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Should Teachers Torch Kids’ Projects? The Rise of T-SEL

In public schools nationwide — with the exception of Florida — our national history is increasingly taught from the perspective of the presumably oppressed and “victims.” It’s no longer enough to teach about the despicable nature of racism and its effects. Apparently, students need to know what it feels like. They need something progressive educators call “Social Awareness.”

Social Awareness is one slice of a larger pie called Transformative Social Emotional Learning, or T-SEL. The other slices of T-SEL include Self-Awareness, Self-Management, Relationship Skills and Responsible Decision Making.

You’ve never heard of T-SEL? Until recently, neither had I. T-SEL started in the 1990s as a method by which educators intertwine jargon about feelings and relationship-building methodologies with standard academic learning. Its aim, they say, is to cultivate good mental health in children. The underlying idea is that kids can’t learn unless they’re in a state of emotional homeostasis. T-SEL has since emerged as a movement to develop the “whole child” — academically, intrapersonally and socially.

But the way T-SEL is implemented essentially turns classroom interactions into amateur therapy sessions. Teachers prompt emotional check-ins. They create relationship-centered learning environments. They give “mental health passes.” And they conjure surreal projects like this one recommended by the National Education Association (NEA) to teach third-graders American history:

Children are asked to work with their classmates to build a miniature city out of paper mâché. Each child brainstorms a future business or job he or she would like to have. Next, each builds a storefront for this future career along a paper mâché Main Street. Time is spent researching their careers, building their storefronts and discussing commerce and community. Upon completion of the city, the teacher plans a celebration for the following day.

This is where T-SEL comes into the project. The night before the celebration, the teacher literally torches the city. Burns it down. Why, you ask? So that when the children arrive in the morning, they can experience the gut punch of disbelief, fear and heartbreak that comes with being the victims of arson and discrimination.

“The night before the celebration, the teacher literally torches the city. Burns it down. Why, you ask?”

That’s right — the NEA wants teachers to burn third-graders’ projects to a crisp with a blow torch to show them how it felt to be a black American in the post-Civil War South. Welcome to the new public education. Welcome to T-SEL. (See https://www.nea.org/nea-today/all-news-articles/we-will-not-erase-history for more on this, well, bizarre approach to education.)

What you need to know is that T-SEL methods are present in every public school classroom in this state, inviting kids to discuss their feelings at every turn. And every teacher who has earned his or her credential in the last 20 years will have been trained in this philosophy. The problem is that teachers aren’t therapists or psychologists with six-plus years of field-specific education and 3,000 hours of supervised internships. Teachers are simply not qualified to build therapeutic relationships with children, with all the responsibility and potential for serious outcomes.

Yet even if teachers were qualified, do we really want our kids to float around in therapy soup all day? For me, school was a break from my personal chaos. The last thing I needed was a teacher asking me, “So, Leigh-Anna, I understand you had a visit from child protective services yesterday. Do you want to tell me what’s going on in your home life?” And Heaven forbid she say that in earshot of other kids!

Furthermore, our schools are already in a sorry state academically. Here in the Conejo Valley, only 55 percent of students are proficient in math and 65 percent in English (www.usnews.com/education/k12/california/districts/conejo-valley-unified-100691). With statistics like that, what makes schools think they should branch out into mental health care?

It’s up to families to show our children how to navigate the social-emotional aspects of life. When they’re young, we correct their behavior and remind them of their manners. As they get older, they learn through modeling and instruction. They see us weather a job loss, and they suspect that they can get through their fears and disappointments, too. They break the fence in the backyard, and we instruct them to talk with our neighbor and fix it — facing their embarrassment as we encourage them in the background.

Just yesterday at Quest Diagnostics here in Thousand Oaks, my 4-year-old daughter held my hand as I helped a confused old man use the check-in kiosk. Then she held the door for me as we left. Small things matter. Helpfulness. Kindness. Kids are going to do what they see us do. And they don’t need a teacher sending their class project up in flames to train their emotions.

Leigh-Anna Bivens is a former music teacher and (nearly) lifelong resident of the Conejo Valley. She lives in Newbury Park with her husband, a charter school teacher, and their 4-year-old daughter.


  1. So much more the reason to allow vouchers from the state to give parents the option of who and what is being taught to their children.


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