With-It Teaching on the Front Lines

With so much talk of Social and Emotional Learning in schools, it is hard not to think of emotions and the needs of the students.


grover welch

3 years ago | 5 min read

If it weren’t for the flared nostrils I would never have known to step in. In the back of the classroom, two students sat. Two friends who walked into class and out of class arm in arm almost daily, but today they sat in hushed whispers and traded barbs.

I was teaching an important point in the passage and was scanning the class for anyone who was waning in spirit. I saw the student, we’ll call her Ann, turn from looking at me and look dead into her friend’s eyes. What Ann whispered I cannot tell, but I immediately saw Helen’s nostrils flare and her body weight shift in her seat.

I taught a good many years before I learned to read the room in the way I read customers as a salesman. It was a skill I had practiced, honed, as a furniture salesman and later tire salesman, but I had to learn to multiply my skills in the classroom.

Teachers have twenty or more problems walking in and out of their classrooms hourly, and reading the room has to become a skill set for any good teacher.

With so much talk of Social and Emotional Learning in schools, it is hard not to think of emotions and the needs of the students. The tenants of the training I received a stress that SEL is only possible in the classroom when you put in the groundwork and build adequate relationships with your students.

These are built upon some basic truths.


The ability to regulate one’s emotions, thoughts, and behaviors effectively in different situations includes managing stress, controlling impulses, motivating oneself, and setting and working toward achieving personal and academic goals.

Social awareness

The ability to take the perspective of and empathize with others from diverse backgrounds and cultures promotes understanding of social and ethical norms for behavior and recognition of family, school, and community resources and supports.

Relationship skills

The ability to establish and maintain healthy and rewarding relationships with diverse individuals and groups includes communicating clearly, listening actively, cooperating, resisting inappropriate social pressure, negotiating conflict constructively, and seeking and offering help when needed.

Responsible decision-making

The ability to make constructive and respectful choices about personal behavior and social interactions is based on consideration of ethical standards, safety concerns, social norms, the realistic evaluation of consequences of various actions, and the well-being of self and others.

I take it one step further with my reading-the-room strategy. I believe that kids are big balls of every bad thing and good thing they go through.

Given the day, the position of the sun, atmospheric pressure, and other unknown factors, you get what you get when they come to you. Any kid can be a discipline problem, a need, a loss, or a win. With this in mind, I use several cues to control and observe my classroom.

Eye Contact

I try to make eye contact with every kid at the door or immediately after he or she enters the room. Often I look into eyes and can see the leftover tears, anger, or redness.

I also have learned to recognize several of the shapes of eyes that send a warning. Eyes are remarkable in their ability to convey a message.

Body Language

It is difficult to understand all the things the teen body is going through in ninth grade. They have hormones, relationships, and responsibilities they never had before. Learning who is naturally abrasive in their movements is early year recon.

Once you have a general feel for a student’s norm, you can gauge body language quite effectively. To learn natural body movements when students are happy and sad, you have to push them from their comfort zones with lessons designed to glean understandings of responses.

Crowd Control

When a student is having a bad day, the crowd always knows. When a student asks to move seats, sits away from the crowd, you can usually suspect emotions are working overtime.

The same can be said of the crowd. If students who normally chat someone up are purposely quiet, that is a signal. Sometimes listening to early class conversations can turn up more information.

Situational Awareness

Both sight and sound play a huge role in maintaining the room. Listen passively as you pass out papers or walk to take the role. As a teacher, I can insert myself between two antagonists before they go too far if I remain aware enough.

With many of these skills we use as teachers, we can teach our students to self-report. Self-awareness is the ability to recognize one’s emotions and thoughts and their influence on behavior accurately.

This includes assessing one’s strengths and limitations and possessing a well-grounded sense of confidence and optimism. We have to strive to teach students to be self-aware of the elements we look for.

This brings me back to Ann and Helen. Helen’s nostrils were flaring and her cheeks were turning red. I walked casually toward the back of the room, and as I passed between both girls asked Helen to step into the hall.

Ann looked up immediately with tears in her eyes. I asked her to step to the back of the room. There she told me how she had heard from someone, who heard from someone, who overheard someone say Helen had called her fat. I assured her I would get to the bottom of this. I also told her to take two deep breaths and think about the situation.

She had no hard truths, facts, that would make any of this real. She also had no reason to react in a way detrimental to herself, even if it were true. I encouraged her to sit down and think about how to avoid this drama in the future and come to an understanding that what other people think of us is not who we are. We determine this.

With a quick bit of instruction to the class to carry on in silence reading the rest of the passage, I stepped out the door and met a distraught Helen, who swore she would never say anything like that. We were able to broker an accord. Whether or not the girls would have been in a fight later that day, we avoided the build-up of emotions that too often boil over.

il over. I have said it to teachers whom I mentor on more than one occasion, “Being preemptive beats being responsive.” We as teachers have to allow for the growth of our students emotionally. Every class can become a battleground if we let it, so let’s don’t.


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grover welch

Grover Welch is a ninth grade English teacher at Newport, Arkansas. He has a MSE in Reading from Arkansas State University.







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