I’m so sick of hearing about self-care and feelings. Life just happens to us, and there’s not much we can do about it.
A former student of mine shared this opinion in a class seminar about Transcendentalism. Not exactly what Whitman had in mind, but I digress. While I am accustomed to hearing stories about former students, this one surprised me more than others. Her statement seemed drastically inconsistent with the person I once knew. In my creative writing class, she was often the first to give glowing feedback to peers. In my yoga class, she eagerly participated in meditations and workouts. She embodied the values of self-care and feelings.
This change might be attributed to so many factors– perhaps the turbulence of adolescence or the ongoing trauma of the pandemic. More likely, her sudden aversion to feelings could have resulted from my school’s investment in a packaged SEL program. Like many educators who saw the early pandemic fallout, administrators in my school knew that we had to respond to students’ needs as they faced increased isolation and unprecedented stress levels.
If my former student’s response is any indication, the rote process of watching videos and completing worksheets created an aversion to the very content we thought our students needed. Before we knew it, our solution became the problem.
The Impossibility of EdTech
To my school’s credit, they knew there was a problem. Teachers were burnt out, the national turnover rate was high and our school didn’t have the capacity to train staff to facilitate community-building circles and implement socio-emotional pedagogy. Considering these adverse factors, the school leaders decided to invest in our students’ well-being and purchase a packaged curriculum. On its face, the curriculum offered programming with little prep time that could be replicated regardless of who facilitated the content.
While seemingly unorthodox, we weren’t the only school to make this decision. As recently as last year, the SEL industry produced nearly $1.725 billion in sales. While it’s difficult to determine how much has been spent on Edtech, we do know that investments in education technology companies have nearly quadrupled since the beginning of the pandemic.
These companies have claimed to solve any number of problems a school faces. Need to foster relationships between students? Measure school climate? Increase reading levels without lifting a finger? Edtech has a product that takes care of it for you. However, after observing students and their interactions with this costly programming, the distance between its research-backed methods and the impact it purports to have on students is much further than one would think, not to mention regressive for students and teachers alike.
Using Technology to Solve Human Problems
Shortly after implementing the packaged SEL curriculum, students became noticeably wary about entering these conversations. The lessons and worksheets that were supposed to relieve their stress ended up exacerbating the insecurities students’ were experiencing. Instead of helping students develop healthy and authentic coping strategies, it became a catalyst for disconnection from their feelings and the world around them — another task to check off during an otherwise long school day.
I also won’t pretend the curriculum did not have a negative impact on me, as well.
As an English teacher, I’m used to exploring the feelings my students pour into their notebooks. I’m also a yoga teacher for many of these same students. In addition to physical workouts, we often discuss topics such as mindfulness, anatomy, interpersonal relationships — and yes, feelings — which my students were once eager to divulge. So, given my experience, I did not consider how the curriculum could impact my proven ability to create a culture of cooperation, critical engagement and compassion.
However, the version of me who taught this required SEL class was an unrecognizable version of myself. At the time, I was drowning in the demands of pandemic teaching, so when the scripted lesson plans for this program were emailed out, I clicked play on the automated curriculum and collected my students’ electronic worksheets in a daze. Those thirty minutes of class were just another blur in the whirlwind of that school year.
When I reflect on what my students needed from me during this time compared to what we offered them, I mourn a year of wasted opportunities. The software that was designed to foster relationships stifled my proven ability to engage with students. Ultimately, I sacrificed connection for convenience, which looking back on it was more indicative of the environment that other educators and I were forced to adapt to.
Responding to Students’ Needs
What schools and teachers are asked to accomplish is often impossible; is it any wonder, then, that we would turn to these tech companies to help solve our most pressing concerns? However, as any teacher who has been forced to teach a scripted curriculum will tell you, rarely is it an effective course of action. We can’t teach what we don’t own, and programs like this one often fail both because of their lofty goals and implicit desire to capitalize on the needs our schools are clamoring to meet.
As this new school year unfolds, I am once again returning to the SEL lessons I built in my yoga class. In our exercises, students are learning to respond to the feedback their bodies are giving them. As we begin our meditation exercises, we feel our hearts beat under the palms of our hands, observing the rise and fall of our ribcages with each breath and reacquainting ourselves with the ways our internal world responds to the external. The energy in the room shifts. Their shoulders start to drop, their breathing slows and their faces soften.
We also grapple with big questions as we learn to interrogate our thoughts:
“Is it true?” — I ask after they criticize themselves in a group discussion, usually berating themselves for being lazy.
"Does it serve you?" — I ask, encouraging them to reflect on their internal emotions.
When a student replied, “I mean, yeah! That’s how I keep myself motivated”, one of their peers gently pushed back, “Are you sure that’s the kind of motivation you need, though?”
These are the kind of conversations we desperately needed instead of packaged curriculum for SEL development. Usually, a few colleagues join us, often chuckling as they sheepishly unroll their yoga mats. They often joke that they need the class more than the students, but there’s a great deal of truth behind those jokes. The same system that constrains our students’ lives and mental health is also burdening teachers.
No matter the data or intention, no packaged curriculum can offer space to reflect as a community and respond to the unique needs of each school. If school leaders can resist the promises made by edtech companies, perhaps teachers can once again reacquaint themselves with the tools and resources they had before the proliferation of edtech curricular offerings: building relationships with students, creating a supportive classroom community and designing lessons that prompt students to ask important questions of themselves and their peers.