If We Want Educators to Focus on the Whole Child, We Have to Focus on the Whole Teacher


I read Trends in Educational Philanthropy Benchmarking 2018-2019 with interest because the report documents significant shifts in how philanthropists will likely spend big money over the next five years. This information is important for all stakeholders because it’s one way that we can all “follow the money” to learn about trends in education. One area of increased interest for funders is social and emotional learning and a focus on the whole child.

What I’ve learned about schools, as an educator and researcher with four decades of experience, is that if we want educators to focus on the whole child, we have to focus on the whole teacher. News about teachers struggling to make ends meet, working multiple jobs and securing more autonomy in schools are only the tip of the iceberg.

I have seen legions of teachers oppressed with scripted curricula, beaten into submission with draconian evaluation systems and lured into compliance by mandates of using programs that compel them to “teach with fidelity” when their daily observations do not confirm that the programs are right for children. Again and again, I have witnessed teachers who come to believe that their practice has lost its luster because they start to feel as if they are flailing in the grip of schools that have become giant compliance monsters that eat their young.

5 Areas of Social and Emotional Learning

The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) reminds us that SEL, or Social and Emotional Learning, is about “how teaching and learning happens, as well as what you teach and where you learn.” CASEL identifies five areas of SEL that I believe apply to teachers as well as students. I’m left to wonder how teachers can magically support SEL in students if they experience little to no autonomy in their professional practice.

These five key areas of SEL leave me with five wonderings.

  • Self-awareness: How might schools support teachers to mindfully and honestly process their adult learning as persons who lead their students as the elders in the room?
  • Self-management: If lessons are so frequently scripted in some of our most underserved communities, how can educators develop and sustain the set of skills necessary to help their students to guide their own learning?
  • Social awareness: What systems, supports and experiences are currently in place to help educators empathize with and understand students of diverse backgrounds and cultures?
  • Relationship skills: In what ways do schools encourage teachers, parents and students to communicate with each other in authentic ways that help them to negotiate conflict constructively and sincerely seek help from each other?
  • Responsible decision-making: If systems are built around the notion that teachers are not capable of making their own educational choices in the classroom and school, how might they support their students' negotiation of the delicate balance between freedom and responsibility.

Schools are ecosystems where every single part plays a role in how well the whole thrives. If we want to support students’ social and emotional learning, we need to see educators as socially complex and autonomous human beings who bring their whole selves to the job of supporting the whole child.


Maryann Woods-Murphy is a Talent Development Specialist, currently consulting for schools and districts. She serves as a consultant for the NJEA's Priority Schools Initiative, an opportunity that brings her into schools to work with talented educators every single day. A Gifted and Talented specialist and Spanish teacher for 38 years, Woods-Murphy is the 2010 New Jersey Teacher of the Year, the winner of the Martin Luther King Birthday Celebration Award, a 2011-2012 Washington Teaching Ambassador Fellow, an America Achieves Fellow (2011-2015), a Leading Educator Ambassador for Equity and the winner of the 2018, YWCA Racial Justice Award as well as a Director on the National Education Association Foundation Board.  Woods-Murphy earned her Ed.D. in Teacher Leadership in 2016 with a study on the way New Jersey teachers improve schools. She has co-chaired Teens Talk about Racism for 21 years with retired science teacher, Theadora Lacey (teenstalkracism.org). In her free time, she writes, travels and spends time with family, especially her three grandchildren, Olvyia, Victorya and Joseph

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