Relationship Building

Program aims to build social-emotional learning for educators

PHOTO: Jaclyn Zubrzycki
Teacher coaches at Fairley High School in Memphis learn about social-emotional skills at a workshop in 2014.

Jocquell Rodgers, a literacy coach at Fairley High School in Memphis, is reading from a stack of cards that describe everyday interactions that might happen at any school. Her task: Determine whether the adult responses the cards showed would help build healthy, secure relationships.

“‘Jamie is often late to the class,’” she reads. “‘When you confront her, she explains that she commutes over an hour to school. You say, ‘I live far away from school and I get here on time!’”

Exercises aimed at building empathy are common in classrooms across the nation, as educators seek to prevent bullying and improve students’ social-emotional skills. But this exercise is focused on the social-emotional development of teachers and school staff, not students.

The premise is that self-aware and emotionally stable educators are better equipped to build relationships with students, which translates into safer, more stable learning environments, which in turn promotes the emotional and academic health of students.

Megan Marcus founded FuelEd because she thought teachers could benefit from learning more about the psychology and neuroscience behind relationships.
Megan Marcus founded FuelEd because she thought teachers could benefit from learning more about the psychology and neuroscience behind relationships.

The exercise for Rodgers and other teacher leaders at Fairley High School was part of a workshop led last fall by Megan Marcus, the founder and chief executive officer of FuelEd Schools, a Houston-based program focused on equipping educators socially and emotionally to develop better relationships with students, parents, colleagues and others.

Throughout the 2014-15 school year, Fairley’s teachers and teacher coaches are participating in a pilot program and learning about what FuelEd refers to as the “science, skills and self-awareness of relationships.” In addition to attending workshops, they have access to unlimited one-on-one therapy sessions conducted via video-chat, and to occasional guided group therapy sessions with colleagues.

Pondering the response given to Jamie in the scenario she was reading, Rodgers laughed. “You know, I probably would say that,” Rodgers said. “‘Well, we need to get to school on time, because that is our policy!’”

She determined, however, that the unsympathetic tone of the response was not the best way to build a strong relationship, even though the message — that being on time is important — was appropriate.

Shifting the focus

Social-emotional learning has not traditionally been part of teachers’ training or ongoing professional development. That’s a mistake, Marcus argues.

“We’re training teachers as technical instructors,” Marcus said. “What about the fact that they’re put in the position of being a counselor, a mentor? They wear all of these hats.”

“There’s an empathy gap for adults,” she said. “A lot of people who work in schools find it easy to relate to kids, but there’s little tolerance for the feelings and the problems of adults. That may be part of the reason there’s such high turnover in the profession.”

That focus resonates with Zachary Samson, the principal at Fairley, which is run by Green Dot Public Schools, a Los Angeles-based charter management organization. “Teaching is really emotionally and socially demanding as well as intellectually demanding,” Samson said. “Oftentimes we disregard the social-emotional component of being a teacher, and I think that’s the most difficult to process without support.”

FuelEd was inspired by Marcus’ work as a researcher for “The Social Neuroscience of Education,” a book written by Louis Cozolino, a professor of psychology at Pepperdine University. Marcus said she found that teachers were eager to learn more about neuroscience and psychology.

The program was piloted in 2012 at Yes Prep, a Houston-based charter school network that is slated to expand to Memphis. This year, about 600 teachers in Memphis, Houston and Spring Branch, Texas, are participating in the program.

Intense need

At the Memphis workshop, Rodgers and five colleagues were asked to identify whether the cards depicted behaviors that promote “secure attachment” — a consistent, responsive and validating relationship — or “insecure attachment ” — one that is unresponsive, inconsistent and judgmental.

FuelEd is based on the idea that "secure attachment"—strong, positive relationships—can help create better learning environments for students and working environments for teachers.
FuelEd is based on the idea that “secure attachment”—strong, positive relationships—can help create better learning environments for students and working environments for teachers.

Marcus said up to half of all students have insecure attachment styles, based largely on relationships at home. In some schools, particularly those serving large numbers of students who live under the stress of poverty, the percentage is far higher, Marcus said.

“You have students coming to class looking like ’bad students.’ Teachers may read a behavior as disrespect,” Marcus said. “But behind every behavior is an attachment style.”

Fairley’s teachers and students are under particularly intense academic pressure: The school is in its first year of operation by the state Achievement School District (ASD), which intervenes in schools ranked in the state’s bottom 5 percent. Fairley’s governance was shifted from Shelby County Schools to the ASD, which chartered the school to Green Dot, which has three years to improve the school’s academic performance or risk having its charter revoked.

“The good news is that teachers can compensate” through awareness of their own and students’ needs, Marcus said. “It is well-researched which behaviors promote secure attachment.”

Balancing priorities

At the training at Fairley, the teacher coaches noted that the goals of promoting emotional security and improving academics sometimes seem to conflict. “To get the work done in a school, we can’t get caught up in everyone’s feelings,” one said. “It’s not that I don’t care; it’s just that other things take precedence.”

A colleague was more blunt: “Sometimes I feel like I’m aware [of others’ feelings]. I just don’t care. I need you to get to this place, or I need you to get to this level of teaching.”

Samson said the program is too new to gauge impact and that turning its lessons into practice will take time. “It’s really something we have to do continuous training on,” he said.

Marcus acknowledged that finding schools willing to carve out time for the program can be a barrier. “Teachers are so busy. … It’s perceived as an add-on,” she said.

However, she hopes to bring similar programs to other schools in Memphis and throughout the nation, while also raising awareness about the importance of teachers’ social-emotional health.

“Our larger vision is to fill this missing piece in teacher preparation,” she said. “Relationships are the air we breathe. No learning happens without a relationship. It’s not an add-on. You can’t do anything without it.”

Weekend Reads

Need classroom decor inspiration? These educators have got you covered.

This school year, students will spend about 1,000 hours in school —making their classrooms a huge part of their learning experience.

We’re recognizing educators who’ve poured on the pizazz to make students feel welcome. From a 9th-grade “forensics lab” decked out in caution tape to a classroom stage complete with lights to get first graders pumped about public speaking, these crafty teachers have gone above and beyond to create great spaces.

Got a classroom of your own to show off? Know someone that should be on this list? Let us know!

Jaclyn Flores, First Grade Dual Language, Rochester, New York
“Having a classroom that is bright, cheerful, organized and inviting allows my students to feel pride in their classroom as well as feel welcome. My students look forward to standing on the stage to share or sitting on special chairs to dive into their learning. This space is a safe place for my students and we take pride in what it has become.”

Jasmine, Pre-K, Las Vegas, Nevada
“My classroom environment helps my students because providing calming colors and a home-like space makes them feel more comfortable in the classroom and ready to learn as first-time students!”


Oneika Osborne, 10th Grade Reading, Miami Southridge Senior High School, Miami, Florida
“My classroom environment invites all of my students to constantly be in a state of celebration and self-empowerment at all points of the learning process. With inspirational quotes, culturally relevant images, and an explosion of color, my classroom sets the tone for the day every single day as soon as we walk in. It is one of optimism, power, and of course glitter.”

Kristen Poindexter, Kindergarten, Spring Mill Elementary School, Indianapolis, Indiana
“I try very hard to make my classroom a place where memorable experiences happen. I use songs, finger plays, movement, and interactive activities to help cement concepts in their minds. It makes my teacher heart so happy when past students walk by my classroom and start their sentence with, “Remember when we…?”. We recently transformed our classroom into a Mad Science Lab where we investigated more about our 5 Senses.”


Brittany, 9th Grade Biology, Dallas, Texas
“I love my classroom environment because I teach Biology, it’s easy to relate every topic back to Forensics and real-life investigations! Mystery always gets the students going!”


Ms. Heaton, First Grade, Westampton, New Jersey
“As an educator, it is my goal to create a classroom environment that is positive and welcoming for students. I wanted to create a learning environment where students feel comfortable and in return stimulates student learning. A classroom is a second home for students so I wanted to ensure that the space was bright, friendly, and organized for the students to be able to use each and every day.”

D’Essence Grant, 8th Grade ELA, KIPP Houston, Houston, Texas
“Intentionally decorating my classroom was my first act of showing my students I care about them. I pride myself on building relationships with my students and them knowing I care about them inside and outside of the classroom. Taking the time to make the classroom meaningful and creative as well building a safe place for our community helps establish an effective classroom setting.”


Jayme Wiertzema, Elementary Art, Worthington, Minnesota
“I’m looking forward to having a CLASSROOM this year. The past two years I have taught from a cart and this year my amazing school district allowed me to have a classroom in our school that is busting at the seams! I’m so excited to use my classroom environment to inspire creativity in my students, get to know them and learn from their amazing imaginations in art class!”


Melissa Vecchio, 4th Grade, Queens, New York
“Since so much of a student’s time is spent inside their classroom, the environment should be neat, organized, easy to move around in but most of all positive. I love to use a theme to reinforce great behavior. I always give the students a choice in helping to design bulletin boards and desk arrangements. When they are involved they take pride in the classroom, and enjoy being there.”

moving forward

After Confederate flag dispute at Colorado football game, schools pledge to bring students together

PHOTO: Marc Piscotty
Manual High students.

Acknowledging “we may never have a conclusive picture of what happened,” two Colorado school districts sought to move past a controversy over whether a Confederate flag was displayed at a football game and open a conversation between the two school communities.

The principal of Manual High, Nick Dawkins, wrote in a community letter over the weekend that the visiting Weld Central High School team “displayed a Confederate flag during the first quarter of the (Friday night) game, offending many members of the Manual community.”

Officials from Denver Public Schools and Weld County School District Re-3J released a joint letter Tuesday saying that based “on what we have learned to date, however, the Weld Central team did not display the Confederate flag.” At the same time, it said, multiple Manual eyewitnesses “reported seeing spectators who attempted to bring a Confederate flag into the game and clothing with flag images.”

Going forward, students from the two schools — one rural and one urban — will participate in a student leadership exchange that has student leaders visit each other’s schools and communities to “share ideas and perspectives,” the letter says.

“At a time in our country when so many are divided, we want our students instead to come together, share ideas and learn together,” says the letter, which is signed by the principals of both schools and the superintendents of both school districts.

The alleged incident took place at a time when issues of race, social injustice, politics and sports are colliding in the United States, making for tough conversations, including in classrooms.

Weld Central’s mascot is a Rebel. Manual, whose mascot is the Thunderbolts, is located in one of Denver’s historically African-American neighborhoods.

Dawkins in his initial community letter also said “the tension created by the flag led to conflict on and off the playing field,” and that three Manual players were injured, including one who went to the hospital with a leg injury. He also said some Manual players reported that Weld Central players “taunted them with racial slurs.”

Weld Central officials vehemently denied that their team displayed the flag. In addition, they said in their own community letter they had “no evidence at this point that any of our student athletes displayed racially motivated inappropriate behavior.”

They said district officials “do not condone any form of racism,” including the Confederate flag.

Weld Central fans told the Greeley Tribune that they didn’t see any Confederate flag.

Read the full text below.