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Social and emotional learning: the training academics need but never receive


Galveston, TX was never a place I planned to visit. "Hot tub couch" was a phrase I never intended to say multiple times per day (picture related). Most importantly, I *never* expected to find a deep support group in the strong women of the National Network of Ocean and Climate Change Communication (NNOCCI), many of whom I've only spent mere hours with yet feel such love and support from.

As NNOCCI transitioned away from federal grant funding towards a network-driven grassroots-type structure at the beginning of 2018, a lot of new ideas and programs picked up speed, including a training for aspiring "expert" facilitators in our network. In the leadership team, many struggled with what this training would entail - what makes an effective NNOCCI facilitator? What makes NNOCCI facilitators unique? Are these content-driven skills, since the power of our network is derived from social science research? We could all agree, there was something special about how connected our members felt upon joining the network. This had a lot to do with the collaborative nature of NNOCCI's member institutions and members, but it was also by design. Social and emotional connections between members, driven by shared values, make our network the strong force it is today. Consequently, shared values are how we make such an effective connection with our public audience. Funny how that works!

I was the only "stuffy academic" (my words, not theirs) to attend the expert level facilitator training this year. As a member of the science partnerships committee within our leadership team, my interest in the course was three-fold. 1. Introduce new science topics (like extreme events) to upcoming facilitators in our network, 2. Investigate whether this training would be appealing to scientists within our network, and 3. Learn how to be a better facilitator/teacher myself. Notice the order of those priorities. The first was presented to my academic supervisor, as a CV-boosting reason to take 4 days away from research (he doesn't know the training actually spanned many weeks, just virtually. shh.). The second was presented to my NNOCCI committee, as a necessary "boots on the ground" investigation of our place as scientists in a largely informal communicators network. The third...was something for myself. Becoming a better teacher, mentor, facilitator for my students is not something prioritized by academic institutions and academics themselves (although this is slowly but steadily changing!).

By the end of my week in Galveston, priority #3 became #1. And I felt guilty. Why was I using this time for personal growth instead of professional? Why did I consider social and emotional learning to be personal growth? The whole thing was very difficult to articulate for myself. This training opened my eyes to how important it is to acknowledge the emotional costs and development associated with communicating difficult topics like climate change. This training also made me realize how priorities for academics devalue this type of learning, which can be hard for professors and students alike. Maybe this training about emotional learning made me personally emotional because I finally understood how necessary it is to be open to managing this part of your classroom, but how unlikely it is to be prioritized for the people who need it the most (people like me).

So here I am, appealing to you, the (potentially) academic reader of this blog, to invest in social and emotional learning for your students and for yourself. Chances are, you often teach difficult and controversial subjects spanning climate change, socioeconomic disparities, political divides in our country, and other heavily (and heated) debated topics. This can be emotionally draining on you, but also on your students trying to navigate their own interpretations and eventual communications of the things you are teaching about. Acknowledging that it is ok to seek a support group (find yourself a community like NNOCCI if you can!) and take a break from up on your soap box is VITAL to staying an effective and enthusiastic communicator. If you are a participant in academic twitter, this means it's ok to withdraw from engagement on your specialty topic when you feel drained. It's ok to pull back from your perfectly framed messaging when someone on the train asks you what you do. You are a trained, skilled communicator (or you should be working towards being one) but you are not the only person in your fight to be heard. Find your community. Be a part of your students' community and help them through these same struggles. You want them to be as heavily invested as you are, because communicating a message is all about forming a social movement. Finding and providing social and emotional support is an essential part of teaching, whatever the topic.

Let's step back for a second. I joined NNOCCI 3 years ago as a science fellow. To provide expert SCIENCE advice. And here I am, preaching the importance of social and emotional networks. I may have joined NNOCCI to provide my services, but I've gotten back so much more. I've gained my support network and my eyes have been opened to the possibilities for my academic community. We can be better communicators, but most importantly we can be a better community if we acknowledge and adopt practices that aren't research/grant/manuscript-driven on the surface. Will you join this community with me?

Learn what makes a strong network.


My community of NNOCCI expert level facilitators on the "hot tub couch" in Galveston, TX.

Be an academic and read the primary literature:

Albrecht, G., Sartore, L. C., Higginbotham, N., Freeman, S., Kelly, B., Stain, H., ... Pollard, G. (2007). Solastalgia: The distress caused by environmental change. Australasian Psychiatry, 15, 95–98.

Constable, J.F., & Russell, D.W. (2010). The effect of social support and the work environment upon burnout among nurses. Journal of Human Stress, 12(1), 20-26.

Dormann, C., & Zapf, D. (1999). Social support, social stressors at work, and depressive symptoms: Testing for main and moderating effects with structural equations in a three-wave longitudinal study. Journal of Applied Psychology, 84(6), 874-884.

Fraser, J. ,& Brandt, C. (2013). The emotional life of the environmental educator. In M. Krasney & J. Dillon (Eds), Trading zones: Creating trans-disciplinary dialogue in environmental education (pp. 133-158). New York, NY: Peter Lang Publishing Inc.

Fraser, J., Pantesco, V., Plemons, K., Gupta, R. & Rank, S. J. (2013). Sustaining the conservationist. Ecopsychology, 5, 70-79. Ojala, M. (2012). Hope and climate change: The importance of hope for environmental engagement among young people. Environmental Education Research, 18, 625-642. doi:10.1080/13504622.2011.637157

Swim, J. K., & Fraser, J. (2013). Fostering hope in climate change educators. Journal of Museum Education, 38(3), 286–297.

Wenger, E., Trayner, B., & de Laat, M. (2011). Promoting and assessing value creation in communities and networks: A conceptual framework. Rapport 18, Ruud de Moor Centrum, Open University of the Netherlands.


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© 2019 Richelle Tanner

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