The Alignment & Coherence Series: Connecting teacher practice with social and emotional learning
David Adams: Welcome to the second video in the series from the Center to Improve Social and Emotional Learning and School Safety. My name is David Adams, and I serve as the Director of Social and Emotional Learning for the Urban Assembly. Today, I have the honor and pleasure to interview Ellen Moir, who will share her wisdom as a leader and practitioner in the field of new teacher development. Ellen is the founder and was the CEO of New Teacher Center until 2018. She has over 45 years of experience in education and has spent the majority of her career working to expand and reach the effectiveness of teacher development and induction programs. Please welcome, Ellen Moir.
Ellen Moir: Thank you. Thanks so much, David. It’s nice to be here with you and with everyone.
I feel like the country’s ripe for the conversation we’re going to have today, David. It’s social, emotional, and academic development are at the forefront of what we should all be thinking about for every child in this country.
David Adams: We know that social and emotional learning is important for our kids. But let’s talk a little bit about social and emotional learning for teachers. Why does social and emotional learning for our teachers matter?
Ellen Moir: Oh, it matters so much. First of all, a teachers’ own well-being is key to their success. Most of my career I’ve been working with early career teachers, and they come into the profession so excited and ready to really kick the ball out of the park, so to speak. Teaching is hard and tough, and they can easily lose their confidence. They tend to work 70 hours a week. So really helping them create some balance in their lives and take care of themselves and really understand sort of what their own boundaries are that they’re going to set up are really important.
So social and emotional development for their own well-being is key. Second, I’d say it’s really important for their students to really have a teacher that can also develop the social and emotional skills of their students and can create a school and classroom culture and climate that’s really trusting and caring and where relationships are built. The teacher, then, also can let kids take risks, and it can be a very safe learning environment. So social and emotional development for teachers is very, very important.
David Adams: I heard you say that social and emotional development for teachers actually can impact the way that they go about instruction. Can you tell me a little bit more about that in terms of the learning environment and taking risks?
Ellen Moir: In our work, we’ve paired new teachers with exemplary teachers to serve as mentors, who really are guides on the side to support their development, who care deeply about the teacher’s success. And all of the kinds of things that we do with new teachers that the mentors are doing, the kind of reflective practices that they participate in, the caring relationship that’s built, the ability to give feedback in a kind way, tends to help the new teachers set up goals. These are all things that we model for new teachers on their journey and, in turn, they then model some of those kinds of practices with their students. So it’s kind of a nested community of practice that the way we teach teachers can actually offer them opportunities for teaching their students in similar ways.
David Adams: It’s amazing because I feel like what you’re saying is that this notion of parallel experiences, that when teachers experience high-quality relationships and trust, that they can reflect that into their classroom. I’ve read that mentorship and reflection are fundamental elements of the New Teacher Center’s approach for supporting new teachers. Could you say a little bit more about the role of mentorship and how it develops teachers’ social and emotional competency?
Ellen Moir: Well, the way we work is, first of all, we have a very rigorous selection. The New Teacher Center has a rigorous selection for the mentors. So the mentors themselves have to have strong interpersonal communication capabilities and strong social and emotional development, and also have to be outstanding in the content area that they’re teaching in. So by partnering with a new teacher, they’re on a journey throughout the year, and they’re in classrooms with new teachers every single week, helping them adjust their practice, giving them feedback, offering them ideas on a classroom circle or on some different trauma-informed practices or different pedagogy.
So they’re building this very close relationship, and as they work together each week, there’s opportunities for the teacher to reflect on his or her practice. I think it’s a key piece because we want teachers to understand the metacognitive processes that they’re going through and that their students are going through, and it gives them a chance to think about what kinds of things they’ve just done, that they thought the practices went well, some that didn’t, what happened in the areas where they saw need for growth. I think this kind of authenticity and sort of partnership, collaborative relationship, reflection—they’re key for actually good teaching and learning opportunities.
We have a history in our profession of giving teachers one-size-fits-all professional learning, whether they need it or not. But this approach that I’m describing is much more of a personalized approach that really looks at the assets that the teacher brings in and gives he or she a chance to reflect on how they’re doing over the course of the year.
David Adams: We use language for our kids around self-awareness; this notion of students being aware of their strengths and challenges, being able to access external supports, and also being able to understand their needs and emotions. So I feel like when you talk about this mentorship process, it’s developing similar competencies in teachers themselves, right?
Ellen Moir: It is, absolutely. For example, we would have new teachers describe what’s working, what’s not working, what kind of support do they need? So it’s the exact same kind of self-awareness, and it’s a kind of vulnerability that we just don’t see in the profession. But we want kids to be vulnerable, we want kids to take risks, we want kids to feel safe. So mentoring is about a partnership with another human being, where you’re building a very strong relationship, and you can weather the weeks of the school year together and really, I think, move from good to very good to excellent. It gives you a chance to see your own improvement over time.
David Adams: Yeah. I think this notion of seeing your own improvement is something that’s really, really important. We know from the psychology of what effective instruction looks like, short-term goals that can give feedback to the students is often a motivating factor. But it sounds like you’re saying that the same process is important for teachers in terms of coming into the field.
You had talked about this idea that our teachers come in full of energy and excitement. But then 70-hour workloads hit them, maybe unsupportive administrators, difficult work environments. Many teachers enter with a calling. How do we help teachers retain that excitement and optimism and retain that, but also manage realistic expectations early in their career? So how do we balance that fresh-eyed, “I’m going to change the world” with “I don’t want to be burnt out in the first two or three years of my profession”?
Ellen Moir: Yeah. It’s been 45 years since I was a first-year teacher, but I’ll never forget what that felt like. It’s exactly what you’re talking about. It’s a fine balance between being optimistic and hopeful and then facing the realities of the day-to-day. One of the toughest things, David, for new teachers is they think they’re going to get in and be better than any of us. I mean, that’s exciting. What they find is that teaching is complex and that the master teachers that they’ve watched or the teachers that have been their teachers in classrooms have made it look pretty easy for them.
So I think that’s why I really wanted to develop the New Teacher Center’s mentoring model as a way to really early on, right at the very beginning, to offer new teachers the kind of emotional support and also the kind of academic support, right? The strategies of how we teach, the content, the way you set up a classroom. So by building this kind of partnership from the beginning, the new teacher doesn’t feel isolated and feels like they have someone that they can reach out to. Really, it’s an equity issue, because we find new teachers situated in the most underserved communities and the same students, kids of color, keep getting a new teacher each year. So retaining teachers—not everyone; so every once in a while, maybe someone shouldn’t be retained—but having a strategy in place to really retain our teachers, to develop them and retain them and keep that hope and optimism and that light burning, and that’s, I think, what mentoring has done for new teachers.
David Adams: When you say that, it resonates with me and this idea of what Seymour Sarason wrote as teaching being the loneliest profession, right? When you talk to new teachers, everybody thinks that their issue is their own, right? Like no other teacher has struggled with classroom management, and you said, Ellen, when they come in, they’re thinking like, “I’m not going to be that person,” and they realize, “Oh, I’m also that person.” Instead of going out, it goes in. But your structures help us kind of mitigate that.
Ellen Moir: Yes, that’s exactly right. That’s very astute of you, I think, right? So they do think they’re the only one that has experienced this, and we’re able to say to them, “Hey, no, all new teachers and most new teachers experience these kinds of things.” So, yeah. They’re able to…because, David, when they lose their confidence, kids sense that right away, just like when a student loses his or her confidence, it’s hard to bolster them. So I think trying to mitigate that realm from the get-go. At the same time, another thing is when you ask a new teacher how things went in their lesson, let’s just say, they often think, “Oh, this went wrong, and that went wrong and…” because they want to be outstanding.
So that’s another way that we can buffer the teacher and be able to say, “Well, let’s first look at what’s going really well for you.” And kind of what you said earlier, again, bite-sized pieces so that the teacher can feel that they’re progressing and they could see it on a continuum that they’re actually getting better.
David Adams: When you say that, it just reminds me of this idea that perception of support has a lot to do with retention and the ability to kind of move through challenging difficulties. So when you’re talking about the quality of feedback raising up the one thing that they did well and building upon that, it’s not just about being nice or being kind.
Ellen Moir: I think that’s exactly right. We lose so many teachers in their first year, first three to five years, and we don’t have to lose them. We shouldn’t be losing them because these are passionate, talented, young, diverse students or teachers who want to make a difference. It’s incumbent upon us. It’s a moral obligation that we have to the profession to create a safety net for new teachers and, actually, I would say for all teachers. I mean, what we’re talking about teachers needing social and emotional well-being of experienced teachers is incredibly important as well.
Look, I have probably witnessed hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of new teachers all by myself by just seeing them in their classrooms. Then over the years, we’ve worked with at least 250,000 new teachers. New teachers…it’s not always the teacher that comes out of a teacher preparation program, that’s like the most talented teacher that has problems. I mean, all teachers have issues as they start off teaching. I think that just like we believe in a developmental continuum of learning for our students, we need to get new teachers in on that kind of path and watch their successes emerge over time and by helping them be socially aware, by helping them be persistent, by helping them be resilient, by helping them have successes, right?
David Adams: Yeah.
Ellen Moir: To ultimately bolster their confidence and help them be more successful. They actually can articulate what they do well. They can articulate areas for growth. They can seek help is kind of we were talking about earlier. I think that we’re losing amazing talent if we don’t put something in place in our districts and schools where we’re creating the social and emotional well-being of our new teachers.
David Adams: How would a teacher develop these skills, not just of the content that they have to teach, but these social and emotional skills that they would need to be successful. These things like setting and achieving goals, these things like understanding their role in the community or accessing the support. Then how do we understand what kind of teachers we can select so that they’re more likely to be able to do these things when they get into the classroom? So I guess, how do they learn it, and then how do we select teachers to do it better?
Ellen Moir: Yeah. I mean, I think that first of all, we want to be developing teachers from the get-go. So in pre-service programs across the country, we want to ensure that we’re embedding social and emotional development as well as academic content rigor and all of that together. It’s important, I think, that we sort through what those competencies are and that we then have the kind of professional development early on in pre-service and then that kind of spiraling that you find in new teacher development and professional development for teachers across their careers. I think there are different methods for teaching social and emotional skills. I actually advocate for those that are embedded into the entire curriculum and to the entire school day for students so that teachers are not just pulling out a kit for an hour and then offering social and emotional development, but that we’re teaching students about perseverance through a literature study or we’re teaching them how to be persistent from some other aspect of history and the kind of change that we’re able to make by being persistent or through reading or mathematics.
So I think that kindness, caring, building strong relationships with students, articulating what it is that we’re doing and why it’s so foundational to learning, I think, is really important. I mean, the cognitive social and emotional development of humans is so integrated. I think modeling that early on in pre-service. Then also, David, I don’t think we do a good enough job of teaching about human development and the neurosciences and the latest research in the brain. I think building those kind into pre-service and in in-service is also important.
The teacher has to also love the students and really approach the whole student, the whole child and have that strong relationship. I think those are pieces in pre-service…the R word—relationships—always I think historically in my career sounded soft.
But in the end, relationships and strong interpersonal skills and helping our teachers and our students have empathy and be able to understand different perspectives, these were like key life skills. I think the profession has moved into a place where we realize that we need a broad definition of student success, and therefore, we need to integrate more, I think, into pre-service and in-service around that vision of that bigger definition of student success.
David Adams: I think, to your point before, what teachers receive feedback on are going to be the things that matters to them. Their mentorship process is going to be part of that identity development and formation. So I’m thinking about the importance of how we organize these processes to reflect the values that you’re talking about so that we cared not only about literature, but about kids.
Ellen Moir: Yeah. I think that it’s so important. I think it’s about shifting our perspective to really saying to ourselves, what is it that our students need to know and be able to do, and how do we create this kind of integrated approach just to learning and to teaching and learning? The mentorship gives us a chance early on, as you said, to create that kind of framework for teachers.
David Adams: I heard you talk about this idea of relationships. So in my career, I’ve seen relationships be new teachers do Skittles every Friday if you did the right thing, to teachers who held really high expectations, to teachers who really invested in supporting their kids to overcoming obstacles. So I feel like we say the word “relationships” a lot. We talk about caring a lot. But can we talk about what caring looks like in the learning process, how we demonstrate it, and how we develop teachers who can understand the role that it plays in learning?
Ellen Moir: Yes. I think one of the most important aspects is to teach teachers how to know their students really well. Sometimes I feel like we’re running a mill or factory, and everyone’s going in. But every child is unique and brings a set of assets with them. Caring about them is knowing the assets they bring and knowing the level of skill that they have and teaching in their zone of proximal development and ultimately modeling that kind of caring of them and for them on a day-in and day-out basis and creating a culture of caring in a classroom and in a school and in a setting. I think that articulating what caring looks like with teachers, right?
I mean, when I was taught to be a teacher, no one talked about caring. No one talked about relationships. They’re at the heart. That’s why students learn in part because they care about their teachers. They know their teacher has high expectations and cares about them. So I think inquiring with teachers, “What would it look like if you were showing students that you cared about them right now during this lesson?” and even having a goal in mind as they build out their lessons of what caring looks like. Now, honestly, David, I think some of us come at caring naturally. It’s sort of our DNA. We need it to be every teacher’s DNA because that then translates also to students and students will model that kind of caring.
I hadn’t really remembered that. But look, we get into this profession to care about our young people, to care about students. I think it’s underrated and overly important that we do everything in our power to model caring, to stay engaged with students and their families, to not just see their families. I see their families as their first teachers, as their most important teachers. So how do we really drive this kind of community engagement, parent engagement, and support for our students through caring and strong relationships? I think it’s essential.
David Adams: There are some teachers who, for example, they’ve decided that relationships are lowering expectations or not following up with things that they said before: “This kid has struggled. I’m going to maintain a relationship with them more. Ellen, you can call me Dave.” But then they struggle to reestablish these things when it comes time for discipline. So can you talk a little bit more about some of these nuts and bolts?
Ellen Moir: Yeah. Well, I think your point’s really an important one, David, that I think sometimes when we think about relationships, we think about caring, we think about lowering our expectations, and instead, it’s about all of the above, right? It’s social, emotional, and academic development, and it’s having high expectations, and it’s scaffolding in a way that really helps a student be successful. So I think also in some ways, teachers feel as if this is one more piece that’s added onto the curriculum.
I always say, it’s not added on. It is the curriculum. It’s your heart and your mind. I think trying to remind teachers every day of why they want to be a teacher, and again, measuring some of these pieces, again, not with a hammer, but being able to… When we would come into the classroom to work with new teachers on our rubric, we looked for aspects of: Is the teacher demonstrating caring? Is the teacher able to help their students persevere? I mean, whatever the aspects, are the students able to build relationships with each other, is the culture trusting? Whatever the things are that we think are essential for social, emotional, and academic development, we want to make sure that we’re calling them out so that they’re explicit and our teachers know how important they are, and our students thrive.
David Adams: One of our students had once said that sometimes she only felt like a number, and the focus on social and emotional learning was the time that she felt like she was valued for more than just her test scores.
That really transformed her understanding of school and her relationship with her teacher. When she saw that her teacher actually measure social and emotional skills. She said, “The fact that my teacher measured this, and this was about me—not about math, not about science—it was about me, and took the time and gave that back to me.” It was a big deal.
Ellen Moir: Absolutely. I can’t emphasize that enough. I think that’s just so important. When I was on the Collaborative for Social, Emotional, and Academic Development, we went and visited an array of schools, and I heard that same thing from students over and over—high school students, junior high students. I witnessed firsthand how much the students valued the more personalized approach to learning, right? That someone knew them and cared about them. I think when you survey students, they call this out; they’re looking for teachers that care about them.
Also, I think it’s interesting that something you said earlier just struck a chord for me. As teachers, we don’t really know what our impact and influence is. But we do know that it is unbelievable. It’s transformative for many kids. I think the more we put our focus and energy on selection, pre-service, ongoing professional learning for teachers and administrators around social and emotional and academic development, I think the better our profession will be, the better success our students will have, and we’ll be contributing to the workforce in ways that we’ve never done before.
David Adams: And our communities, right?
Ellen Moir: And our communities. Absolutely.
David Adams: Right? So I think speaking about communities, I think right now, and in the past as well, we’ve seen students come to school with complex lives, including trauma. We’ve seen students now have to deal with challenges that adults struggle with. So I’ve seen that teachers have called for more social workers. There’s been a call for more school psychologists, more school counselors, and that’s all great. But how might teachers develop the abilities to better support students who come in to schools with some of these challenges, and what role does social and emotional development play in that?
Ellen Moir: Well, I think, first of all, teachers need to, again, know their students well.
Oftentimes, teachers may come from communities that are outside of the community that they’re teaching in and they’ve had very little experience. So it’s really important as part of their development, mental process to really understand and know their students and the trauma.
So now, I think teachers… Well, first of all, I think that students who have adverse aspects happening in their lives, that our brains are built with elasticity and an ability to overcome that adversity when met with a caring teacher who is conscious and cognizant and focused on ensuring that student has the kind of supports he or she needs for success. So every child can learn, every child can be successful, and I think teachers would value the opportunity of learning some specific trauma-informed practices that could really help them be more successful.
But at the core of any trauma-informed practices, at the core of anything are the relationships that our teachers build with our students.
David Adams: Yeah. I mean, I think you said it really well. I think this idea of paying attention and being curious, it matters. I think that relationships matter the most.So as you’re talking, a lot of this is just about paying attention to your students and being curious. If you can focus on how your student is interacting with the content, how your student is interacting with you, how your student is interacting with their peers, and then be curious as to, “Okay. Well, what kind of supports and scaffolds does my student need to be more successful in these interactions?”
Ellen Moir: That’s right.
David Adams: As you’re saying, I think it mean a lot to kids. Kids struggle with math, they struggle with reading. When they struggle, they feel depressed…or not depressed, but they feel just defeated. They feel…
Ellen Moir: Right. They lose their confidence.
David Adams: Perfect, right? The teacher who manages to engage in their emotional state as well as in the content, by saying, “I know this is frustrating. I know this is difficult, but we can do this together. We can improve.” I think, going back to what you were saying, and then we have some sort of small kind of benchmarks that allow the student to say, “Yesterday, I couldn’t read, read but now I can.”
Ellen Moir: That’s right. The student has their own record that shows them their successes, that just small bites. I think that’s right. The word “curiosity,” I think, is important. I want to put a pin in it again. I mean, that’s how you stay alive. That’s how you stay as a really talented teacher is that you’re curious. When you come to this place of “this too shall pass,” we lose our curiosity. Every child is different. Every child brings a new opportunity for us. To really be curious about our kids and stewards of their lives, I mean, it seems just essential. They do know it, and that’s why when we were doing different ways of evaluating teachers—and, of course, I thought it was too narrow—but I think it’s standardized tests are an important aspect, but not the sole aspect of a quality teacher.
If you were going to your school over in assembly, and you were to ask students, “Where are the different schools? Where are the best teachers? Who are the best teachers?” they will tell you. I think it’s about giving students a voice also, right? And valuing their perspectives and more agency in the learning process.
David Adams: When you say that, it just hits me so hard that when teachers, for example, give really good feedback that really incorporate the students’ strengths and challenge, students are like, “Oh my God, this person really sees me. It’s not that I’m a good reader or a bad reader.” But she was like, “I’ve noticed that this is your tendency.”
Ellen Moir: David, that’s exactly what we teach mentors, right? Because it’s one thing I could come in. I could see you teach. I could say, “Great job, David. I loved being here. See you tomorrow.” When instead it’s that explicit feedback that you’re talking about. We give it to mentors, mentors give it to teachers, teachers give it to their students, and yes. We can create a vision together of continuous learning and continuous improvement.
David Adams: So I think coming back to this notion of continuous improvement, we’ve seen an explosion of interest in social and emotional learning and development. Every month, there’s an article in the newspaper and Ed Week focused on social and emotional development. But one challenge here is that its implementation and outcomes differ based on individuals and all kinds of variables. There’s not one way of being. There’s not one perfect teacher. So how do we understand and support school systems to persevere and in the process of incorporating social and emotional principles into their school, knowing that it doesn’t feel kind of direct and as easily measurable as something like your ELA scores.
Ellen Moir: Yeah. It’s messy. It is. I mean, what I think owning the opportunity, being curious as a staff together about how we’re going to measure the impact of the social and emotional learning aspects that we brought into the school. If we built assemblies, if we built advisories, if we built whatever the structures are for… If we’re doing circles or restorative practices or whatever we’re doing, I think, to be able to co-create it as a staff, as a team, because I think that otherwise, it just becomes something that’s imparted on the school from above, and there’s little ownership. But this is juicy. This is interesting. This is like, “Oh my gosh. We think these aspects of caring are important. We think it’s important to build strong relationships. Let’s figure out together how to measure it.”
David Adams: It comes back to, I think, the conversation that you had—people care about what’s measured, right? I forgot the saying, but if it’s measured, it’s what people appreciate.
Ellen Moir: Yeah. That’s what I think. We were talking about that a while ago. I think that’s right. It’s like, if you don’t bring it to the forefront, if it’s not important, if you’re not observing for it, if you’re not talking about it, then it will go unnoticed and not be important, and it’ll go off to the side. But I think today, there’s huge recognition that social and emotional and academic development go hand in hand. And 45 years I’ve watched a pendulum swing, right?
I saw a swing really far over to only looking at standardized test scores, and now I see us swinging back. We have to be careful that we don’t lose the rigor and the academic content and the rigorous evaluation and the importance of meeting a set of competencies and metrics. But at this end, so… but we don’t want to forget. We don’t want to lose the human component of education, which is, I think, so important today, always will be.
David Adams: It reminds me of this notion of like, what does it mean to be educated, right?
Ellen Moir: Yes.
David Adams: What characteristics would an educated person show? It’s more than what they know. It’s also who they are and what they do, right?
Ellen Moir: Yes, and what they care about and what they value and that they have good judgment and they have integrity. I mean, these are life-long capabilities and that they’re curious and that they’re hungry, right? I’ve just been driven, and I know you are, too. I’m driven to ensure that every kid gets the best teacher, the best education, and that it’s not just driven by zip code. We can do so much better. I think lifting up our kids and our teachers and using social and emotional learning and academic rigor as a vehicle for doing that—I think our time is now. I mean, even though I know that in some ways I worry that it could be thought of as this is the buzzword, this is the in-thing right now—social- emotional—but the more we can bring in human development, brain science cognition, right? Thinking about how we develop, it’s really foundational, and it is about creating a vision and a new understanding of what’s a successful student looks like when he or she graduates from high school.
I think our teachers are the drivers, and our principals are the drivers of the quality education for our students. I think that their well-being, our teachers’ well-being, and our administrative well-being and their belief that their well-being is transformative to helping their students have greater success is the greatest contribution I think that they can make today. David, I’m a huge fan of teachers. I had a teacher that made a huge difference in my life. At age—I won’t tell you what age, but at some age recently, I actually got to meet that teacher. It was my high school Spanish teacher, and I could say, “Thank you.”
I think teachers just have such a huge impact and influence on students. I love teachers. I think what you’re doing and your work at Urban Assembly is super important, and I wish you the best, and to the teachers and administrators out there, carry on because we need you. Our kids need you.
David Adams: Ellen, thank you for everything that you’ve done on behalf of the education field over the past 45 years. I think your legacy is one that has uplifted the role of mentorship and teacher development and has impacted countless teachers themselves. So I appreciate you, I appreciate what you’ve done, and on behalf of the Center for Social and Emotional Learning and School Safety, I thank you for your time and willingness to share your insights with the field.
Ellen Moir: Thank you.