Teachers focus on relationship building, social-emotional learning in Mount Vernon schools – The Gazette

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Anthony Govea (left) and Teresa Thompson sculpt figures that make them happy as part of a social-emotional learning activity at Washington Elementary School in Mount Vernon on Friday, Aug. 27, 2021. Students were asked to mold something that makes them happy before sharing it with their table-mates. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)

Teresa Thompson, a fourth grader, sculpts a model of Taylor Swift during a social-emotional learning activity at Washington Elementary School in Mount Vernon on Friday, Aug. 27, 2021. Students were asked to mold something that makes them happy before sharing it with their table-mates. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)

Fourth grade teacher Kari Martin (right) gives instructions for an activitiy meant to engage students socially—sculpting a model of something that makes them happy—nat Washington Elementary School in Mount Vernon on Friday, Aug. 27, 2021. Students begin each day with “Mustang Minutes,” or time spent checking in with themselves and each other as a warm up to starting the school day. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)

MOUNT VERNON — After two school years interrupted by the coronavirus pandemic, educators in the Mount Vernon Community School District are digging deeper into how to integrate social-emotional learning in their classrooms.

Social-emotional learning is the developing of healthy identities, managing emotions, setting and achieving goals, showing empathy for others, establishing and maintaining friendships, and making responsible and caring decisions.

“More students than ever are bringing anxiety and mental health challenges to the classroom,” Mount Vernon Superintendent Greg Batenhorst said. “It’s incumbent upon us to get more skilled in social-emotional learning, especially coming off the last year and a half with COVID-19.”

The foundation for effectively teaching social-emotional learning is the relationship between teacher and student, Batenhorst said.

Teachers spent their first day returning to work earlier this month talking about how to execute a plan in their classrooms to deliver social-emotional instruction, Batenhorst said.

“The ultimate goal of social-emotional learning in education is for students to feel safe in every single element of our district, every classroom, every activity, so they can truly excel as people,” Batenhorst said.

Batenhorst’s professional history as an adolescent mental health therapist and school counselor is guiding his approach to social-emotional learning.

“This is my 38th year working with kids, and education has changed so much since I walked into a classroom for the first time in 1984,” he said. “The challenges students face are much more intense now in 2021.

“At the foundation of it, it’s about relationships, relationships, relationships.”

Tonya Hotchkin, Tanager Place vice president of clinical services, said the way Mount Vernon schools is approaching social-emotional learning is unique.

The superintendent began the year talking with teachers about the culture of their school and how it influences social-emotional learning, Hotchkin said.

“If we’re not talking about school culture and climate — how are students feeling a sense of safety, belonging, meaning and purpose — it’s hard to foster an environment that optimizes social-emotional learning,” Hotchkin said.

“Who are we at our best? Our worst? Why do you work here? (Educators) need to look at those core pieces to be our best selves to do this work,” she said.

Tanager Place has partnered with the Mount Vernon Community School District for several years and has two of their therapists in Mount Vernon schools.

There has been a push in the past five years to integrate social-emotional learning and take it as seriously as teaching academics, Hotchkin said.

“We assume every kid shows up to school with the same backpack full of resources,” Hotchkin said. “That certainly isn’t true. If we just ignore that, we are creating a bigger gap between students who come learner ready versus students who need more assistance to help them reach their academic and educational goals.”

Brett Karkosh, counselor at Mount Vernon High School, is looking forward to leading teachers in professional development about social-emotional learning this year.

Building a strong and effective social-emotional curriculum will take time — three to five years, Karkosh estimated. It starts with teachers building positive relationships with students, so students feel like they have a “safe” adult to talk to, he said.

“This is a journey,” Batenhorst said. “These aren’t things we’re trying to achieve by Halloween. It’s a years-long journey.”

One of the challenges of building a social-emotional learning program is the need for more school counselors.

The American School Counselor Association recommends one school counselor for every 250 students. In Iowa, the average number of school counselors per students is one counselor to every 423 students.

At Mount Vernon High School, Karkosh is the sole counselor for 450 students.

“There’s potential for growth,” Karkosh said. “I would love to see the school counseling program grow bigger than what it is now, and make sure we’re supporting students the best we can.”

When Mount Vernon students cross the stage to graduate from high school, Batenhorst said he hopes the diploma they are handed says more than they have met certain academic standards.

“We hope more than anything they develop in to good people,” he said. “I’ve been giving this speech for over a decade — ‘If I could have you leave my school district with two things it would be with a good heart and an open mind.’”

Comments: (319) 398-8411; grace.king@thegazette.com

Fourth graders walk to their tables to complete a social activity at Washington Elementary School in Mount Vernon on Friday, Aug. 27, 2021. Students were asked to mold something that makes them happy before sharing it with their table-mates. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)

Tierney Rowe (center) leads a circle at the beginning of the day in her fourth grade classroom at Washington Elementary School in Mount Vernon on Friday, Aug. 27, 2021. Students begin each day with “Mustang Minutes,” or time spent checking in with themselves and each other as a warm up to starting the school day. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)