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74 Interview: CASEL’s ‘Consensus Builder’ CEO Aaliyah Samuel on Getting the U.S. ‘Back to the Middle’ on Social-Emotional Learning — and Whether the Name Needs to Change

By Linda Jacobson | January 28, 2022

Aaliyah Samuel is the new president and CEO of the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (Courtesy of Aaliyah Samuel)

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See previous 74 Interviews: Andrew Rotherham on the Virginia governor’s race, author Amanda Ripley on the pandemic, and Burbio’s founder on being a go-to source. The full archive is here

As the nation’s schools approach the pandemic’s second year, educators are increasingly watching the fallout in their classrooms. 

Whether students have lost loved ones or struggled to reconnect with peers after months of isolation, educators report increases in behavior problems. U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy issued a public health advisory in December, referring to “alarming increases” in youth anxiety and depression. 

At the same time, the U.S. Department of Education has promoted examples of how districts can use billions in new federal relief funds to address not just learning loss, but also students’ well-being.

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Programs that aim to address those needs fall under the label of social-emotional learning, bringing topics such as decision-making, managing emotions and understanding others’ perspectives into the classroom. Even before the pandemic, districts devoted significant resources toward social-emotional learning, sometimes opening new departments to oversee implementation and teacher training.

The movement has long attracted supporters and critics. But now the field is facing unwanted scrutiny from those who argue discussions about feelings don’t belong in school, and have tied SEL — often incorrectly — to controversial lessons on race and equity. 

In this moment of heightened conflict, the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning — a hub for resources and research in the field — has hired a new leader. 

Aaliyah Samuel will try to bridge the divide as the organization’s new president and CEO. On Friday, she’ll outline her vision for how the field can best respond to what she calls a “growing crisis around youth mental health, persistent inequities and divisive politics.” In a conversation with Timothy Shriver, the Collaborative’s board chair, she’ll address why she thinks the demand for social-emotional learning programs is greater than ever, despite the controversies.

Samuel started her career as an elementary special education teacher in the Hillsborough County, Florida, district. She worked at the National Governors Association and at assessment nonprofit NWEA before accepting a post in the U.S. Department of Education as a deputy assistant secretary last year.

David Adams, a member of the Collaborative’s board and the director of social-emotional learning at Urban Assembly, a New York nonprofit, called her “a consensus builder” who will be able to work with districts and parents so students aren’t “left behind because of partisanship.”

Samuel, a mother of two boys, whose youngest was in kindergarten when the pandemic began, said she’ll approach her new role not only as a policy leader, but as a mother. 

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In a conversation with The 74, she shared how her experience working with governors has prepared her to work across the political spectrum and help build understanding of how social-emotional learning programs can support academics and job preparation.

“I know all governors care about education and their economy,” she said, “and this is a way to address both.”

This interview was edited for length and clarity.

The 74: What role did social-emotional learning play in your early career?

Aaliyah Samuel: I cut my teeth teaching special education to 3- through 5-year-olds — at the time the label was emotionally handicapped kids. And that was my entrée point of seeing first-hand kids who really struggle managing their emotions, their inability to connect socially and how it impacted their academics. This was in 2001, and was the catalyst for me to go on and get my masters in special education.

You spent 10 months as deputy assistant secretary for local, state and national engagement at the Department of Education. What did you do in that role?

I traveled to about eight states, talking to parents, superintendents, school personnel of all kinds, bus drivers, food nutrition [staff], classroom teachers, local elected officials, governor’s offices, trying to understand, as schools were now reopening, what their challenges were. Consistently across all those cities, the one thing I heard was the impact of social-emotional learning, the impact of relationships on academics. A month before CASEL came to me about this role, an educator in North Carolina said to me, “Dr. Samuel, we’ve returned to school, but we haven’t returned to learning because we’re focusing on the relationships. We’ve just got to reestablish our relationships.”

Why did you leave?

I never even thought that I would be at that level. When we had initial conversations about me joining [the department], it was really, “Aaliyah, you know the national landscape, you understand the nuances, you are an educator, you are a parent. Help us engage those communities to really understand what the plan should be moving forward.” 

I committed to really help schools reopen. Anytime I’ve transitioned, it has been because of a belief that I’m answering a call to the field. When I left my post as a classroom teacher to [be] an assistant principal, it was because my administrator really felt that I could have greater impact on a school, not just my classroom. Going from principalship to national policy, it was the same thing. In education policy, so few of us are actually former educators or have that experience.

What was CASEL looking for in a new leader?

They really wanted a leader who understood the field, who came from the field. They were looking for diversity. To say that was not important would not be true. They absolutely wanted a person of color. But there were, I think, three things I brought that made them think, “This is why she’s the right leader.” 

First, was the right professional mix — the credibility at the local, state,and national levels as a policy influencer. Social-emotional learning has always been a bipartisan issue. How do we start to come back to the middle and think about the path ahead? 

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Second was the fact that I understand what it’s like to be in a classroom and trying to teach a kid who cannot emotionally regulate themselves. And then, also as a parent. I am a mom with two boys of color in public school, who has a child with special health care needs. It’s important to not only talk about SEL when it comes to race and culturally relevant teaching, but also students with disabilities.

I am bilingual and a first-generation American. I’m a dual language learner. All of those things combined, ultimately, are why I’m here.

With some communities so divided over how schools implement social-emotional learning, how do you “get back to the middle” as you say? 

We need to strip out the politics and really get clear about who we’re serving and what our desired outcomes are — which, at the end of it, is to make sure that kids and educators are able to really recover from this pandemic. We have to recognize 53 percent of kids who are in public schools are students of color. The pandemic has forced us to look at things differently. We can’t not address cultural differences. We have to understand that the pandemic has disproportionately impacted communities of color. 

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You mentioned your work with states and governors. Legislatures are in session, and already in some states, curriculum and the way teachers discuss social injustice and issues of race, gender and identity are dominating committee hearings. Does CASEL have plans to get involved at that level?

We have to think about policy, practice and research. How do we bring all three of those together so that.policymakers can really make the best decisions for their state? It comes to your point of clarifying what SEL is and what it’s not. As a former teacher, there was no way I was going to teach my kids without having strong relationships with them. And that’s part of SEL, having strong meaningful relationships.

I would challenge anybody to go into a classroom and see what it’s like to try to teach kids who are struggling socially and emotionally, who don’t feel connected to either their classroom, the school or their teachers. How do we really amplify the realities of stories about what’s happening in the field? We can’t allow politics to get in front of what practitioners know is fundamentally best for their students.

It’s an election year, and some Republicans are running on platforms to root out educational practices they associate with critical race theory. Again, with your connections to NGA, what are your thoughts on that?

One of the things I learned while at NGA is there is not a governor anywhere who is not either a workforce governor, an education governor or both. Right now, this issue of SEL impacts both education and the workforce. Policymakers have perspectives and opinions on what needs to be done, but they’re also very open to listening, and I think my time at NGA will definitely serve me well in this role.

There are just conversations that need to be had. If we don’t really start to address what we’re hearing about the impacts to the workforce, we are going to lose students who don’t go back and finish their high school diploma. The impacts are not just in K-12 and are not just temporary. I was listening to a great piece that was talking about the young adults who have transitioned into the workforce from the pandemic, how the social impact is showing up in the workforce. They’re having a tough time being able to work in teams.

Does social-emotional learning need a new label, a new name?

This is something we struggled with at NGA. What do we call this? It’s something I think about when I’m on a walk. There’s certain language and vocab that works great when you’re talking to the choir. 

There are terms that physicians can use that the common person wouldn’t understand, but when they break it down a different way people are like, “Oh okay, I get what you’re saying.” 

We need to think about how educators are talking about it, how parents are talking about it, how policymakers are talking about it. Fundamentally, when you unpack it, there are some real commonalities.

We’re going to have to think about those thoughtful, productive, intentional conversations that we need to have to help us prioritize what’s best for students. I definitely have my ears perked up because there are multiple audiences that we are trying to bring along on this journey.

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