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  • Writer's pictureJeff Eben

Social Emotional Learning (SEL): Almost Heaven for an Injured High Schooler

Updated: Jul 13, 2021

It was the fall of 1977 and I was class president and a varsity football player as a junior in high school. That’s almost heaven when you’re 16 years old.

Then a water-skiing trip with friends changed my educational experience forever when my skis met some rocks. My neck was broken and I nearly drowned before my friends pulled me out of the water

I spent six months in the hospital recovering from my injuries before they sent me home to start my life over. Everything had changed … except I was supposed to graduate high school in a little over a year.

While I could be forgiven for licking my grievous wounds, no one was just going to give me my diploma without the credits. I had to salvage my junior year but I needed help. I was given a Home Hospital Instructor, Mr. Sells.

He was beloved in my school for his Southern charm, wit, and genuine love for his students. He had been my teacher before I was injured and I had already been drawn to his kindness and gentle demeanor with us students.

I was about to discover that he was an example of what confidence and strength looks like in the classroom. I also learned that he was a visionary educator who understood the power of Social Emotional Learning (SEL) long before any scholarly articles had ever been published on the subject.

After being in the hospital for so long, the transition to home was frightening. I had retreated into myself and wasn't very interactive. I wasn't sobbing or emotional, just … quiet. I was fighting a war that no one could see.

I definitely was in no mood for English or Math and I had blown off a major assignment that was due.

Mr. Sells showed up on the assigned day and asked for the work. I had nothing to give him but a blank stare, but I guess that was enough.

I expected his disappointment, but something else happened.

He put his stuff aside and picked up my brother's guitar that was sitting neary. I didn't know he played and I couldn't help but smile when he started strumming a song I recognized.

Then he started singing,

"Almost Heaven, West Virginia

Blue Ridge Mountains, Shenandoah River

Life is old there, older than the trees

Younger than the mountains, growing like a breeze ... "

I was so caught off guard that the world's troubles fell away.

By the time he hit the first chorus, I joined in, "Country roads, take me home ..."

We sang John Denver tunes for an hour. No school work, no assignments. Just music.

As he got up to leave, he said, "I'll be back in a couple of days and we will go through your work. Today was for pickin' and grinnin'. "

When he returned, I was ready. In fact, I managed to catch up and returned for my senior year to graduate with my peers.

Forty-two years later, this experience is more relevant than ever.

Implementing Social Emotional Learning for Educators Today

Yes, that is a fun story about the “good old days,” but it has three profound implications for teachers in today’s learning environment.

Check on Your Student’s Well-Being

First, there are many stories hidden within the internal fortresses of your students.

You need a systematic way to check on their well-being.

Distress is not always easy to see. I am confident that our classrooms are filled with students who are in a similarly critical condition to the one in which I found myself in 1977.

To be sure, the forced isolation of the past year is enough to raise a cautionary flag as we return to campuses around the world. Teachers and students need to be aware of the need to reacclimate at a comfortable pace. We have nursing and counseling services available to provide support and guidance, so ask for help in identifying signs of stress.

Nothing, however, replaces the daily opportunities teachers have to check in with their students.

Emotional Health Precedes Academic Success

Next, as hard as it is to accept, the emotional health of students is the key driver to their academic success.

In this “assessment-heavy” climate, teachers are burdened with ridiculous constraints on their time and creativity. Test preparation has become our curriculum map and -- frankly -- a lot of has been taken out of day-to-day instruction. We can't afford that anymore.

Teachers need to be confident enough to trust their instincts as we reestablish academia. They need to think of themselves as SEL mentors in addition to educators. As leaders, we need to make it clear that it is okay to have fun or to pull out the guitar when Pythagoras needs to be replaced by John Denver.

Commit to Social Emotional Learning (SEL)

Finally, and crazier still (to some), a system-wide commitment to Social Emotional Learning will ENRICH your academic climate and IMPROVE student achievement, not detract from it.

I found out 40 years ago that if I wasn't ready to learn, not much good was going to happen at my desk.

Understand, though, it wasn't just about fun. It was having a mentor like Mr. Sells who lead me through the unannounced rough patches which took my attention.

It was the ability to stay focused on a set of goals that continued to move me forward when I became disenchanted with my purpose.

Interestingly, Mr. Sells caught the attention of others. He became a role model and his success invited others into the conversation. The result was a network of like-minded educators who made a difference in my life.

Join me in putting emotional health at the top of our instructional to-do list. There are plenty of education scholars who can be a resource for you. Be sure to look for my personal favorites like John Denver and Jay Z.

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