Melissa Ospina is a former elementary school teacher, instructional specialist, and newly appointed Vice Principal of The Incarnation School in Manhattan. She is a lifelong New Yorker who was raised in, has taught for, and is educating her son in New York City schools. Over the years, Melissa has become a fierce advocate for children, teachers, and parents alike.
Melissa attended our first Authenticity in the Classroom workshop in Manhattan this spring. We were inspired by the unique perspective she brings to the table as both teacher and administrator and recently caught up with her to talk about classroom culture, teacher stress, and what it takes to create a culture of authenticity.
Here are four main takeaways from our discussion:
1. Integrating authenticity-based SEL into the curriculum is easier than you think.
Melissa wants to dispel the myth that there’s not time for SEL in the school day. “It doesn’t have to be this big thirty-minute activity,” Melissa says. “You can do it in such a short amount of time.” When running her classroom, Melissa found small ways to reinforce a culture of authenticity throughout the day. Here are a few examples:
Starting in the morning, Melissa greeted every student with an individual handshake at the door. She admits, “it took me a while to learn each handshake, but I got there.” This simple act made sure each student felt acknowledged as an individual and seen by the teacher.
Next, she set the tone with music. As her students unpacked and got settled, Melissa played “It’s a Beautiful Morning” by The Rascals. “Two minutes and thirty-six seconds….no matter what’s going on in my personal life, no matter what’s going on with the administration, this is a way to start the morning to get me in the right place.” Her students quickly learned the lyrics, sang along, and would even start the song without her from time to time. A good morning routine can change your whole day.
After recess, Melissa set aside a few minutes for students to recenter themselves, calm down, and prepare for learning. “So much can go on at recess. When kids come back they're so wound up and excited.” Melissa made sure her students had a few minutes to decompress and write in their journals before diving into new work. “If they wanted me to read what they wrote, they could put it on my desk.”
Melissa’s class would wrap by talking about their day, complementing each other, or addressing things that went wrong. “Never let things fester,” Melissa advises.
Melissa says Authenticity in the Classroom gave her an abundance of new ideas on how to incorporate social-emotional techniques into everyday education, and she’s excited to bring them back to her teachers.
2. Every Educator Needs a Supportive Community
From testing and achievement standards to lack of resources, to supporting students dealing with external stress, Melissa knows the pressure teachers face is overwhelming. And she is a firm believer that no teacher can do it alone. “Teachers need support from other teachers who are facing the same issues,” she says. Melissa believes that other teachers are your best resources. “If you’re stuck, I guarantee you’re not the only one.” Sharing ideas, techniques, and lesson plans at professional development workshops can revitalize your resource toolkit, but the simple act of connecting with fellow educators who understand the challenges of the job is equally important. Melissa recommends joining social media groups, maximizing communal spaces in your school, and attending workshops like Authenticity in the Classroom.
Melissa encourages administrators to make community building a priority as well. “Administrators need to focus on creating a community space for teachers and making themselves available in those spaces. Teachers shouldn’t feel like they’re alone.” From her years in the classroom, Melissa knows how isolated many teachers feel from their administration. “Teachers need to know that [administrators] are there for them, and not just in the office with the door closed.” In order to create a culture of authenticity, the entire school community needs to communicate and work together.
3. SEL development takes time
Melissa knows that building a culture of authenticity takes time. “No one becomes an expert in something in a year.” Just as students need to learn and practice their SEL skills, educators need to build their own social-emotional toolkit, develop resource, and practice. That’s why sustained high-quality SEL professional development is so important and why working with a supportive community is essential to achieving success.
Melissa is keenly aware that many school stakeholders want to see immediate results from new initiatives, but she advises patience: ”You need to give it time to see a positive outcome. But you will see it.”
4. Favorite Activity from Authenticity in the Classroom Workshop?
The quilt activity lead by Lesley Koplow, Director of Emotionally Responsive Practice at Bank Street College of Education.
In this activity, we prompted educators to use their imaginations and think about their ideal classroom. Lesley asked participants, “If you had a magic wand that could grant you any wish for your classroom, what would you ask for?” Participants used fabric, beads, buttons, glue, needles and thread to make symbolic representations of their answer on small fabric squares. Then, they shared their wishes with the group one by one: “ an all-seeing eye,” “a beach,” “ a forest,” “more time,” and “piles of money,” were among the wishes. When an educator heard something they identified with, they added their piece to the quilt. The answers were creative, insightful, and often deeply personal.
“I absolutely loved it,” says Melissa. “I think it would be so good for principals or vice principals to do with their staff....It’s good for outspoken teachers but even better for the shy ones. It was fun, informal, and nonchalant, but you are getting so much information that will benefit you.” Melissa can’t wait to use this activity with her teachers in the fall.
In the meantime, her quilt square is hanging over her desk for all to see.