Niles Community Schools teachers, staff participate in social-emotional learning training

Published 12:06 pm Wednesday, January 19, 2022

NILES — Class may not have been in session on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, but Niles Community Schools teachers and staff were hard at work making sure his dreams were being realized in the district.

Teachers and staff district-wide took part in a virtual social-emotional learning professional development course with the aim of equipping them with the skills to support their students’ academic, social and emotional growth.

During the course, teachers and staff focused on social awareness, which encourages perspective-taking, empathy, appreciating diversity and respect for others.

The course was facilitated by Niles Community Schools Curriculum Director Ann Bingham, Ballard Elementary School Principal Jennifer Shabazz and Southside Elementary Principal Jeron Blood.

According to Shabazz, the professional development course came to be in 2020 after State Superintendent Dr. Michael F. Rice started a statewide group made up of educators and leaders that Shabazz and Blood were a part of. In October 2020, the duo worked together to create an art committee where teachers and staff voluntarily met, often virtually, to start peer-to-peer conversations that would develop into professional development courses.

“We opened it up to the entire district for anyone who wanted to join,” Shabazz said. “You had two options: You could participate in the meetings or ask for the information that we would share out.”

According to Shabazz, the committee consists of roughly 60 teachers and staff members in the district. Last year’s project involved creating a document for Black History Month and how teachers and staff should facilitate programming dedicated to it.

“We call it going beyond Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King,” Shabazz said, “Really looking past the every day that we talk about a lot during Black History Month and going beyond that. So the team really worked to put together a very good document that is for elementary and secondary students to help with the ideas and just links and things like that, that they can go to for themselves and use that during Black History Month.”

“Last year, the focus was purely on whoever wanted to be a part of this,” Blood said. “We know that this is difficult work. It’s important. It can ruffle feathers, and it needs to be done the right way, and we want to move intentionally. We don’t want to just have lip service and then it goes away, but we also want to move slowly so that it doesn’t blow up in our face if we’re forcing it on people. So, we wanted to start at the district level with anyone who wants to be a part of this, and then this year, we felt like it was time to start getting these conversations happening more in every building.”

The professional development course also included anti-bias tests as well local, national and global issues pertaining to race, gender and equality.

“We talked a lot when different things were happening last year, sometimes globally or nationally,” Shabazz said. “It was really just a safe place for people to share voices and talk about anti-racism and other issues.”

Bingham highlighted a student panel featuring high school culture club students as one of the best sessions she has experienced. Organized by New Tech Director Jerry Holtgren and Jeff Kyles, the culture club had a student panel where it discussed topics including race and LGBTQ+ issues. Shabazz highlighted a video featuring African American students discussing their experiences in the district.

“There were teachers that were so impressed with our kiddos to see them presenting themselves and sharing their experiences as members of these often-marginalized communities,” Shabazz said. “They learned so much about our kids and their experiences. I think at the end of the day, every building got together, and they had the opportunity to talk about what our next steps are.”

Bingham, Shabazz and Blood were the first to admit that they do not have the answers to many of the questions the conversations have created, but they highlighted the importance of beginning conversations and figuring out ways to equip teachers with the skills to support their students.

“We went into this last year with the mindset that we just knew something needed to be done, there needed to be conversations,” Shabazz said. “We weren’t sure where it was going, but we knew we wanted to help facilitate it. We are not leading this group; we are a white man and a white woman. We take that very seriously that we don’t have the answers, but we want to help move the district and the teachers forward in their thinking, as well as ours. For me, it was personal in a sense that we need this for our students, we need this for our community and we didn’t know where it was going. We started this train and we weren’t sure where the train was headed, but it’s had, it’s been extremely positive across the board.

“I know I now have more awareness of my own white privilege and it really impacts looking at curriculum and instruction,” Bingham said. “How are classrooms places where all learners feel that they can be seen and heard and appreciated because if a student doesn’t feel like they are part of a learning community and that their voice isn’t valid then wanting to make gains in math, reading and social studies, we’re not going to get the traction we want. So just taking the step back and doing this really hard, crucial work and at the same time, not knowing where it’s going. It’s exciting and daunting at the same time, but it’s exciting to be surrounded by people who want to do this.

“Even when we don’t have all the answers. I would hope as administrators and teachers we just feel good to be doing this work. It’s not perfect all the time but man, it sure is gonna improve outcomes for our kiddos.”