Use Parallel Practice for Social-Emotional Learning

Header - Davis - Parallel Practice

For teachers to take care of students, they must first be at one with their own emotions. Morgan Davis, instructional coach in Colorado, highlights four of her go-to practices that prioritize her teachers social-emotional and physical well-being.


knowledgeable man, Simon Sinek, teaches that "Leaders are not responsible for results. They are responsible for the people who are responsible for results." Half-a-dozen years ago, I wouldn't have even known what to do with these wise words.

When I first became an instructional coach—eager to share my expertise in writing instruction from my days as a professional development specialist—I saw the content of my work as my primary focus. And so it became the foot with which I led, from the way I facilitated with a heavy hand to the way I approached feedback with a technical lens.

We're in the "people business" too

Fast forward six years, two trips back into the classroom, and a coaching job at a new school in a different corner of the district and things are different this time around. This time, I am more aware than ever that I am in the "people business," not the curriculum or learning target business, and certainly not the test scores business. My job is to take care of teachers the way that they take care of students.

Just as you've likely read in many posts and social media groups, that means building relationships from day one. It also means that, while teachers are becoming more skilled at responding to students' social-emotional—as well as academic—needs, as coaches we should look after our teachers in the same way.

So what does this look like? It's probably more familiar than you might at first realize. As teachers, we use Maslow's hierarchy to prioritize student needs, from stashing snacks to starting our mornings with connection circles. As adults and professionals, Tina Boogren teaches us how to use the same hierarchy to focus on self-care—the kind that becomes a lifestyle, not the kind that drains our pocketbooks or strains our calendars.

Graphic - Davis - Maslow Ladder

ICs can use these questions to self-reflect, too! 👍

This tool, illustrated as a ladder, helps us prioritize the care we provide for teachers as well as for students in our buildings at a time when the world has been turned upside-down.

As with many coaching practices, the lines for this learning run parallel to established classroom practices. If it works for our growing learners, there's a good chance it works for our grown-up learners, too! Let's explore how we create the conditions to meet our students' needs and align our actions for the adults in our care accordingly.

Promote basic physical needs

Even as we work to build relationships with teachers, we can connect through our most basic needs. Tina Boogren's social media presence reminds me to drink the (stupid!) water daily and prioritize the most basic needs for those in my care. In fact, the first thing that I shared with teachers at the start of the year positioned self-care as paramount to our partnership:

"To teach and learn well, we must be well. I care as much about your health and well-being as I do about your growth as an educator."

Teachers should anticipate a question about their self-care during our professional development sessions, our PLCs, and our coaching conversations.

At the beginning of the year, asking about someone's water intake inevitably led to jokes about building up our "teacher bladders." Most recently, it was the opening topic of my coaching conversation with a new teacher, anxious about her first observation. She shared that even her boyfriend was worried she wasn't drinking enough water—but she seized that moment our conversation created and got her blue water bottle out before we began our planning session together. When we take the time to ensure that our interactions center around the universal human experience, it creates possibilities for us as educators to dive well below the surface.

Create a safety net of predictability

If you asked the teachers in my former school about the first question in any of our reflective meetings, while they may not know it comes from Jim Knight's Impact Cycle, they can tell you it goes something like this: "On a scale of 1 to 10, how would you rate…?"

If you asked the teachers at my new school what they've come to expect of our professional learning communities (PLCs), I wouldn’t be surprised if they couldn’t yet name the protocol we've used in data meetings, or the chart that collects our noticings about student work. Instead, I'd hope they would name the way I bookend each meeting with an opening greeting and a reflective question for closure.

Predictability is the backbone of workshop teaching—our PLCs and coaching conversations included. Sam Bennett solidified this parallel for me a few years ago, describing workshop as "a predictable structure, routine, ritual, and system that allows the unpredictable work of deep reading, brilliant writing, mind-changing conversations, inspirational epiphanies, and connections of new to known—that is, learning—to happen."

Rather than anxiously wondering what might happen during a PLC or how to prepare for a coaching conversation, predictability “frees up some brain space," says Bennett for "the big work of making meaning." This is what we want for our students, so why not provide the same for our teachers?

Invite emotions to the table

This work of freeing up brain space doesn't just stop at the work of making meaning for the sake of instruction. This space gives us a chance to make meaning of our own emotions and the way they impact our interactions with others. One of my favorite greetings at this time of year involves putting an iteration of the Kubler-Ross "Change Curve" on the table.

With new teachers—whether new to the profession, to the building, or to a grade-level or position—I might share a parallel version of Ellen Moir's "Phases of First-Year Teaching," like the one here from an EdWeek opinion piece.

With any change—no matter how small—we should take time to name our emotions, which both normalizes and validates them. These visual representations, just like the Zones of Emotional Regulation many of us use with students, make it possible for us to embrace our most human experiences and connect to each other through them.

Bonus: For a video and lesson designed for a quick greeting about mixed emotions on the Kubler-Ross curve, check out this post from the start of the 2020 school year.

Build toward belonging

Remember the importance of predictability in classroom workshop structures? They promote a sense of belonging, too. When the work feels heavy, we begin a PLC with a thirty-second eyes-closed drawing of a few basic words and then laugh together when we hold up our version of a mailbox, a sandcastle, a toothbrush. When it's been awhile since we have been together, we pull up a photo from our phones or share something that others might not know about us.

And like it is in workshop, the way we end a session is just as important as the beginning. Some days, it's a product closure like the one introduced to me by my friends in EL Education, "Glass, bugs, or mud": glass means something is clear; bugs means it's still a little fuzzy; mud means it's still not clear at all. Sometimes, it's a process closure, sharing one of the 4As: an appreciation, apology, ah-ha, or ask. This practice helps to remind us that we—teachers and coaches alike—are in the people business.

Final note

All these practices are designed, not just for relationship-building, but to enhance the social-emotional and physical wellbeing of our teachers. It's one thing to know our teachers well. It's just as important to make sure our teachers are well.

About our Guest Blogger

Morgan Davis is in her sixth year as an instructional coach in Jefferson County, Colorado. Before and throughout her years as a coach, she has taught grades 3-6 and served as an elementary literacy specialist for the Jefferson County School District.

During her spare time, Morgan is developing a framework for coaching and consulting and has several manuscripts about such topics as whole-group reading instruction and the writing to sources and mentors. You can read more from her Parallel Practice series as well as join her for the annual Two Writing Teachers Slice of Life Story Challenge in March on her blog at It's About Making Space.

Be sure to follow and connect with Morgan on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram!

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