The Social-Emotional Dynamic of the Classroom

Negotiating the balance between ‘thinking’ and ‘feeling’ can make for more inclusive experiences

“We’re all feeling people who think, rather than thinking people who feel, to paraphrase brain scientist, Jill Bolte Taylor. The emotions are always involved,” says Tisch College’s Deborah Donahue-Keegan. “In society at large, and especially in higher education, the rational, the logical, the analytical, and the cognitive are often privileged over the emotions.”

For the past four years, Donahue-Keegan, associate director of the Generous Listening and Dialogue Center at Tisch College, has steered an initiative to help Tufts faculty better understand and navigate the social-emotional components of teaching. The program, recently renamed as the Social Emotional Learning for Equity and Civic Teaching (SELECT) Faculty Fellows, has proved to be particularly timely during the past year-and-a-half, as teachers and students found themselves facing an unexpectedly tumultuous time inside and outside the classroom.

Overlooking social-emotional undercurrents can hamper teaching and learning—for instance, by obscuring how diverse identities can affect perceptions of what’s happening in the classroom, or how traumatic events in the outside world make their presence felt on campus. “This is so critical as we’re seeing our students suffering from the trauma of the COVID pandemic, and also racial trauma,” says Ryan Rideau, associate director of Tufts’ Center for the Enhancement of Learning and Teaching (CELT).

CELT is a partner in SELECT, which was formerly known as the Initiative on Social-Emotional Learning and Civic Engagement (SEL-CE). Each academic year, about a dozen faculty members take a deep dive into the field of social-emotional learning. “We’re not preparing faculty to be therapists,” Rideau says, “but talking about what it means to create an environment that supports students and empowers them.” The fellowship also aims to help faculty build their own emotional stamina—“that resilience when difficult topics come up in class—the curve ball, the charged comment or question,” adds Donahue-Keegan, also a lecturer in the department of education in the School of Arts and Sciences.

The SELECT program was conceived with a focus toward equity and racial justice, Rideau says. “We make it very clear that racial equity is a central component of social-emotional learning. We have to be aware of systemic racism and systemic injustice, and work towards eradicating that, beginning in our own classrooms and in the spaces we control.”

Faculty from almost every school at the university have participated in the initiative. Three of these teachers, representing fields as diverse as graphic arts, physics, and urban and environmental planning, talked to Tufts Now about how it has influenced their pedagogy.

Chantal Zakari, professor of the practice, School of the Museum of Fine Arts at Tufts. Zakari remembers being an undergraduate some 30 years ago, newly arrived in the United States from Turkey. She was reluctant to speak in class, self-conscious about her English skills and about not getting the jokes or the references to TV shows. The SELECT professional development program reminded her she needed to think differently about the students who don’t participate in her own classes.

“It might not be that they’re not interested—socially, they might not feel comfortable sharing things,” she says. Zakari has developed strategies to engage students through other means, such as asking them to submit their thoughts in writing and having more one-on-one meetings than she had in the past. “It gave me a sense of what they were going through on a more micro level,” Zakari says. “Emotions and life experiences are very much embedded in the teaching of art.”

During a separate CELT course about online teaching, Zakari learned about the practice of reading the “mood” of a classroom, which became an especially useful social-emotional tool, Zakari says. She used an exercise where she asked the students to write down “the weather in your mind” at the beginning of class. “That becomes a really quick way to get the pulse,” she says. 

Vesal Dini, lecturer in physics and astronomy. Dini teaches an introductory physics course that is required for students who want to go on to health-science professional schools. Emotions are certainly part of the equation, he says, especially for some students who are making their first foray into physics.

“There can be a lot of anxiety when you have to persist amid confusion for some extended periods of time,” Dini says. “This kind of persistence is usually necessary to advance understanding. Also, there are positive emotions when students experience the inherent joy of figuring something out and discovering some beauty or pattern in nature.

Dini was part of the 2019-2020 cohort, which, along with the rest of the university, made the abrupt change to remote learning. The techniques he learned helped him navigate that transition. “It’s given me an awareness of the range of feelings that students could be experiencing, particularly students who are from underrepresented backgrounds,” he says.

Penn Loh, senior lecturer in urban and environmental studies. Loh was a member of the first SEL-CE cohort. While his field has always had a strong social justice element, a few years ago Loh made a goal of “incorporating antiracist practice into all of my teaching”—and the SEL-CE program helped him move toward that goal. 

Loh is the director of the Master of Public Policy program, designed for mid-career professionals, which includes spots for five Neighborhood Fellows, those who have demonstrated deep experience and leadership in community work, and who are usually people of color. Acclimating these students back to academia calls for particular attention to the social-emotional aspect, Loh says.

“Lots of them are nervous, so I have to pay attention to what kind of space we’re creating to welcome them; how to create learning spaces that address people as whole individuals with all their emotions.” He also noted that many of the techniques from SELECT, such as the practice of “checking in” with students at the beginning of class, were already familiar to him from the world of community work.

“This helps Tufts move even further to become the kind of very human place we want it to be,” Loh says. “It’s powerful how other folks across the university, in very different settings, are so dedicated to doing the best we can for our students, particularly in creating spaces for folks on the margins, so that they don’t continue to feel marginalized within Tufts.”

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