Lessons from New York schools

by Sarah Seleznyov, Director of London South Teaching School Alliance.

From 11-13 March 2020, I was lucky enough to be invited to go to New York to look at innovative schools as part of a funded study trip with Big Education and the Big Leadership Programme. The programme looks at how as leaders, we might rethink education so that it takes a more expansive view of learning, continuing to ensure academic achievement, whilst also developing the whole person, and teaching creativity and problem solving. This series of blogs is about the practices I saw and how they might inspire education in UK schools.

Lesson 1: Social and emotional learning as an enabler for pupils from challenging backgrounds

How do we teach our pupils to cope with what lies beyond the school gates, as well as what lies within it? How do we support them to handle the real-life situations they face outside school, and the challenges they might experience once they are no longer pupils at the school, so that their lives are safe, fulfilling and successful? This is the challenge that the Urban Assembly Academy for Future Leaders set out to tackle.

Three years ago the Urban Assembly Academy for Future Leaders was a failing state school, with one of the highest ‘incident rates’ in New York City, one step away from being designated as a ‘dangerous school’. The pupils at this school for 12 to 15 year olds have tough lives: 96% live below the poverty level, 43% have special needs and many live in shelters (homeless accommodation). It was difficult for students to manage their own emotions and remain resilient in the face of the multiple daily challenges they faced both within and beyond the school. 

When Principal Gates arrived, he had a plan. He believed that the introduction of a comprehensive programme of social and emotional learning could not only help turn the school around, but enable the pupils to thrive as learners and help them navigate the tricky situations they faced in the community. He described how the state school curriculum could not provide students with the learning, cultural and social capital they need to thrive in a high performing college, but that if they had developed the relevant social and emotional skills, such as resilience and self-management, they would stay the course. He wanted to ‘make sure they have a foot in the door, and a space in the room’.

The school introduced daily social and emotional lessons of 30 minutes, led by teachers from all subjects, in which teachers would pose scenarios, explore pupils’ initial responses to these strategies and then offer them a range of alternative perspectives on those scenarios. Through the scenarios and reflective discussions, teachers teach pupils the vocabulary and a set of associated strategies such as self-regulation, perseverance, resilience to help them consider alternative pathways, pathways that will keep them safe, and help them progress and achieve their life goals. Over time, many teachers began to incorporate the vocabulary and the strategies from these discrete lessons into day-to-day subject teaching, seeing a real impact on learning attitudes, behaviours and achievement. 

Teaching was complimented with a measurement tool: the Devereu Student Strengths Assessment tool (DESSA) was used to measure students’ progress in social and emotional aspects of learning, and thanks to pleas from teachers, acted as a formative tool for students. Strengths were co-identified by teachers and students, so as to take into account aspects visible both at school and at home, and areas for development were mutually agreed. These agreed targets would inform teachers’ planning for future social and emotional lessons.

Since the introduction of this new curriculum, there has been an 80% reduction in major incidents in the first year, and a 60% reduction in the second year. This year there have only been six incidents, and none of them dangerous. Thanks to improved learning behaviours and attitudes, the school has been able to introduce a much more challenging curriculum. Test scores have risen and future tracking shows improved success at high school.

We heard from two students at the school who were able to talk articulately about the impact this approach had had on them personally. They handled the language of emotional intelligence competently and confidently, describing how they had learned the importance of self-regulation, of reaching out for help, of being resilient in the face of failures. The school they said ‘doesn’t sugar coat what life is like’ but recognises that: ‘emotions are powerful and can be wild cards if you can’t control them – sometimes you can end up doing things you didn’t want to do’.

They described how pupils taught their peers to use the skills of emotional regulation, helping improve self-management and pupil-to-pupil relationships collaboratively. They even described trying to teach the skills to younger siblings: ‘I guess you could call it like a spider web’.

The Principal and Vice Principal also explained how their leadership enabled this approach to embed and be successful. They saw themselves as enablers, removing obstacles from teachers that might stop them teaching effectively, and devolving power to teachers as leaders, developing teacher autonomy and giving them ownership of learning. A system of quality assurance avoided naming and judging teachers, instead providing overall feedback and suggestions for improvements. Teachers worked collaboratively to develop their own practice in Professional Learning Communities, tackling problems of practice that mattered to them and their classes. Senior leaders were not on call to remove pupils with challenging behaviours, but constantly moved in and out of lessons to spot and praise good learning behaviours, and to help pupils manage emotional outbursts before they affected learning. 

A focus on teacher autonomy, and a model of leader as servant, whose key role is to remove the obstacles that prevent teachers from being their best selves, aligns perfectly with a curriculum focus on the development of emotional intelligence. And an eco-system like that makes a big difference to the achievement, well-being and personal lives of pupils and teachers.

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