“We Need a Group Talk”: Advocating for Critical Teacher Dialogue on SEL and Social Justice

Dr. Emma McMain, Washington State University

I never questioned why we do [SEL] or how we do it … I struggled to teach [Second Step] because I don’t do well with scripted things. … so now I kind of question it more. I think about the pros and cons, and the “why” I’m doing it, and is it benefitting my students, and how do I need to adjust things if they’re not working? … we blame students for their lack of whatever, rather than questioning what we’re doing and changing what we’re doing.

I was just right on board and not really questioning that gut feeling of whether it was ok to question [SEL]. And now it’s like, well maybe it is ok to say, “Hey, I’m not going to teach this method to my students. Maybe I’m gonna do something different. And maybe I don’t want to use this curriculum with them … It might not fit their needs.” I can advocate for them a little more effectively now. 

From March to May of 2022, I facilitated a discourse community (reading and discussion group) on SEL and social justice as part of my doctoral dissertation. The two quotes above were spoken in subsequent one-on-one interviews with Joon Lee and Elphaba Marie*, two elementary-school educators who participated in the study—although, as Elphaba Marie described, “I didn’t really think of it as a study. It was more … you know, just a group of teachers talking about their experience.” 

My goal was not to provide teachers with new pedagogical strategies or bolster their content knowledge, but rather to open time and space to talk, feel, question, and relate. Education in the United States is heavily shaped by capitalistic notions of competition, marketability, and merit-based notions of success (Apple, 2004; Pinar, 2019), intertwined with a colonial backdrop that has long sought to uphold particular (e.g., white, Westernized, heteronormative, neurotypical) definitions of personhood at the expense of others—for instance, those that stem from Indigenous, queer, and neurodivergent ways of learning and being (Camangian & Cariaga, 2021; Tuck, 2009). Although education is a phenomenon that constantly shifts, it is important to recognize how even SEL can be assimilated into unquestioned assumptions including “social and emotional personhood can be conceptualized as a set of measurable skills” or “formal, pre-scripted lessons are a necessary precursor to learning.” Without recognizing and valuing all the ways in which social and emotional humanity also unfolds through unscripted, unmeasurable, and messily unpredictable ways, SEL risks becoming overly narrow and constraining how teachers and students nurture and experience their social and emotional selves. 

In the discourse community I facilitated, teachers interestingly expressed a desire not for more designated SEL time or more choice over which programs to implement but for more conversation, community-building, and openness to differentiation within their respective districts. “I wish we had a little bit more, I don’t know, not freedom,” said Eunice*, “but like … there’s ways to dig deeper.” Eunice said at another point, “I feel like we need to have a, just a group talk.” As Joon Lee and Elphaba Marie express in the quotes above, teachers are often shamed or otherwise deterred from deep questioning about the curricular materials with which they are presented. 

Currently, SEL researchers and practitioners are calling for more explicit connections between SEL and social justice, acknowledging how some elements of SEL practices may inadvertently perpetuate systems of oppression (Jagers et al., 2021; Kaler-Jones, 2020; Simmons, 2019; and Weaver, 2020). Without the time and space for teachers to partake in critical, relational, and emotional dialogue, which requires support from school leadership, it will be increasingly difficult to make these important connections. While districts often provide professional development on how to implement SEL programs with fidelity, measure students’ SEL skills, and invest more time into particular curricula, I encourage school leaders to place greater attention and value on the kinds of deep, humble, self-reflective conversations that are so crucial for promoting social justice through SEL. These kinds of professional development could unfold as discourse communities or book clubs, where teachers gather with an internal or external facilitator to discuss how SEL is related to broader issues of history, education, oppression, and their own identities. 

*All self-selected pseudonyms 


Apple, M. W. (2004). Ideology and curriculum (3rd Ed.). Routledge.

Camangian, P., & Cariaga, S. (2021). Social and emotional learning is hegemonic miseducation: Students deserve humanization instead. Race, Ethnicity, and Education, 1-21. https://doi.org/10.1080/13613324.2020.1798374

Jagers, R. J., Skoog-Hoffman, A., Barthelus, B., & Schlund, J. (2021). Transformative Social and Emotional Learning: In pursuit of educational equity and excellence. American Educator, 45(2), 12.

Kaler-Jones, C. (2020, May 7). When SEL is used as another form of policing. Medium.

Pinar, W. F. (2019). What is curriculum theory? (3rd Ed.). Routledge.

Simmons, D. (2019, April 1). Why we can’t afford whitewashed social-emotional learning. Education Update, 61(4). https://www.ascd.org/el/articles/why-we-cant- afford-whitewashed-social-emotional-learning

Tuck, E. (2009). Suspending damage: A letter to communities. Harvard Educational Review, 79(3), 409-428.

Weaver, T. (2020, June 16). Antiracism in social-emotional learning: Why it’s not enough to talk the talk. EdSurge. https://www.edsurge.com/news/2020-06-16-antiracism-in-social-emotional-learning-why-it-s-not-enough-to-talk-the-talk