Megan Marcus believes that any educator in the U.S. can and must become a consistent, caring and responsive “secure attachment figure.” The emerging field of social neuroscience makes an increasingly compelling case for the impact of relationships on our brains and development. Through FuelEd, Megan is showing how educators, school leaders, teacher training colleges, and counselors can transform educator preparation, performance and retention as well as student achievement and development both cost-effectively and at scale through the power of relationships.
The New Idea
Considering the fact that teachers spend more time with children than even the best parents can, Megan Marcus insists that there is something very wrong with how little we as an American society are prioritizing the emotional intelligence of educators. There is overwhelming evidence that the brain is a social organ that grows in positive social relationships such as friendships and marriages. It is no wonder then that teachers are the most important school-based factor in a student’s education and the teacher-student relationship is absolutely vital to growth, curiosity, and enthusiasm for learning. Children - especially those growing up in stressful, traumatic, or insecure environments and who experience a state of stress that impedes learning capacities before even entering the classroom - need teachers who can emotionally attach to them.
But our training of and demands on teachers make this nearly impossible. Teachers are exclusively taught lesson planning, differentiation, and content. Nowhere are they encouraged to develop basic communication skills or explore their own interpersonal style, emotional health, or triggers, although these factors may have just as much impact on student learning as content knowledge and pedagogy. At present, customer service and sales representatives in the U.S. are more likely to get active listening training than teachers. This, Megan claims, “is pathetic and scary on a societal level.”
Megan’s work with FuelEd shows that there is a way to integrate the development of interpersonal skills, self-awareness, and emotional wellbeing into teachers’ training and professional experience. Over the last three years, FuelEd’s 12-month programs and intensive short courses have directly benefited hundreds of educators and school administrators across some of the largest school districts in the country. Armed with feedback from participants, Megan can now prove that intervening in teachers’ social and emotional capacities directly and positively affects students’ academic, social, and emotional outcomes, not to mention teachers’ own job satisfaction, and retention. Going forward, the FuelEd team is distilling its most effective content and interventions and piloting a blended-learning approach to empower graduates of the FuelEd program to transform their own school and, through their examples, educator preparation and performance more broadly.
In the last 20 years, there has been a growing body of evidence of the importance of strong, positive, secure relationships, not just in making our lives more pleasant, but as they impact the neural and hormonal development within our own bodies. This emergent, multi-disciplinary field of “social neuroscience” recognizes the considerable impact of interpersonal relationships on the development and function of the brain and body.
To illustrate this, consider the fact that more than any other primate, humans are born with undeveloped brains. An infant’s amygdala, the part of the brain which governs the ability to feel emotions and to perceive them in other people, is fully functional by about eight months of gestation. But the prefrontal cortex, the region implicated in regulating strong emotions, planning complex cognitive behavior, and moderating social behavior, takes another 20+ years to fully develop. Therefore, while infants and toddlers are fully capable of feeling and perceiving a wide range of emotions, parents and others must help young people learn to navigate these emotions and develop healthy habits of self-regulating. Parents who reliably soothe their infants provide opportunities for the undeveloped brain to practice moving from dysregulation to regulation. In the process, brain networks are trained, developed, and modeled off of these interactions. Emotional responses become ‘organized’ and secure, and children develop optimally with “soft skills” such as social responsibility, cooperation, empathy, and altruism. In this way these early relationships shape us, and our brains.
Unfortunately, hundreds of thousands of American children lack critically important, secure attachments at home or in school. It is estimated that one-third of American children are insecurely attached, and as many as two-thirds in high risk populations.
Without the foundation created by secure attachments, many children enter school at a significant disadvantage in the classroom and in life while America’s educators are left to fight an uphill battle. Unfortunately, this battle is only made worse due to the fact that educators are not afforded the training or tools to fight it. While research has shown that a secure teacher-student relationship can compensate, promoting higher academic achievement, greater social competence and resilience, and less behavioral problems, the art and science of building secure relationships is missing from educator preparation.
The social justice implications of this problem are astounding: students from low socioeconomic background have disproportionately more attachment problems, mental health issues, and learning difficulties and grow up to exhibit higher levels of substance abuse, incarceration, and employment problems than their more wealthy counterparts. Teaching in schools that serve low-income communities is also more stressful, both because of students’ higher needs and other factors such as lack of resources, low parental involvement, and dangerous communities.
Without the proper structures and support, the weight of the emotional labor required in a helping profession like teaching can be too much for even the most well-adjusted, passionate educators. Considering the primacy of relationships in an educator’s day-to-day job, coupled with the lack of preparation for these interpersonal realities, it is no wonder 50% of teachers leave within their first five years, costing the U.S. $7 billion annually (NCTAF, 2007). Unfortunately, this creates a vicious cycle where “teacher turnover lowers student achievement and lower student achievement leads to teacher turnover” (Barnes, Crowe, & Schaefer, 2007). Turnover not only drains significant financial resources; it saps communities of the benefits of strong school culture.
How is it that we are failing so badly to prepare teachers for success? As Megan points out, the existing approach that is most commonly used for educator preparation narrowly emphasizes teachers’ content knowledge and instructional skills. New teacher induction programs, the most common approach to provide support and guidance to novice teachers, are used to promote educator preparation as well as retention. But with a strong focus on instruction skills, “they provide no formal mechanism for support of teachers emotionally or for the development of their interpersonal skills which have proven critical to students' academic and non-cognitive development,” not to mention their own ability to stay in the teaching profession.
There is growing recognition in the U.S. of the need to promote social and emotional learning in schools, and many professional development programs have sprung up to help students recognize and manage emotions, appreciate others’ perspectives, establish pro-social goals, solve problems, and use a variety of interpersonal skills. Unfortunately, many of these trainings are short-term workshops and therefore do not directly integrate or support teachers’ ongoing experiences during the school year. And, as Megan points out, “The majority of these do not address the social-emotional development of educators, which is a critical pre-requisite to ensuring they have the capacity to develop students socially and emotionally.”
Only when we as a society redefine the very definition of an effective educator will we be able to begin to transform the full spectrum of educator recruitment, development, and support.
FuelEd currently works by partnering with K-12 schools and educator preparation programs to develop educators into “secure attachment figures” so that all adults working in schools are emotionally intelligent, emotionally healthy, and emotionally attuned to build secure relationships with students that drive learning and development. Over the last three years Megan has developed an innovative training process focused on the science of relationships, the skills of relationships, and the self-awareness needed to build relationships. This content is delivered through a combination of engaging workshops coupled with small group and one-on-one counseling experiences tailored to educators.
In 2012, Megan launched FuelEd at one school in Houston, Texas – the 4th largest city in the country. By 2012 she was invited by six additional Houston principals to implement school-wide, yearlong trainings. Three years later, FuelEd has worked directly with over 1,000 educators across the Houston Independent School District (the seventh largest in the nation), the Spring Branch Independent School District, YES Prep, KIPP Houston, Harmony Public Schools, Teach for America, Citizen Schools, Green Dot, and more. In FuelEd’s direct service model, schools pay for a subsidized, year-long program of Workshops, Small Groups, and One-on-One counseling sessions for educators. The remainder of FuelEd’s current operating budget of just under $1M is funded through philanthropic funding. Megan and FuelEd have shown that teachers with whom they work remain in their professions longer and develop more secure relationships with students, parents, and colleagues.
As important as exposure to new frameworks and interactive training sessions are, Megan’s core insight is that an educator’s best professional development is actually personal development. Indeed, some of the most transformative growth for educators in the FuelEd network takes place in the One-on-One counseling sessions. These client-centered therapeutic sessions allow educators to integrate learning into practice and increase their emotional intelligence by exploring their own feelings, needs, and social-emotional challenges in the context of a safe, supportive relationship. Counselors work with educators to create habits for stress reduction, emotion regulation, and emotional wellness. And importantly, educators utilize One-on-Ones to make sense of how their early life histories have impacted them. Research shows that this self-understanding paired with the experience of a secure attachment enables adults to become securely attached themselves and permanently change their attachment style (Davidson and McEwen, 2012). This is critical since research shows that the greatest predictor of an adult’s ability to build secure relationships with others is his or her own attachment style. In other words, if we want securely attached students, we need securely attached adults in our classrooms and schools. FuelEd’s unique counseling services for educators are making this a reality.
How has FuelEd been able to provide hundreds of individual educators with this deeply personal and transformative experience of One-on-One counseling sessions? By flipping a challenge on its head. All aspiring counselors need supervised internship hours, but internship sites can be hard to find. Schools, Megan realized, would be ideal partners where recent graduates of counseling programs (i.e. counselor interns) could log significant hours with high-functioning adults. Seizing on this opportunity, Megan’s innovative model engages Counselor Interns to facilitate FuelEd’s Small Group and One-on-One counseling sessions in exchange for supervision by FuelEd's Clinical Supervisors. This model creates a win-win for all: educators receive robust and personalized training at a cost that schools can afford while counselors receive a high-quality, unique internship experience. Most importantly, FuelEd enables systemic change, not only revolutionizing educator preparation but also transforming counselor education by developing a new breed of mental health professionals who are experts at supporting and developing educators socially and emotionally. As they expand in the future, FuelEd acknowledges that they will have to have a team of Clinical Supervisors that can provide supervision and certification in each state. But the rest of the work scales more easily, especially as they experiment with a blended-learning model where graduates of intensive FuelEd trainings will be able to host video content and lead interactive activities in their own schools, on their own terms.
Megan acknowledges that, “Our nation’s teachers have been thrust into the spotlight and under rapid fire by public scrutiny and criticism. The need to provide emotional support, development opportunities, and resources for the people who are essentially raising the next generation is more crucial now than ever.” Megan understands that to generate large-scale impact, FuelEd will forever be playing ‘catch-up’ unless they can ensure that their model is taken up among pre-service teachers. Even though a national scan of the status of social and emotional learning preparation for pre-service teachers in the U.S. revealed that only a handful of teacher preparation programs focus on the social and emotional learning of educators, Megan notes that at many of these same universities and teacher training colleges the psychology and education departments share the same buildings. Megan is helping break down those walls by being an exemplar of this new, interdisciplinary and mutually-beneficial approach while consistently building FuelEd’s network of influential professionals across disciplines and across the country. This group includes Deans of Colleges of Education, professors, policy makers, researchers, and educators.
As Megan says, “If there is any hope for a better world, it is essential that we rethink education, repurpose schools, and retool educators to be equipped to fuel schools with the power of relationships.” One can already see the impact of FuelEd’s innovations in scaling up their direct delivery channels, expanding the roles of champions who can bring the key principles and practices to their own schools, and shifting the conversation about how pre-service teachers are trained and supported on campus. But the real goal will only be achieved, according to Megan, when prioritizing and investing in the emotional intelligence and health of educators becomes the new normal. And this, too, is beginning to happen. An organization that trains HR directors who work in school districts across the country is seeking to understand which social and emotional competencies to seek out when hiring teachers and school leaders. And FuelEd has begun to get inquiries via its website from schools looking to bring counseling services to their school to support their teachers on a regular basis.
Megan has always intuitively understood the importance of strong, secure relationships on individual human development. But while therapists are trained for years to leverage relationships, teachers are trained far more narrowly as classroom instructors. How might the two disciplines connect so that educators can be equipped with the social and emotional competencies essential for building secure relationships and the best conditions for learning in schools?
In tackling this challenge, Megan drew on her own life experiences growing up in a family of immigrant entrepreneurs - with a businessman for a father and a clinical psychologist for a mother. She strategically stitched together a series of work, service, personal development, and education experiences in an effort to understand and reimagine the overall education system in the U.S. all while building a robust network of collaborators and supporters in the process. As a young graduate student, completing training to be a therapist, and working as a researcher for the book The Social Neuroscience of Education by Dr. Louis Cozolino, Megan saw again and again the strong parallels between the therapeutic environment and the classroom, between how to help patients as well as students thrive.
FuelEd is the solution that Megan came up with, refined during a one-year master’s program at Harvard's Graduate School of Education, and launched three years ago at one pilot school in Houston. Megan recognizes that “For the past three years, the city of Houston has served as an incredible breeding ground and laboratory for the idea of FuelEd. We have experimented, played, innovated and made an incredible impact on individuals and institutions along the way. We will continue to make progress in directly impacting individuals, but the time has also come to broaden our work and take steps towards transforming and redefining educator preparation.”