Ask any winning sports team and they’ll agree, the right coach matters. In this episode, Dr. Sherrell Hobbs of Victory Education Solutions discusses the importance of coaching schools and educators on social-emotional learning (SEL). Learn how SEL can help students develop empathy, emotional control, and self-awareness. To illustrate its value, Dr. Hobbs shares an inspiring story of how SEL allowed her to connect with a student who was acting out and to realize their pain. Tune in to learn the ways your school can better support the SEL needs of your students.
Connect with Dr. Hobbs on LinkedIn: Dr. Hobbs Profile
To learn more about Victory Educational Solutions, visit https://victoryeducationalsolutions.com/
You're listening to the Voices In Education Podcast powered by Securly, where we hear from new voices and explore new ideas about how we can reimagine education to support whole student success. Education is at an inflection point. As we grapple with complex challenges like funding and enrollment, as well as diversity, equity, and safety, we also have an opportunity, an opportunity to reimagine education. Now more than ever, we know the importance that students’ overall wellbeing plays in their success. They need to feel supported and safe and connected to be able to engage in their learning and achieve their full potential. Join your host, Casey Agena, a former teacher turned instructional coach and technologist, as he interviews inspirational educators, school leaders, wellness professionals, and more to amplify their voices. You'll learn about the innovative work they're doing to support student safety, engagement, and overall wellness. And who knows, you may even spark a new idea of your own. Ready to reimagine education? Let's go.
I'm your host Casey Agena and in today's episode we're talking with Doctor Sheryl Hobbs, who provides perspective on SEL and mental health as a former teacher, school leader and now consultant. So listen in as Doctor Hobbes and I talked about her story of the leadership aspect of making SEL, student mental health, and wellness an important part of our work in education. Welcome, Dr. Hobbs. Glad to have you here.
Well, Casey, it's wonderful to be here with you. I am just so excited and I'm really honored to talk about this subject. I think it's going to be very powerful.
Well, we talked a little bit pre-show about mental health and these issues that are really impacting not only our schools but the people, the leadership. Mental health issues are impacting the students and the families that we serve as well as teachers, and many times, it starts with leadership. So tell us about your work of what you've done in the past and why it's so vital for schools and leaders to embrace this hard work of dealing with social-emotional learning.
Well, I'll tell you. Very simply, it starts with my background in special education. I actually was inspired to come into education because of the illiteracy rate that was happening in the city of Detroit and I wanted to just transform the world, and so my work has just emerged into that as I became a leader in education as well as a former special education teacher, so I saw firsthand how students were conflicted with their emotions and so this really resonates with me very well in terms of when I think about the classroom, when I think about the impact that it has on the awareness of the principal/administrator as well as on families in our community as well.
And what was that kind of shift for you, when you went from working in the classroom, working with students in special ed, when did that matriculate into a leadership piece for you?
Well, I was impacting about 90 students as an educational provider, then when I became a special educator, I was impacting only 15 kids who had special needs and I saw the capacity to really impact more students and so I wanted to become a principal of a school so that I could have more influence with leaders in the school, such as the teachers, such as those front-and-center in the classroom, so that I could help to make a difference and help to make those decisions that would cause our schools to become safer.
Right. And as we talk about mental health and social-emotional learning, SEL now, 2022, thinking back to when you were a school leader in Detroit. I mean, maybe not called out as such in terms of SEL, but those types of pieces were evident and really reared its ugly head sometimes in working with students and families, correct?
Absolutely. It's been around for at least 40 years, just not formally, as you just stated, identified as such. But now that we've become more aware of what social-emotional learning really involves and how it impacts others because of the different circumstances that have emerged throughout our country, we hear about it every now and then of the disaster that happens as a result of sometimes the neglect of dealing with certain issues.
And coming out, looking back at the past 24 months where students were away, they were remote, then they started to come back into hybrid and I think families themselves are still grappling with it, but in your work, it's, "How can schools and leadership in particular be supportive of the teachers that are really seeing the students on a day-to-day piece?" So in your work in supporting schools and districts, what are we seeing out there? What's current in terms of these challenges in, to your point, even back then, making schools a safe place and a place that you can go to, yet, at the same time, making sure the adults have the capacity to do that.
So I want to unpack that a little bit. One of the words that I would use is "job burnout" right now. And the reason why is because of the conversation around social-emotional learning is so real that people are almost afraid to talk about it, it's so real because they don't necessarily always know exactly what to do. So when you're a principal of a school and you're overwhelmed because there's so many things as a principal leader that's coming at you, then there's the teacher who's faced with all these students with diverse needs. How do you work around that?
So part of what my company does, Victory Educational Solutions, we provide opportunities for principals and for teachers and for superintendents to be able to understand what it looks like now in today's world in education in the classroom, not how we taught kids 30 years ago or even 10 years ago. Since COVID, a lot has changed. When you have students who were already having certain emotional concerns now coming back into the classroom after having been away, they are conflicted in many ways. So how do we help and address those situations?
First, we have to help students to be able to recognize what's happening inside of them and be able to express that and talk about that. That's something that we don't always do. And so part of that is building relationships, the teacher and the student building those relationships that become solid so that they're able to say, "You know what? I see that there's a trigger that's about to happen in this circumstance with this situation of two student dynamics." Or maybe it's the teacher and the student. But then also helping the child to recognize what he or her triggers are. And that's something we don't talk about.
We see the after effect of what the trigger has caused, but we don't often teach children how to recognize what sets them off, if you will, what causes them to some type of stress or causes them to have an adverse response to a comment or a situation. When we begin to teach children that, then we are able to help them to establish healthy relationships and how to deal with their relationships.
I'll give you an example. I had a student when I was a special educator and this student, he had a parent who was getting ready to go and have surgery and this was something that he had never ever encountered before so he started acting out and this was a student who never would act out before. He was real quiet, very relaxed and just didn't really ruffle any feathers and all of a sudden, he started doing all types of behaviors or displaying behaviors that I had never seen before.
But as I began to really think about all of his dynamic, and this is why it's so important to think about more than what you see the child presenting, I recall the parent telling me she was going to go in for surgery and it hit me, "This is what he is trying to deal with, but he doesn't understand. 'I could lose my mother.', he could be thinking. There's a lot. 'I'm going to be left alone.' 'Suppose she doesn't get better.' 'Suppose this happens.'"
So all that uncertainty is what caused me to respond to him differently. Rather than penalizing him for his behaviors, I began to sit him down and talk with him about those behaviors and help him to understand the fear that he was experiencing rather than, like I said, punishing him. And that's what we need to get out of, not punishing students for some of the behaviors. Not saying that it's acceptable, but seeking to understand.
So one of the things that the student did, he had thrown a chair, and this is what really prompted me to think, "Now, wait a minute. Something's really going off with this kid." Remember, he's a quiet child, he doesn't do this type of thing. So when I sat him down, because he just knew he was going to be suspended, he was really surprised and even to the surprise of my colleagues, and this is why it's so important, even as a principal, to teach everyone in that school environment what's actually happening with kids so that we don't respond with what we think we should respond in that way whereas we're reactive.
When I sat him down, I stooped down beside him as he was on the floor and he was sobbing, I looked at him and I said, "You're scared, aren't you?" And he looked at me and he said, "Yes." I said, "And you're not really as scared as what could happen in terms of you getting suspended, but you're really afraid that you could lose your mother when she goes through surgery." And then the tears really started to fall.
What did I do when I did that? I helped to validate his fear and his concern and I also helped to put his mind at ease that although what you did was not acceptable by any means, we don't throw chairs, we don't do all of those type of outbursts, but I feel you. And that's part of what we have to communicate to students, how we feel them, how we are able to embrace their fears and concerns and help them to sort them out.
What do we do when we do that? We're now modeling for that child how to communicate. And that's what I was doing with him. I was communicating with him, I was encouraging him to communicate, and through that communication, guess what happened? He could appreciate that.
Thankfully, his mother came out of that surgery fine and everything in their family was restored, but what was mostly restored was his confidence in adults, that he was not being just thrown off like, "Okay, I made this mistake, I threw this chair, I did this, I did that." Whereas I was able to spin it around for his benefit.
When we look at how we can support students in the classroom in that way and get out of the traditional mindset of, "You do this, I do that. You did that and here's the..." No, let's start trying to talk to students. Let's really think about what that word, that acronym says, the social aspect, the emotional aspect, and then let's learn. Let's teach them how to learn through their experiences.
And we have so many great teachers and educators out there that do that work.
Working with individual students or small groups, whether it's social skills groups or on a daily basis. I'm wondering, coupled with that from there's the leadership, there's the policy standpoint, there's all of those things that allow that to not just happen in a vacuum but happen as part of our school, our district. There's an overtness to it that we want this to happen whether it's fiscally, programmatically, operation... Or all of that. From a leadership standpoint, and you shared a little bit from the teacher standpoint, but what needs to be done in terms of that being a system of support versus just happening in a vacuum?
So I really like how you brought out about the teacher part, right? Because it's a thankless job. And so as an administrator, when we undergird our teachers, who are really on the front line, when we undergird them with that support, that when the teacher comes to you and says, "I'm having this type of circumstance or situation in the classroom", as the principal/administrator, we want to listen really carefully to what that teacher is expressing their concern about.
And instead of saying the teacher just doesn't have classroom management, how about aligning what's happening with what your knowledge is as a principal with that teacher by coming in the classroom to really observe, not for an evaluation process all the time, but as the process of saying, "Now I really understand the challenge that you're having." When we put that type of dynamic, now we've partnered in the classroom. The principal and the teacher become the partner in support of all the students in the classroom. Now it's not an adversarial relationship, it's more of a support relationship where everyone benefits, everyone wins in a situation like that.
So the principal/administrator as the leader, one of the things that I did as a principal, I did what I call my rounds. I went to every classroom and I would always say to the teachers when they would see me come in, "This is never an 'I gotcha', this is a 'I'm here to help you'. So when I ask you the question, 'Casey, so how's it going today?' I want you, Casey, to really tell me how it's going and identify your challenges so I can support you and help you." And so when my teachers knew that I cared about them in that way and I was really there to help them, they opened up to me and they allowed me to support them in the best way and also to hold the student responsible for what their actions were against my teacher.
Because I would say, "Look, now this is my teacher here. You cannot do this to Casey and here's how we're going to all work to fix this." That became a real partnership. Now there are three people involved. You follow me?
There's myself as the principal, there's the teacher in the classroom and there's that student. And then when a parent would come up, because parents sometimes have that front line, "But this is my child, my child would never do that." "Okay, so if you don't want me to believe the stories that your child comes home to tell you about my teacher or this school, then we won't believe all the stories, because they talk about what happens at home too, we won't believe all those stories either." So now the parent opens up to being more receptive to how we can all fix this problem to support that child in the classroom.
I don't know if you were, as a principal and then even your work at the district level, whether ahead of your time or not, I think that what I'm hearing is that positive behavior intervention, PBIS for our educators listening in, and that multi-tiered support really coming together. It's not these buckets, but there's the positive intervention, there's a system to have that happen, and then even from a leadership standpoint, jumping into classrooms, there's an overtness that, "I'm blocking my schedule. I'm not answering emails or calls. I'm going into classrooms to see teachers."
That's exactly right. And I'm going to add one more. So you mentioned about multi-tiered systems of support, MTSS, and we've already been talking about SEL, which is social-emotional learning, but I'm going to put one more into that bucket.
Diversity, equity and inclusion. The three of those prongs together is what really, really helps us to delve into the uniqueness of not only that student who's challenged, but also the teacher who's working with the student. So now we've got a community of support in the school, and by the way, when I was a principal leader, I had a 98% retention rate of staff. So that tells you we were partnered together and that 2% was only the attrition through retirement. We worked together. Their problem was my problem. It was our problem. And we worked together to solve those problems and we taught our students how to work with us to solving those problems as well.
I was also known as a principal leader at one of the schools that I would actually, when students were administratively transferred from their other district school, I had a relationship with the Office of Student Support Services where they knew that they could send that child to me and I would have a real transparent conversation with the parent and that child and I would say to the child, "First of all, take that chip off your shoulder because it's not welcomed here, you won't even need it." And they would look at me and I would say, "No, honey, this is a safe environment for you. You don't have to be on the defense."
And so at first, it takes a little bit getting used to when the child will come in because they were probably kicked out for fighting or drugs or something. So now you come into this environment and you're like, "I don't have to have all that defense?" You really don't.
And so we became known as a school that would accept you, and in that process, I only had two students that I could not support in the best way that I wanted to and I would say that in that six-year tenure, that was pretty good. Only two students and that was because one had gotten into an offense with a grand theft auto violation, so of course I couldn't help the child, and then another one had a grand arson. But other than that, any other kid, send them to me because we've got something over here that's working.
And I'm glad you brought up the DEI piece because what that does, and then I'll shift a little bit of our conversation, thinking about, there's this four-letter word out there, that word "data," and we're able to see what students need support, whether it's attendance issues or academic, but really looking at data within a school or a district through that DEI lens and then being able to make adjustments for those students and looking at some of the incident behavior data as well, so you're almost like triangulating that and that's something that I think, with all the platforms and technologies out there to bring in the data, do leaders really know how to wield that data so that they can make real thoughtful decisions to get to where we want to in terms of 98% teacher retention, positive impact on students? So there's those outcomes. And I think that's a challenge, I think, for leadership.
It is a challenge, Casey, and part of it's because, as principals, we really don't go to school to necessarily learn data analysis. We just don't. And so you just kind of inherit that part of the job. But one of the things that I really try to help and support leaders with understanding is the importance of how that data, once you do learn how to do it, which we teach, you are able to really utilize it as a living analysis that drives the improvements that you're seeking.
So you're not just seeing things where you visualize what's happening or you think what's going on, but when you look at the data and the suspension rate, and by the way, we were able to reduce the suspension rate and being a minority myself, that was very important to me because African American males have just repeatedly, throughout history, always been behind when it comes to the suspension rate, right? And so I wanted to reduce that and that was another reason why I was so accepting to students who had adverse behaviors coming into the school, because when you look at the data and you're able to see how we've changed the behavior of the students, we have fewer suspensions, we are also...
And what I did to do that was I had an in-school suspension policy. So you're not going home to get new tennis shoes. Oh, no, that would be too easy. You're going to stay right here in this school. And I had a person who was actually a military person, he was in the Armed Forces, and he was a teacher of mine and so he loved taking on that challenge. And those students began to write so my reading scores and my writing scores and the math score, everything began to go up because why?
We're sending you to another class so that you can get some more learning instruction, right? So we take you out of the environment where maybe the violation may have happened, but we're not necessarily sending you home. When that type of message resonates throughout a school, what happens is that, #1, kids realize, "Oh, I don't get to go home and be on vacation because I didn't want to be in school anyway?" Now they understand the importance of what school really brings for them, and now we have an appreciation for schooling.
So looking ahead towards that, we're getting close and we're already doing some planning for the 2022-2023 school year, whether you're a new leader coming in or someone who's been there, but really trying to use what we've learned from this past school year to look ahead and knowing that really want to address this piece around student wellness, what can they expect if they reach out to Dr. Hobbs saying, "Hey, I'm at this school site or district or grade level. I'm looking to do some work around this piece." What can they expect?
They can expect alignment. They can expect alignment, they can expect knowledge, wisdom, experience combining with their knowledge, wisdom and experience.
And why do I say that and why is that important? Because we don't put on you. We're almost like psychologists without any type of psychological degree. We don't put on you and tell you what to do. We align to your value system and then through that lens that you're looking through, we ask you, "What do you see?" And when you tell us what you see, then we support you with how you can see that clearer, and then working with you to determine, "What are the next steps that we can do together to support you for the outcomes that you seek?"
You see? So there's a difference. Instead of us just telling you what to do and how to do it and just like we expect student learning to be individualized and to also be diverse, we also do that with our adult learners because that's so important, right? Adult learners, student learners, we're all learners and we all want individualized instruction so that's what we do. We do alignment. We work with you so that you can see the picture clearer to get the outcomes that you have determined that you need.
I want to highlight a couple of things, Dr. Hobbs. I love the story about your work that rooted you around this with students in special education, really working with those individual students, because ultimately, that's where it begins and ends with a kid.
That's exactly right.
With their students. And even from a leadership standpoint, what do we truly believe, as a building, as a district, and how does that really play out? And I'm glad that our listeners, we have a lot of educators and leadership listening in that can tap into this and reach out and connect to you. So I want to thank you, Dr. Hobbs, for your time lending your voice to Voices in Education.
Well, Casey, it's been a pleasure and an honor to be here with you today so thank you so much for inviting us.
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