SEL in Action Newsletter

Our Voices, Our Stories

This newsletter is written for educators, by educators to share real world stories, questions, ideas and opinions about how to address the social and emotional needs of students and the adults who teach them.

This month, the newsletter features voices of grantees on SEL practices to create supportive climates that build trust and empathy across students and staff.

Share your story here! Complete this brief survey if you would like to be featured in a future newsletter. All publications are awarded a $50 gift card.

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Upcoming Events and Updates

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The SEL in Action community has been collaborating to compile this ever-evolving list of resources. It includes hand-curated resources from former SEL in Action grantees, videos from prior SEL in Action supports and convenings, an archive of the SEL in Action Newsletters. Check it out!

Grant Opportunities

Be on the lookout next week for a new grant opportunity to support teacher morale and retention! Districts, CMOs and other clusters of schools will be eligible to apply for up to $50,000, coaching on equitable design principles and a cohort-based professional learning process to identify needs and develop solutions for teacher support. Full details coming to your inbox soon!
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Educator Voices

Do We Need Alternatives in Education? by Sarah Giddings

This fall, a major local newspaper gathered employee surveys and recognized my high school as a top 2021 workplace! Yet, out of the recognition of over 250 businesses, we were the only educational institution. Why is that? Especially these days when educators are in a perfect storm of challenges and our profession is negatively impacted, you might be wondering what exactly is my school and what are we doing so differently?

Our school is classified as an “alternative” school. However, the word alternative as used in education is an interesting construct. Alternative to what? And even more, how does an alternative education program actually address and satisfy the SEL needs of students AND students when no one really seems satisfied anymore? In fact, there are many lessons from the alternative education world that could be applied to traditional school buildings. I encourage educators to think boldly and bravely about how they can adopt alternatives and create the best SEL outcomes for their students, teachers, and school community.

Lessons from our alternative school can help other school communities develop a response to help make sense of what social-emotional learning means. As for my school, we started with one question:

How can we create a caring supportive climate for everyone in our school?

Together, we built some answers:

Working Together. Involve educators in the leadership, management, and responsibilities of running the school. My school is recognized as a teacher-powered school. This process means we thrive on a system of shared decision-making through committees emphasizing staff and student voice. Through this process, we have developed ideas such as hybrid learning schedules (before the pandemic was even a reality!), offered hourly supplemental grading support, and redesigned our space collaboratively.

Focusing on Student Needs. We created a robust intensive student advisory model. For our school, every teacher also serves as a student advisor for a small group of students. We serve as the point-of-contact for student families, contact them at least weekly, and shepherd them high school and set personal SEL goals.

Taking Care of Ourselves. All of our schoolwork can be handed in online (again, this was a pre-pandemic decision) and students can proceed at their own pace if they desire. We have virtual classrooms online as well as robust in-person class offerings that are all collaboratively created and co-instructed. This means instead of needing subs when we are absent, our colleagues can step in and instruct and/or direct students to the virtual classroom we have created. These decisions gave us schedule flexibility and administrative support.

Attention to Inequities. We recognize that true SEL is transformative and through our flexible scheduling, we have the time to build relationships with students and redistribute power to those that have felt marginalized in traditional systems. We continue to learn and work together on where we need to improve with examining our own biases and prejudice and making sure to pay attention to our students’ lived experiences.

Some may think of alternative education as being “outside” of the mainstream, but I would challenge all of us to think of how the support, strategies, and ideas in our alternative school could be more strongly centered in traditional school environments. In order to be the change, we may need to embrace being out of the mainstream. Because all of us, educators and students, deserve to be a part of a top workplace - especially this year.

Sarah Giddings is a teacher leader and curriculum coordinator for the WAVE Program—a reimagined alternative high school she helped develop. Sarah is also a National Teacher-Powered Ambassador and coordinates professional learning opportunities for the Washtenaw Educational Options Consortium. She is also proud to serve as the SEL coordinator for the Washtenaw Intermediate School District. She has led professional learning on a multitude of her passions including SEL, assessment literacy, teacher-powered leadership, education innovations, technology, policy, and trauma-informed approaches. She spent several years as a teacher-leader in Chicago Public Schools, designing cutting-edge GIS and student advisory curriculums.

Contact Sarah Giddings at

Follow Sarah on Twitter: @sarahyogidds

SEL: The Impact on Teacher-Student Relationships by Keishia Thorpe

While some teachers think that relationships with students do not matter, others have found out just how beneficial it is to the teaching and learning process.

Classrooms across the education landscape are rapidly changing, especially in their diversity. Many teachers are actively seeking strategies to keep students engaged and happy, but this can be quite challenging without a full understanding of students' backgrounds. When teachers are unable to relate to the students in the classroom, this may cause isolation, lack of participation, incomplete assignments, truancy or even dropping out of school. Some of these actions may seem excessive, but it's true. In my experience, one student with whom I had a close relationship (I was also the student’s coach) enjoyed coming to my class even though it was the student’s least favorite subject. Another student with whom I did not have a close relationship would skip my class and stay in the bathroom. There is a saying: “Children do not care how much you know, until they know how much you care.” I had to find a way to connect with my student skipping class by arranging to have lunch together to bond. That did the trick. I realized that regardless of their backgrounds, all students desire to have an authentic relationship with their teachers.

This is why it is so important for teachers to have social emotional learning competency. Research by Schonert-Reichl shows that teachers' “own social emotional competence and well-being strongly influence their students.” Teachers who lead their classrooms with social emotional learning are more likely to identify the needs of their students and address them effectively. I recall an SEL activity that my students designed and led in my class after I taught social awareness, which allowed them to speak openly about their traumas. It brought us all closer because as immigrants we understood that we shared certain commonalities. When teachers can connect with students, students tend to demonstrate better learning outcomes because they are more comfortable taking risks. On the contrary, teachers who exhibit poor self-management are more likely to experience challenges with students’ behavior and engagement in their classes.

Going even further than this, when a teacher's classroom and the school's emotional climate are in tuned with and receptive to students' emotions, students will perform better academically. CASEL meta-analysis validates this claim, reporting that students who participate in social emotional learning programs with an academic component experienced increased gains. Now more than ever, it is important to build relationships with students because of the many challenges that surfaced during the pandemic. They need to feel safe, valued and recognized. Some ways teachers can begin building relationships with students are as simple as greeting your students by the door by their names, have a welcoming smile and positive body language, begin your class with an emoji temperature check, incorporate mindfulness activities, a motivational speech, soothing music, a journal entry, a classroom discussion, a community circle or even play a game together. Find activities that are relatable and can build on student-teacher trust, respect and sense of belonging. For example, my students and I develop a mantra that we say to each other at the beginning of each class. Finally, do not be afraid to be human in front of your students. Telling them your story and being vulnerable will humanize you and create a closer bond. There are countless ways to build teacher-student relationships, and teachers should choose what works for their classroom environment and their student population. The one universal element is the positive impact of social emotional learning and strong student-teacher relationships, which can lead to positive academic outcomes.

Keishia Thorpe is a licensed principal who teaches English and Advanced Placement courses at the International High School at Langley Park. She has a Bachelor degree in English and a Masters in Education, and she has been in education for seventeen years. She designs her curriculum from a global perspective with a social justice lens. She uses culturally responsive practices and civic engagement activities to engage her diverse learners who are primarily English Language Learners. Additionally, Social Emotional Learning practices are embedded in all her teaching and learning practices. She has received many accolades for her work with students inside and outside of the classroom. Most notably, the LifeChanger of the Year 2018-19 for the entire U.S, the Medal of Honor from Governor Larry Hogan, and The Global Teacher Prize which is considered the Nobel Prize for teachers awarded by the Varkey Foundation and UNESCO. She also co-founded the U.S. Elite International Track and Field, Inc.,with her sister Dr. Treisha Thorpe-Borris, a nonprofit, helping students across the world to access college level education, debt-free.

Building Connections and Empathy Through Community Circles by Heather Bushelman

Think back to a year ago when most of us were staying connected through technology. Everyday, we used a screen daily to communicate with our colleagues and students, and we were encouraged to stay connected throughout the unprecedented time.

Now that we are transitioning back to the "new" normal, it is even more important to build in-person connections, especially since we’re getting accustomed to being together again. Students and staff everywhere are navigating this journey and re-inventing community. As such, building connections and empathy have never been as important as they are currently within our educational system.

Community circles are one social-emotional strategy that offer just that! The purpose is to build a sense of trust, active listening, empathy, and having a voice among your class and colleagues. Here’s how you can recreate this:

  1. Sit in a circle either in chairs or on the floor.
  2. Choose an item to pass around, showing whose turn it is to talk.
  3. Pick a topic to discuss, such as 'get to know you' questions, restorative practices, or celebrations!

This process takes between 10-15 minutes once per week to ensure culture and climate is modeled within your classroom or school. The "new" normal is using community circles to ensure our voices are being heard and promoting empathy among your colleagues and students.

Mrs. Heather Bushelman has been an educator for nineteen years, fourteen of them serving as a school counselor. Heather graduated from Morehead State University earning her Bachelor's degree in elementary education. She earned her master's and rank 1 in elementary and secondary counseling from Western Kentucky University. After five years as an elementary teacher, she moved on to create three comprehensive counseling programs in Warren and Boone Counties over the past fourteen years. She currently serves as the Kentucky School Counselor's Association Elementary Vice-President and in July 2022 will begin serving as president-elect. Currently, she is the 2022 Kentucky School Counselor of the Year. For three years she has served on the Kentucky Department of Education's Counselor Advisory Council and most recently on the SEL Task Force. Her passion is whole child education and ensuring all students in Kentucky have their needs met by training, collaborating, and coaching all stakeholders. Her trainings include statewide presentations focusing on SEL within the MTSS model and Data-Driven School Counseling at the KSCA state conference, Kentucky Administrators' Conference, and Rise Up For Resilience in Daviess County. Nationally, she has been honored to present for Texas, California, and has now been chosen twice to present at the American School Counselor's Association National Conference in Las Vegas and this upcoming summer in Texas. She resides in Boone County with her husband Eddy and two children, Kendall (14) and Eddy (11).

The SEL in Action Team

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