Q&A with Megan Marcus of FuelEd

ATPE talks to Megan Marcus, the founder and CEO of FuelEd, a nonprofit that helps educators develop their social emotional skills. Marcus discusses how students’ emotions impact their learning and what teachers can do to improve their relationships with students and help their classrooms run more smoothly.

Can you provide a quick summary of what FuelEd is and how you help educators?

FuelEd is a nonprofit organization that was founded to fill a gap in educator preparation. Unfortunately, despite the importance of relationships to an educator’s day-to-day job and student success, most educator training focuses on content knowledge and instructional skills—never equipping educators with skills needed to build relationships that drive learning.

That’s exactly why FuelEd was founded: to improve student outcomes by equipping educators with the social and emotional competencies essential for building secure relationships in schools. We believe that if educators are equipped with essential social and emotional competencies—interpersonal skills, self-awareness, and emotional well-being—then they will remain in their professions longer and develop stronger, more secure relationships with students, parents, and colleagues. In turn, these relationships will drive students’ academic, social, and emotional learning.

FuelEd partners with K-12 schools and educator preparation programs to develop educators into secure attachment figures—emotionally intelligent, emotionally healthy, and emotionally attuned—so they may build secure relationships that drive learning and development.

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We support educators in this journey through an innovative training process that combines workshops with group and individual counseling. FuelEd’s counseling allows educators to increase their emotional intelligence by exploring their feelings, needs, and social emotional challenges in the context of a safe, supportive relationship. Other benefits of counseling for educators include stress reduction, emotion regulation, and emotional wellness.

How do educators’ social emotional skills impact their ability to be effective classroom leaders?

Many educators see their jobs as not only preparing students academically but also developing the whole child. An educator’s own social emotional skills are a critical prerequisite and foundation to leading a classroom in this way.

Take, for example, an educator’s ability to communicate with empathy—a key social emotional skill. When a teacher responds to a student’s distress with empathic understanding, utilizing “mirroring” statements that reflect the students’ needs, feelings, thoughts, or problems, this in turn…

  • Helps the student self-soothe and self-regulate because empathy is calming;
  • Increases the students’ self-awareness of their own needs, feelings, thoughts, and problems because now they have words to put to their own experience;
  • Enables self-management and self-regulation (because empathy is calming, it puts us in a better state of mind to solve our own problems); and
  • Promotes right-left brain integration necessary for all learning processes, including those needed for reading, writing, critical thinking, and problem solving.

Like lock and key, an educator’s own emotional intelligence, emotional availability, and emotional capacity create moments of nurturance and care that catalyze a cascade of academic, social, and emotional learning for students. But even basic building blocks of strong instructional practice and classroom leadership are undergirded by the educator’s social and emotional skills. For instance,

  • To build a healthy classroom climate, an educator needs to be able to self-regulate when they are distressed, annoyed, angry or “triggered.”
  • To encourage student autonomy, an educator needs to feel secure enough in themselves and trust others to let go of control and allow student learning to unfold organically.
  • To differentiate student learning, an educator needs to have empathic understanding of the student’s strengths, needs, and challenges.
  • To respond to an upset parent, an educator needs to have self-awareness and other-awareness of what both the parent and they themselves need, and to be able communicate this clearly and calmly.

What does it mean for a student to be insecurely attached, and how can educators recognize this in the classroom?

Decades of research have shown that an early, secure relationship with a consistent, caring, and validating caregiver or parent provides the conditions for optimal learning and development. The result of these relationships is a “secure attachment style” in children. The proven outcomes of secure attachment include self-regulation, communication skills, emotional balance, flexibility, and the development of insight, empathy, and morality—all qualities we hope for in our children, our neighbors, and ourselves.

Unfortunately, because many of America’s students are born amongst community violence, family discord, and relationships that are unstable, abusive, or non-existent, they experience a state of stress that impedes learning capacities before even entering the classroom and form what is known as an “insecure attachment style.” Without the foundation created by secure attachments, half of all children enter the classroom with insecure attachment and are at a significant disadvantage in the classroom and in life:

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With the lens of attachment, we hope educators can see the ways in which student (or staff) behavior is really just the tip of the iceberg. There’s much more beneath the surface, and in fact, all behavior is a form of communication. Even if someone’s behavior doesn’t make sense to you, remember they are trying to get their needs met in the best way they have learned how. Be attuned to the student and try to understand what their actions tell you about their attachment style, their early environment, and their present-day relationship needs. Knowing this, you will be better equipped to provide a model for what a secure relationship can be. After all, relational trauma can only be healed relationally.

How can teachers and other school staff evaluate their own social emotional skills to make sure they’re performing at their best level?

Use the list of secure and insecure attachment figure behaviors to assess your strengths and areas for growth. Are you really good at being consistent and predictable but quickly slip into shaming others when they do not meet your expectations? Perhaps it is easier for you to be warm and accepting of others, but you find it difficult to communicate your own feelings and needs in an open and honest way. Or maybe your relationship behaviors differ based on whether you are relating to children or adults. Some find it easy to listen and communicate using understanding and empathy with students but feel less accepting of the feelings and needs of adults (other teachers).

Start to self-reflect using this list and come up with practice areas where you can grow. Below are some more ideas for how you can begin to grow your own social and emotional competencies.

  • Understand Your Own Attachment Style. Educators are not blank slates. Like our students, we too have a history of relationships and our own attachment style, which shape our thoughts, feelings, and behavior in relationships with others. Educators who personally experienced secure attachments as children (with their parents or caregivers) are more likely to build secure attachments with students, while educators who experienced insecure attachments are more likely to build insecure attachments with students. Fortunately, research has found an exciting exception to this rule: When adults become aware of how their own attachment experiences shaped them, they are able to successfully build secure attachments with others, regardless of their early attachments. That’s great motivation to begin to better understand your own attachment experiences and attachment style today!
  • Know Your Triggers. The challenge and stress of teaching and leading in schools is well documented. What can we do when a student, parent, or colleague pushes our buttons, gets under our skin, and takes us off our game? Without understanding our triggers, our automatic negative reactions can create stress for ourselves and others, cause ruptured relationships, and contribute to a negative climate at our schools. Research shows we are likely to fall into a trap of repeating old relationship patterns when we are triggered. So next time you find yourself getting worked up or triggered, dig in to understand what about the experience was triggering for you. What were you feeling? What were you needing? Understanding your triggers can help you better regulate your reactions, communicate clearly, and respond appropriately to stressful situations so that you may create a well-being for yourself, others, and your school.
  • Be Empathic and Genuine. Two communication skills that are essential to building secure relationships are the ability to understand and communicate understanding of another’s perspective (empathy) and to understand and communicate your own perspective (genuineness). Start noticing when you are veering away from these healthy ways of communicating. For example, instead of listening to others to understand them (empathy), do you jump in to fix others’ problems for them, try to cheer up or reassure, or steal the thunder so the focus becomes you? Instead of sharing your own perspective honestly, do you instead blame, shame, or criticize? Do you dictate, preach, or threaten instead of communicating directly about what you are feeling, thinking, or needing? Becoming aware of your communication tendencies, especially when stressed, and practicing new and different ways of responding, can help you grow as a secure attachment figure.

Can you provide any additional resources for educators?

Below is a list of additional trainings for educators who wish to develop socially and emotionally.

To learn more about FuelEd or get involved, visit our website at www.fueledschools.org or email us at info@fueledschools.org.

Megan Marcus resides in Houston, Texas, where she serves as the founder and Chief Executive Officer of FuelEd, and is a recently elected Ashoka Fellow. FuelEd was founded in 2012 as a nonprofit organization with a mission to improve student outcomes by equipping educators with the social and emotional competencies essential for building relationships in schools. FuelEd believes that if we can equip educators with critical social and emotional competencies, then they will remain in the profession longer, and develop stronger relationships with students, parents, and colleagues that will drive students’ academic, social, and emotional learning.

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