers to the over-fraught heart and bids it to break.' I'm teaching kids that tears that do not flow will make other organs weep inside us. We get sick if we try to hold all that pain in. And then, the unaddressed grief turns to anger, and the anger to rage. And it has two directions -- out to the community, or inward toward the self, and self-destructiveness."

At Neil Cummins Elementary School, Pritchard asks, "How many know a boy or girl who gets picked on all the time?"

Credit: Edutopia

Into the Mainstream

For years, most mainstream educators have marginalized Pritchard and other SEL advocates. Now, though, their pleas for others who work with youths to "get real" about students' emotions are finally being heard. Late last year, the Illinois State Board of Education distributed the state's new Social and Emotional Learning Standards for K-12 students. Just as standards in language arts and math, for example, require students to achieve certain benchmarks, the SEL guidelines hold them accountable for proficiency in self-awareness, social awareness, and decision making.

For Maurice Elias, author of Raising Emotionally Intelligent Teenagers and Emotionally Intelligent Parenting, this is one school-reform effort that just might work. "When you look at the literature on education reform, it's replete with failure," says Elias. "We've been treating students as if they're not people -- as if they're somehow sponges, and not human beings that come in with their emotions in full play.

"I don't know of anybody that can learn in the absence of a positive relationship," he adds. "We learn from the people we care about. And yet we somehow pretend that in school, it doesn't matter. So, those who are actually concerned about academics should be concerned about social and emotional learning as well."

Numerous studies link emotional well-being to academic success, and stress to failure. The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL), based in Chicago, is conducting a meta-analysis of hundreds of such studies, and organization co-founder Daniel Goleman believes recent scientific discoveries confirm the link between emotional health and academic achievement. In the foreword to the 10th-anniversary edition of his groundbreaking book Emotional Intelligence, Goleman cites brain research detailing how areas controlling the emotions are located adjacent to the cerebral cortex, where cognitive processing occurs.

For Pritchard, teaching SEL is a no-brainer. "I say to the principals, 'No matter what we teach kids, love is more important than any knowledge we give them.' Because they can't become the gift that they're supposed to become if they're disconnected from their heart."

Credit: Edutopia

Making the Connection

At Castlemont, that heart connection is still tenuous. Teachers and administrators are working hard to change the culture here, splitting the large high school into small learning communities, and scheduling off-campus retreats where students and teachers can work through personal issues. But in the auditorium this day, the first students who volunteer to share their feelings in front of their peers are greeted with laughter and derision. But as brave souls continue to step up and sound off, the atmosphere in the room begins to shift.

"Dudes call girls bitches and hos," says Brian, twisting uncomfortably at the microphone. "But it opened my mind not to judge girls, because they're going through stuff. I've learned that one out of every three girls has been sexually assaulted. So that's all I'm saying. I just don't judge people."

Robyn is next. "It may look to you like I have nice clothes and I've got it going on. But when I get home, there ain't nothing in my refrigerator except ice cubes and water. People think that's funny? When you walk in those shoes, it ain't funny. And I got a seven-year-old brother. Little boys like to eat."

"You all might think my life is perfect," Jackie begins with a laugh. "I have both of my parents, sisters, and --" Her smile suddenly dissolves into sadness. "I'm talking to all you dudes out there who have some kind of addiction. My dad has an addiction with drugs and alcohol."

"What's it done to your heart?" Pritchard asks.

"It's done a lot -- to live with a father who will get his paycheck and go into a bar and not come back till three in the morning, or not even come back that night," says Jackie, sobbing. "Waiting up for him. It hurts, because I love him -- and I hate him at the same time for what he has done to my mom and my sisters."

The boys in the back who had been chatting during Pritchard's monologue fall silent.

Jackie talks to her Castlemont classmates about the consequences of addiction.

Credit: Edutopia

A Different Vision

Poignant moments like these unlock something deep inside all who share them. They are potential turning points. But, in themselves, they are not enough to bring permanent change. "Creating an environment where kids feel comfortable, where they treat one another well, is not a one-shot deal," says Marilyn Clark, principal of Neil Cummins Elementary School, in Corte Madera, California, and a big fan of Pritchard's work. "It's wonderful to have someone like Michael Pritchard come in, but it's not a one-time lesson. Our responsibility is to reiterate that lesson, to keep it fresh, so that it isn't easily forgotten, so that it becomes the expectation. It's been my experience that it takes three to five years to change a school culture."

Like reading, writing and math, SEL skills can be acquired through focused lessons and reinforced by regular practice. The Resolving Conflict Creatively Program (RCCP), a research-based K-12 school initiative in social and emotional learning that focuses on conflict resolution, features classroom lessons in violence prevention and social and emotional skills such as empathy, cooperation, and appreciation of diversity. It also includes professional development for teachers, staff, and administrators, as well as parent training, and peer mediation.

The RCCP's national director, Linda Lantieri, says she sees the beginnings of "a whole new vision of education that says that educating the heart is as important as educating the mind."

Michael Pritchard moves that vision forward every day. He lives it now, resting a comforting hand on Jackie's shoulder, both of them fighting back tears as she comes to the end of her story. "My sister wanted to be a teacher, but now she's not, because my daddy didn't take care of her. But I'm gonna be somebody -- what my sister wanted to be. I'm gonna accomplish her dreams." She hands the mike back to Pritchard and walks off to applause and an embrace from a friend.

"That's it. Sorry we ran over," says the big man in black as he turns his back to the audience to wipe the sweat and tears from his face with a white towel. Even for a man who sees it every day, the power of emotion can be overwhelming. "Wow," he whispers. "Wow."

Ken Ellis is executive producer of Edutopia video.

Comments (11) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

fastronautgrrl's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Michael Pritchard is a breath of fresh air in a world where a lot of educational systems in high-risk areas preach "tough love." What a difference some gentle but insistent words can be. Sometimes, all that many of these kids want is to know that there is someone out there that cares about them, perhaps even loves them. At lot of times a river of sorrow flows through kids that have this mask of attitude, or impenetrable coolness.

I think any educator could take a lesson from Pritchard. He's honest, and has a sense of humor, but knows when to use it, and when is a serious moment. Kids aren't automatons - they're kids, with hearts, hopes, and dreams, however big or small. We need to listen to our students; listen to what they're saying, yes, but sometimes more important, listen to what they're not saying. Compassion will always override condescension, and folks, there are some of us that were kids in that lonely crowd once upon a time.

Mandie the "Space Geek" Roberts
"When you teach with Heart, teaching becomes an Art"

Jerry Pitzl's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

WOW and Holy Cow (with apologies to the late and great Phil Rizzuto):

The powerful encounters that Michael Pritchard creates are desperately needed in every school in the country. And don't wait until high school to get the kids to open up. The jagged emotions running rampant among student populations are the outward manifestations of the effects of alcoholism, child abuse, broken homes, fear, hunger, isolation and a general aura of angst gripping young people and screwing up their lives. This reign of terror shows up in the school dropout epidemic, absenteeism, and boredom in classes as kids endure irrelevant assignments and impersonal treatment. "Seat time" is not a valid measure of anything remotely related to education. Can Michael Pritchard be cloned and sent into every school in the US? And then sent back in again every semester?

I was rather surprised to note that Daniel Goleman was in some way associated with Pritchard's work. The surprise is because his book, "Emotional Intelligence" included all of two pages devoted to the importance of the affective domain in education. The one reference was to Csikzentmihalyi's concept of flow, an important inclusion; but the world of educators expected much more. So, what is Goleman's position now?

What's missing in education is a recognotion of the crucial importance of emotion as a necessary gateway to true learning. Enthusiasm, cutiousity, and a love of learning come from the affective side and must be cultivated at the earliest possible time in the student's academic career. If a student is treated as a sponge then a sponge she/he will become. However, if students are convinced that they are solely responsible for their learning and will take responsibility for their learning the education system will turn completely around. We've endured far too much of the rote memory, fact-based, teach to the test, bored to tears kind of school setting and its associated emotional ills. Just consider the embarrassing 70 percent country-wide high school graduation rate as an example. It's time for big changes. Is the education system ready to turn the corner and set off in a new and more productive direction -- one that truly emphasizes learning. Some have suggested that only a complete social revolution will bring about the degree of change necessary to accomplish the task. What are the chances? Pritchard's approach will remedy a huge chunk of the social problem hampering education. The rest has to happen with the parents and in the schools.

Mary Utne O'Brien's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I think Jerry is right that we may need a revolution in education, and as Executive Director of CASEL I see the beginnings of it all around me. Social and emotional learning (SEL) is the education movement that explicitly seeks to bring the heart and soul of teachers and students to the foreground in learning, and it is gaining traction worldwide. SEL is about creating the caring classroom conditions and the student social-emotional skills and capacities for engaged and successful learning. Illinois and NY state now have learning standards in SEL (IL's are on the books; NY's are in the works). SEL is growing not just because it is so intutively sensible to teachers and a counter to the mind-numbing practices Jerry describes. It is gaining policy traction because the science behind it is now so strong. SEL leads to improved test scores! And better behavior. And happier staff. Moreinfo on all this can be foundat our website,

John LeVere's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Just read the heart of learning and tears are running down my face. Wow is correct!

I am a teacher in a high school in the UAE. Believe me, the issues are the same around the world. There are heartaches abounding in most everyone and if the key is SEL I intend to find out this school year.


Gina Manning's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

It's about time somebody stepped up to the plate as Mr. Pritchard has done. Books aren't everything.
I have known for my 9 years as a teacher that the barriers to academic student achievement are much more than "ineffective teaching" or not aligning curriculum to the state standards. I see it in my classroom every day. If a student is hungry, he can't learn, if a student is sad or mad, he won't learn. If a student moves every year, is in a group home or foster care, he loses a sense of community and probably doesn't do well in school either.
I am studying the effects of Social Emotional Learning for an Ed.D Program and this information is a big help.
Congratulations also to the state of Illinois for mandating such curriculum.

Greg Markovich's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Yes, we need the "evangelist" for SEL, however, what we really need is "national" leadership to get behind this movement. When the "Kennedys" stepped up to Special needs the schools changed. We need a President or spouse to tell the schools straight forward that No Child Left Behind also includes the "hearts and emotions" of our students too. I am director of an Alternative School for the last nine years and our school district just invested over a million dollars this year into my (our) 100 kids based upon our SEL success. It's everyday that you have to present SEL in all ways possible, all of our staff are committted to building relationships, valuing respect and expecting results. We are known as a place of Peace, Understanding, Success and Hope. We have also incorporated the Seven Habits and our curriculum paradigm is the SEA of Life, S=Social Intelligence, E=Emotional Intelligence and A = Academic Achievement(through multiple intelligences). This pioneering work of Goleman and Gardner has us graduaing over 90 percent of our students, kid w/kids turning their lives around. This is real. However, leadership district, state and nation have to step-up, it's like believing that the Internet is real. If you want additional information write me at, thanks for this opportunity, Greg Markovich, oh yes, I was an "emotional-bright 16 year old that ran away", I had one listening coach and found a way back.

Kindergarten Teacher's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

If we had all learned to identify and communicate our feelings appropriately in Kindergarten, just think of how much more successful we would all be in our relationships as young adults and adults! How many children and adults do you know, that cannot finish the question, "How are you feeling?" Many do not have any idea!

I believe that we need to teach children, from very early on "to be more real about their emotions" as Pritchard states. I believe that the first step in doing this is teaching children, as soon as they can talk, to first identify what emotion they are feeling.

As a Kindergarten teacher, every morning, during our Family Meeting Time, the first thing we do is sing good morning to each other and every single child finishes this sentence "I feel..." each child coming up with their very own word. By the end of the year, each child has a large vocabulary of feeling words, they are able to recognize how they are feeling, share their feelings, and are able to express them "appropriately!" This is the base upon which I build our classroom family.

Thank you Michael Pritchard for all you are doing!

stalwart teo's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Hi Sir and Madam

I am a Teambuilding event manager who runs events for school students.
I would like to find out more what i can do to help me understand these youth better and how i can respect them.

i looking forward help to help them.

apprecicate your time in reading this mail.


Jodi T.'s picture
Anonymous (not verified)

As an educator, I was delighted to see that someone was willing to step up and talk to kids in their own language. Kids do need love and a genuine relationship with their teachers. Many of our memorable moments have an emotional aspect that helps us recall the event. Children need to be emotionally (and positively) involved in the learning process.
Thank you Michael for following your heart and helping kids!

Donna D.'s picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I was very moved by this article and the accompanying video clips. I do try to let my students know that I love them, that they can trust me and that I have their best interests at heart. I try to let them know this about me by modeling the behavior, kindnesses and empathy that I insist that they show in the classroom. I have had a few very difficult students and classrooms that respond very well to a loving and respectful atmosphere. Not that this solves the problems a student may face outside of the classroom, but at least it gives them a place (our classroom) where they can feel loved, appreciated and respected.

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