A new approach called ‘social-emotional learning’ helps students form meaningful relationships with teachers, a key to improving grades and attitudes
If you’re caught misbehaving in class at Chaplain Charles Watters School - PS 24 in Jersey City, you’d be lucky to get sent to see the school disciplinarian: Janine Brown.
“When (students) get discipline referrals for wearing headphones, my first question is ‘what are you listening to?’” Brown said. “I have to use what they're doing and what they're interested in to engage them.”
As the crisis intervention teacher in an urban district, Brown said she’s seen kids come through with histories of serious trauma that can their academic performance — family deaths, drug addiction, and poverty to name a few. But she has been employing a relatively new tactic to help students succeed academically and socially: a teaching approach known as “social-emotional learning” or SEL, which studies have shown helps kids earn better grades by allowing them to form meaningful relationships with teachers who can empathize with their struggles in school and out. And for Brown, that starts with music.
Music as a common language
Brown uses hip-hop and rap lyrics to help her students communicate their personal traumas and learn to heal emotionally before turning their attention to their test scores. What also helps, Brown said, is cultural capital. As a black woman with a Jersey City accent who has experienced some of the same challenges, Brown said she can often speak to the more than 326 black students in her building in a way white educators may not be able to.
“I think there is some privilege in being a teacher of color working with a demographic of students of color because they automatically are drawn to you because you look like them,” Brown said. “Black educators are often pigeonholed into being the disciplinarian, but the reality is that (black students) are more inclined to listen to us and do what we ask because of that cultural responsiveness that we have … sometimes I speak in their language, I’ll be like ‘dude take your headphones off,’ or ‘yo what's up with you today?’”
But across New Jersey, school districts are to employ and retain teachers of color, especially black male teachers. It’s an issue the state Department of Education is taking seriously especially now that the DOE is under the direction of Commissioner of Education Lamont Repollet, a black former educator. Indeed, though 56 percent of New Jersey students count themselves as nonwhite, only 16 percent of their teachers and administrators are people of color.
In an attempt to unite teachers from across the state and spread the importance of social-emotional learning and representation in teaching, Tonya Breland, director of the Office of Professional Learning in the DOE put together the first ever held at The College of New Jersey on Wednesday.
The conference tackled the broader issue of equity in New Jersey classrooms by offering workshops for teachers in subjects such as LGBTQ inclusivity, disability awareness, empathy and trauma, engaging disengaged students, and food insecurity — among others. One common thread, however, was the need for students to be able to see themselves in their teachers or at least see that their teachers are making an effort to identify with the challenges their students are facing. Historically, many of those challenges involve students of color and those in lower socio-economic households, making the need to diversify the teaching force imperative.
Breland said seeing the whole thing come together with nearly 1,400 educators in attendance was like “giving birth.”
“We had 50 workshops and larger sessions taking place throughout the day, and all of those presenting are educators from all over the state. That shows us that there is work being done currently and it allows educators to be able to collaborate with one another and network and to learn something that they may not have known. I’m hoping people walk away from this not just feeling inspired but connecting again with their ‘why’ — why they came into education in the first place.”
Searching for teachers of color
But even though the state DOE and legislators are beginning to to diversify teaching staff at New Jersey schools, administrators looking to bring in more teachers of color are having trouble attracting candidates.
Tom Braddock, principal at Evergreen Avenue School in Woodbury, said “it’s been a struggle” to recruit, hire, and retain teachers and administrators of color at his school. He said 75 percent of his students are receiving free and reduced-price lunch and the majority are African American and Latino, while the majority of his staff are white women.
“We went to minority job fairs; we did everything we possibly could for the longest time to recruit. What we found was so many candidates were taking jobs in the inner cities and were less likely to come out to us.”
Braddock said much of the trouble in getting folks of color to teach in Gloucester County is the high cost of living relative to a teacher’s salary. The average salary of a teacher in Woodbury is around $66,014, while the cost of living for a single adult is close to $40,000 in Gloucester County, according to the Economic Policy Institute’s .
“The pay is a hindrance to really recruiting top-quality individuals,” Braddock said.
The men are missing
But Brown added that even in New Jersey’s cities, recruiting teachers of color — especially males — is tough. She said in a school of 750 to 800 students “we just got one black male (teacher) at the end of last year. One. Prior to him, none.”
Indeed, Mark Williams acting assistant superintendent of Plainfield public schools said teaching unfortunately isn’t a viable option for young black men in New Jersey right now.
“I think a lot of African American males, we don’t choose teaching at a high rate. We usually go for other types of opportunities with higher-paying wages, to be totally honest," Williams said.
Part of the problem may be that students of color haven’t been prepared well enough in high school to succeed in teaching programs in college. Higher education officials told lawmakers in recent hearings that students of color are having trouble passing the required teacher certification exams, like the Educational Testing Service’s Praxis exam. As a result, state education officials said this year they are looking to measure whether or not the state’s high school graduation tests adequately prepare students of color for the skills demanded by the Praxis. What’s more, white students typically make up three-quarters of the enrollment in college teaching programs to begin with.
But Braddock, Brown and Nanette Fandino-Diaz, a Spanish teacher at Jefferson Township High School in Morris County, also agreed that the national political climate and conversation surrounding teachers is a deterrent for many young people to get into the field.
Right now, I don’t think anybody would want to go into the profession,” Brown said.
“I have a daughter who’s looking at college and she’s like ‘eh I’ve seen how people have vilified you, I’m not interested in that,’” Fandino-Diaz said, noting that in her experience, teachers are often accused of being “greedy” because they “get summers off” when in reality she works two jobs over the summer to make ends meet for her family. What’s more, the perception of teachers in national and local news isn’t always flattering. “No one’s doing highlight stories of the positive stuff that’s going on in classrooms, I turn on the television and it’s another negative story of a sexual scandal or money being misappropriated,” all of which she said makes potential educators think twice about going into the field.
Helping students of color thrive
As the state battles to attract more educators of color, however, teachers in the field say there are things the state could be doing now to help students of color thrive in their schools and potentially become teachers later in life.
A simple change, Brown said, would be to allocate more resources to social-emotional learning initiatives and staffing. Brown said she is currently the only crisis intervention instructor in her school with only one guidance counselor assisting her.
“Staffing needs to get on point, give us what we need, stop slashing the budget because you don't want to pay people, give me another (crisis intervention teacher) give me another guidance counselor, give me an SEL person too,” she said.
Williams said more emphasis should be put on mentoring young students of color and in allowing more innovation and autonomy into the teaching field to allow black men to see the classroom as an opportunity to employ their creativity to reach students like them rather than reinforcing a system that may have failed them in their youth.
Breland said the state has a long way to go to fully addressing these concerns, but the DOE is committed to equipping educators and administrators with some of the tools they need to create safe and encouraging environments for students from all backgrounds.
“We need teachers to go from just being culturally relevant and culturally competent to becoming an advocate for students and working for students to help bring out the best in them,” Breland said. “We’re working on helping educators to see what students bring to the table as an asset.”