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SEL Can be an Agent to Retain Educators if Done Right

By Kalden Namgyal

Photo by Shutterstock

Over the years, as social and emotional learning (SEL) has proliferated across school districts and globally, the acute issues it hopes to address, such as mental health, have similarly gained traction and cases of mental illness have exploded. The sheer prevalence has subsequently contributed to the ongoing process of destigmatizing mental health and addressing it. Most notably, the continuing pandemic and its waves have demonstrated that everyone is vulnerable to mental health issues, especially the youth. In turn, this has increased the reason schools implement the SEL curriculum for students to develop healthy interpersonal skills and emotional well-being. However, jumping on this SEL bandwagon without appropriately addressing educator well-being may harm students' well-being and performance and contribute to the exodus of teachers.

According to a survey conducted by the National Education Association (NEA) in January 2022, nine out of ten teachers responded that they were burned out. In the same poll, a whopping 55 percent of educators responded that they are ready to leave their job earlier than expected due to the pandemic. The pandemic has not only highlighted but exacerbated the longstanding issues of teacher shortages and their well-being. This has translated into teachers taking on more responsibilities than ever before while they navigate the pandemic and their personal lives. The lack of adequate support and resources to address teacher well-being has taken a toll on educators. Unsurprisingly, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported 567,000 fewer educators in the public school system in February than before the pandemic. Of the respondents in the NEA survey, raising teachers' salaries (96%) and bettering mental health support and resources for students (94%) received the most support to alleviate educator burnout.

The data suggest that educator and student well-being are interdependent and influence each other. In light of the pandemic, both groups are confronted with challenges that harm their mental health and, as a result, struggle to resolve them entirely as each affects the other's well-being. Therefore, schools must address students' well-being to alleviate educators' well-being and retention.

What does improving mental health support for students look like? Without going in-depth, I focus on the need to address the counselor shortage and the implementation of the SEL curriculum. School counselors play a vital role in supporting and developing students' social and emotional well-being. Despite their significance and necessity, the United States doesn't require schools to have guidance counselors. Furthermore, only four states adequately meet the American School Counselor Association (ASCA) and the Department of Education's (DoE) student-to-counselor ratio recommendation of 250:1. With most school districts not meeting the recommended ratio, teachers and students bear the burden as a consequence. Educators are forced to take on additional and often straining responsibilities to support students' social and emotional well-being.

On the other hand, students are deprived of social-emotional support from trained professionals. SEL also takes a preventative approach and promotes positive mental health. Through the SEL based curricula and proper instructions, students develop social and emotional competence, where they learn to manage emotions, be resilient, and ultimately resulting in positive mental health. Many studies also associate SEL with higher academic performance and positive mental health. Given its significance in promoting positive mental health, educators must implement curriculum with social and emotional competence.

Therefore, as educators look to support students' overall well-being, it is essential that schools support and promote educators' well-being and build their social-emotional competence. When educators feel supported and connected, the overall well-being of the school community strengthens. How can schools better serve educators' well-being? As highlighted above, schools should work toward hiring more school psychologists and counselors to serve students' needs better and alleviate burdens from teachers. School administrators should also support educators' wellness with systems to address their concerns and stress. Most importantly, as it pertains to SEL, schools should adequately train educators before teaching it to their students. According to the Teachers Pay Teachers survey report in May 2022 on SEL, about 37 percent of its respondents of educators noted schools did not provide any professional development for SEL, and more than 59 percent of teachers reported they were not adequately prepared to teach the curriculum. SEL-oriented professional development would help teachers develop their social-emotional competencies and confidence in the SEL materials without impacting their well-being. In contrast, if teachers are not well supported and prepared, it may sway them to leave. The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) schoolwide process guide places significant emphasis on strengthening adult SEL before teaching SEL to students. Additionally, studies support SEL training for teachers with better well-being and reduce burnout and emotional distress. Ultimately, when educators are well supported, job retention may increase.

At Effective to Great Education (ETGE), we firmly believe that educators' well-being is central to student learning, development, and well-being. As part of our work in developing software programs and the SEL curriculum, we have intentionally designated space and content for educators to practice and engage with their social-emotional well-being. Paired with the SEL curriculum for students, we believe it will promote educators' wellness as integral to the student's well-being and vice-versa. In this way, we hope to invite the entire school community to engage in social and emotional well-being.


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