There is an implicit disconnect in expecting educators who are not engaged in developing their own social-emotional learning (SEL) skills to be able to develop those skills in their students. This problem launched our exploration into what has now become The Daily SEL Leader. As we set about testing our problem statement with school leaders, we consistently heard that schools’ SEL dollars tend to go to curriculum for children and not toward developing school leaders’ or staff’s own SEL skills.
Typically, we heard two main reasons explaining why this was the case: 1) school leaders were aware of few, if any, SEL resources dedicated to developing their own SEL skills; and 2) leaders felt guilty investing scarce professional development dollars in themselves vs. their staffs or students. Of particular note, the second point illustrates an understandable—and noble—but, in our view, ultimately shortsighted, decision that actually reduces leaders’ capacity to more positively impact children’s learning.
Having confirmed that we’d identified an actual problem school leaders faced, and even more important, that they would like to see this problem solved, we set about designing our solution. That is, we did not begin writing the book. Rather, we began with an idea and brainstormed possible formats to solve the problem. We also frequently tested solution concepts (often via Slack chats with school leaders) or rough prototypes of a page and its content.
Initially, both of us wanted to provide school leaders with research – a lot of research. We’d witnessed, in our various capacities as consultants, education technology leaders, executive coaches, professors and school founders, how infrequently research reached the classroom. Our book would, in part, address that issue, as we would provide school leaders with access to researchers’ findings in the field, ranging from the psychology to the pedagogies that support and reflect the power of school leaders effectively honing and applying their own SEL skills.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, in testing this approach, we immediately ran into some of the same walls that make bringing research into the classroom challenging. Most precisely, our concept testing led us to surface that, at least with respect to our topic, school leaders would not read more than 400 words per day.
As much as we wanted to disregard this feedback and soldier on with our perspective on what would constitute an effective solution, we instead chose to see that 400-word limit as a design constraint that we could use to harness a more creative solution. This decision, more than any other, most informed the ultimate structure of our book, The Daily SEL Leader.
We proceeded to rapidly develop and test ideas with school leaders, learning about experiences we could design given that strict word limit. Four hundred words, or a little bit more than one minute for the average reader, does not allow for inefficiency. For inspiration, we turned to The Daily Stoic by Ryan Holiday, and recognized that a format providing a quote and some elaboration or a call to reflect upon or take action might fit within our design constraint. This constraint also created non-reading time and space for school leaders to stay engaged with the content even if they weren’t reading the book. Four hundred words per day couldn’t be sufficient to transform a leader’s SEL skills, but the right 400 words might be able to create the conditions for that transformation in between readings and amidst the daily stresses and demands that school leaders face.
Our continued testing also confirmed what we already knew: developing one’s SEL skills is personal and vulnerable work, and a one-size-fits-all solution would be less likely to engage school leaders at scale. We needed to find a way or ways to allow the reader to make the book their own. In that we based the book on the CASEL framework, we realized that nothing about the SEL skills we were covering required linearity. Each reader could choose to move through the book in any order that made sense to them.
To support this “choose your own adventure” concept, we designed a diagnostic to help readers identify their strengths and weaknesses in alignment with each module and skill set in the book. We also put together themed paths through the book, collections of skills that we believe mesh well with each other and address critical leadership focuses, such as increasing equity or deepening relationships. In addition, we designed mechanics, as simple as a skill numbering system, that would support readers in defining custom paths through the book should neither the diagnostic nor our suggested paths feel right.
There are other features that we included, too, but the last one we’d like to mention is space. The book’s subtitle is “A Guided Journal” and that’s because the core implication of a 400-word per day reading limit is that most pages cannot be filled with our words. They can, however, be filled with the reader’s own words. We provide the prompts and calls to action and reflection, leaving much of each page untouched, though structured to support the reader in capturing his, her or their thoughts. The journal will lay flat to support ease of writing, and, we hope, readers will be more likely to come back to revisit their own words rather than our own. The personal nature of a journal, we believe, fits perfectly with the very personal nature of doing this work.
It is our hope that our design effort resulted in a resource that is eminently accessible and impactful. We attempted to create a hybrid solution that is one part book and two parts journal to reflect the needs of who we expect our readers to be. Although 400 words per day, by themselves, will not be sufficient to change leaders’ practice without other supports, they are more than enough to get that work started, and getting started is often the most difficult part of any personal change.