College of Education alumna and advisory council member Jeanne Klein, B.S. ’67, is passionate about public education and is one of Austin’s staunchest supporters of social and emotional learning (SEL). It started in 2005 at an advisory council meeting, when she heard then-Ph.D. student and UT Elementary Principal Ramona Trevino, M.Ed. ’86, Ph.D. ’06, speak about her research topic: SEL in K-12 education.
Through SEL, children and adults learn and apply the skills to understand and manage their emotions, set and achieve goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships, and make responsible decisions. “Teachers spend more time with kids each day than their parents do. Kids could be experiencing childhood trauma, including issues such as not getting enough to eat, not having clothes, dealing with parents’ divorce, or not having transportation. Meanwhile, teachers are understandably focused on academics,” Klein says. “But teaching kids that they have emotions and how to manage those emotions, teaching them options like using their words and tools to calm themselves are skills that may be just as important as academics,” Klein says.
Klein became involved in helping Trevino implement SEL into the curriculum and programming at UT Elementary. Trevino introduced the Kleins to Betsy Abell, who had introduced SEL to Austin’s St. Andrews Episcopal School in Austin, and to Carmel Borders.
The women are active volunteers in Austin and philanthropists who support education. “From then on,” says Klein, “it was the three of us supporting SEL at UT Elementary: Ramona guiding us with what was needed, and the three of us contributing to help get it there. We hired someone to write curriculum, hired a new counselor specifically for SEL, and hired a coach.”
In 2012, SEL began to spread when Trevino was offered a position at Austin Independent School District (AISD), specifically to infuse SEL programming into AISD. Says Klein, “Betsy thought it sounded fabulous because we could grow from impacting 300 kids [at UT Elementary] to 84,000 kids across the district. At AISD, we started with three vertical teams, each of which had to apply in order to demonstrate their commitment. Now all kids throughout the district have at least been exposed. We have learned along the way, and what we were able to do at a small school, we are now working to perfect in a large urban district.”
Infusing the Curriculum
The work led AISD to create a position of director of social and emotional learning, which has now expanded to an entire department. It also led to further evaluation of the teacher preparation program in the College of Education.
Says College of Education Interim Dean Sherry Field, “We inventoried our classes in our teacher preparation program to see what activities, readings, and experiences already incorporated SEL ideas and principles. We received a phenomenal response from faculty. We had been very intentional about talking about it in our courses, and elements of SEL had always been part of the curriculum. This expansion in AISD allowed us to refocus our efforts and led to the development of a daylong workshop for students in their final semester, to ensure they are well-versed in the theory and ideas,” she says.
Angela Bailey, ‘B.S. ’04, is an SEL specialist at AISD. “SEL is a huge priority for our district and being able to articulate the importance of SEL skills and how to implement them in a classroom is necessary when applying for teaching positions,” she says. For Klein, this holistic approach is key to SEL’s success. “We want infusion of SEL throughout. We teach the kids, the teachers, the staff, and the principals. Social and emotional learning is about culture change. To change the culture, we need to teach everybody.”
Adds Field, “The University of Texas challenges alumni to change the world. This is a great example. This is transforming education in AISD. It wouldn’t have been possible without the advocacy, leadership and support of Jeanne Klein, Betsy Abell and Carmel Borders.”