The Women Change Worlds blog of the Wellesley Centers for Women (WCW) encourages WCW scholars and colleagues to respond to current news and events; disseminate research findings, expertise, and commentary; and both pose and answer questions about issues that put women's perspectives and concerns at the center of the discussion.

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Connected Teaching – An Approach for Classrooms, Communities, and the Workplace

connected sequence of paper dollsA recent family conversation reminded me of my (long-ago!) elementary school experience of learning who my teacher would be in the coming school year. I remember the sense of anticipation – who will be my teacher?.

Now, decades later, I am a college professor, and with each new semester, I begin working with new groups of students. I have related anticipation (not as intense, for sure, but related) as I wonder about each new group of students. Will they be excited to learn? As we meet each week for class, will they arrive prepared and ready to discuss the topics of the day?

Who we learn from or teach with is important because we all learn through and in relationship. And I propose this is true not only in school (at any level), but also in the workplace, communities, and other settings. Relational Cultural Theory (RCT) helps us understand this more deeply.

Relational Cultural Theory

Many readers of this blog are familiar with Relational Cultural Theory (RCT), developed by Jean Baker Miller and her colleagues in the Wellesley area and later the Stone Center at Wellesley College, now part of the Wellesley Centers for Women. For those new to the theory, RCT is a human development theory based on the idea that we grow in and through relationships. This challenges many predominant developmental theories which suggest that adults are at higher developmental stages when they are independent or don’t feel they need others. RCT is clear, we are at our best when we engage in growth-fostering relationships.

RCT and Education

While RCT was initially developed and used primarily in clinical settings (e.g. psychotherapy and social work), scholar-practitioners have also applied RCT in other domains including organizations, social justice, and education. For example, RCT is foundational in the WCW program Open Circle, which provides social and emotional learning curriculum and professional development for elementary schools.

RCT and a broader relational approach can also help us become better and more resilient teachers (whether we are in formal educational roles or teach as leaders and supervisors). RCT helps us understand how relationships and even single interactions can be powerful conduits for teaching and learning. Additionally, an RCT lens helps us explore power, cultural context, boundaries, and mutuality in teaching.

Connection and Critical Feedback

For example, the concept of mattering helps us understand the teaching and learning relationship and gives us an important tool for assessment. An essential element of assessment (whether one is a teacher assessing student work or a supervisor conducting staff evaluations) – is being able to deliver critical feedback.

The concept of mattering helps us remain positive and focused on the other person’s growth and development as we prepare and provide critical feedback. Offering critical feedback can be frustrating (for example, when we believe we explained an assignment clearly and imagine the student wasn’t listening) and stressful (e.g. when the receiver is resistant or defensive). By reminding myself that students and their learning matter deeply to me before I engage, I’ve been able to get myself in a good space for providing sometimes-difficult feedback on papers or in person. I believe that at least some of the time, someone receiving critical feedback will be more open if they sense that the teacher or supervisor is coming from a place of respect, care, and hope for improvement. In part, this is about the energy and affect we bring to the interaction. Additionally, a sense of mattering helps us frame the feedback with a sense of hope and belief in the recipient’s ability to learn and grow. So mattering helps us position ourselves for the interaction and frame the message.

Mattering is just one example of how a relational approach to teaching, supervision, and leadership can fuel teaching and learning in a variety of settings. The following questions help us continue to explore:

How have important relationships shaped your learning? How can a relational approach help us:

  • navigate generational differences in the classroom and workplace?
  • balance availability, authenticity, and boundaries in the age of social media and 24/7 access?
  • be more resilient through the lows and highs of teaching and leading?

Harriet L. Schwartz, Ph.D., is the author of Connected Teaching: Relationship, Power, and Mattering in Higher Education and Lead Scholar for Education as Relational Practice with the Jean Baker Miller Training Institute, a legacy project of the Wellesley Centers for Women. She is also a professor of psychology and counseling at Carlow University.

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Back to School, This Time with Social and Emotional Learning

It’s back-to-school time and families, youth, and educators must adjust their schedules for another school year. In the midst of the forms and information families receive – or that get “lost” in a child’s backpack or locker – you may have heard something about a social and emotional learning (SEL) initiative or curriculum. In fact, the local school system in my rural, seaside community is convening a team of educators to consider how SEL can inform and improve what teachers are already doing to promote positive youth outcomes.

SEL refers to the way individuals learn and use a set of social, emotional, behavioral, and character skills to navigate successfully in school, work, and relationships across the lifespan. Related experiences, programs, and curriculum vary widely just like the school or afterschool settings in which they are taught. Whether the particular program is focused on conflict resolution, character education, bullying prevention, or another version of social skills instruction, the development of SEL programs is based on the consensus among social scientists, educators, and health care professionals that social and emotional skills matter. The positive youth outcomes from high-quality, evidence-based SEL programs include improvements in behavior, attitudes, and academic outcomes. (Durlak, J. A., Weissberg, R. P., Dymnicki, A. B., Taylor, R. D., & Schellinger, K. B. (2011). The impact of enhancing students’ social and emotional learning: A meta-analysis of school-based universal interventions. Child Development, 82(1), 405- 432).

Across the country at all levels of education – from state administrators of federal child care funds to infant-toddler and early childcare teachers or public school and afterschool leaders – a focus on SEL practices is gaining ground. For many, this is not a new conversation.

Here at the Wellesley Centers for Women, SEL has been an ongoing part of our work for the past thirty years.

  • In 1987, Open Circle was launched as a research project committed to the social and emotional wellbeing of children. Today, Open Circle provides a unique, evidence-based SEL program for grades K-5 aimed at proactively developing children’s skills for recognizing and managing emotions, positive relationships and problem solving, as well as helping schools develop a community where students feel safe and engaged in learning.
  • The National Institute on Out-of-School Time (NIOST) has brought national attention to the importance of children's out-of-school time using research, training, and advocacy to strengthen children's emotional, physical, and social development.

From my desk at NIOST, I’m starting the school year by working at the national, state, and local levels to support educators and administrators in their efforts to promote positive youth outcomes, especially in the expanding field of SEL. Specifically, I am researching the SEL programs that states are currently adopting in preparation for our forthcoming workshop for out-of-school time (OST) leaders on how to integrate these practices into school-age child care or other OST settings. As I do this work, my background as a former school committee member and education advocate means I can’t resist passing along the newest SEL information that comes across my desk to the regional school administrators in my community who are convening the SEL planning discussions for local schools.

If you want more information about SEL programs and practices, check out the Wallace Foundation’s May 2017 report, Navigating SEL from the Inside Out.

If you simply want to celebrate the importance and purpose of afterschool care for the wellbeing of children and families, consider joining the 18th annual Lights On Afterschool on October 26, 2017. This campaign includes a series of events across the U.S. promoting awareness of the many ways OST programs contribute to positive youth outcomes and children’s wellbeing.

If you have other ideas or resource recommendations for how SEL can be incorporated more into OST programming, please share in the comments. Let’s make this a rewarding year all-around for our young people and those who support them!

Gwynne Guzzeau, M.S., J.D., is a research associate at the National Institute on Out-of-School Time at the Wellesley Centers for Women, Wellesley College. She has been affiliated with the Gestalt International Study Center for a number of years as a faculty member and Professional Associate and served as executive director from 2014-2016.

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Views expressed on the Women Change Worlds blog are those of the authors and do not represent the views of the Wellesley Centers for Women or Wellesley College nor have they been authorized or endorsed by Wellesley College.

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