Podcast S2. Ep12: Creating A Relationship Focused Classroom - Meena Srinivasan

Character Strong · October 2, 2019

Meena Srinivasan is the Executive Director of Transformative Educational Leadership (TEL). Prior to this role, she spent five and a half years working in partnership with the Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning (CASEL) to implement SEL in the Oakland Unified School District. With expertise in both mindfulness and SEL she is the author of Teach, Breathe, Learn: Mindfulness In and Out of the Classroom and SEL Every Day: Integrating Social and Emotional Learning with Instruction for Secondary Classrooms.
To learn more visit: meenasrinivasan.com

We talk with Meena about how we all need relationships to thrive, she shares some stratgies that support relationships in the classrooms, and how important it is that we view the the adult work through an equity lens.


“So in every moment, we have an opportunity to build connections with young people and foster that connection in the classroom. Teaching is tough. Educators make more decisions during the course of the work day than any other profession, except surgeons... That's why we're so tired at the end of the day. So things like mindfulness, it's become a buzzword. But this practice of presence, of coming back to oneself, of resourcing ourselves throughout the work day is really important.”

Meena Srinivasan

Episode Transcript:

  • John: Welcome to the CharacterStrong Podcast, where we have conversations on school, culture and leadership. Today we're talking with Meena Srinivasan. Meena is the author of SEL Every Day and Teach, Breathe, Learn: Mindfulness in and Out of the Classroom. She is the Executive Director of Transformative Educational Leadership with a focus on SEL and mindfulness and education.
  • John: She was a student of the late Ramchandra Gandhi, Mahatma Gandhi's grandson, a contributor to United Nations publications on inclusive education. An educational leader, writer and innovator with deep expertise in the fields of social and emotional learning and mindful awareness practices. She has created 50+ social-emotional learning videos with her husband, who is an Emmy nominated filmmaker. Are you ready? Let's get CharacterStrong with Meena Srinivasan.
  • John: All right. I am so excited to welcome to the CharacterStrong Podcast, Meena Srinivasan. Thank you for taking the time to be with us today.
  • Meena: Thank you. It's great to be here.
  • John: Well, as our listeners heard, you have quite an impressive resume. A personal and just kind of connection favorite that just stood out to me, I love that you are a student of Mahatma Gandhi's grandson, which just really stood out to me being inspired by Gandhi's work. Just want to say thank you for just the work you're doing as an author, as an executive director, right, a leader, in the work that is happening around social-emotional learning, mindfulness practices, and all sorts of other things connected to that.
  • John: In the CharacterStrong Podcast, we really try to focus in on really diving immediately into some thoughts, practical strategies, things that people could use. So I know in your most recent book, you talk about creating a relationship-focused classroom. Could you start with that? Maybe talk a little bit today to our listeners about how they could do that.
  • Meena: Sure. Well, the first thing I want to share is I'd like to give credit to ... that first kind of term came to me from Californians for Justice, which is a really innovative organization out here in California. I connected with them when I was working in the Oakland school district and they came up with the term relationship-centered schools. I just love that, because one of the challenges that I see with all that we're facing in the world today, is kind of this over-emphasis on the self and individuality. The thing is, is that we all need relationships to thrive, right? We all need to feel a sense of belonging.
  • Meena: So, there is these four questions that the late, great Dr. Maya Angelou felt that we were all unconsciously asking each other all the time, and they're do you see me? Do you care that I am here? Am I enough for you or do you need me to be better in some way? Can I tell that I'm special to you, by the way you look at me? These questions really speak to me from a personal perspective, I have a 17 month old son.
  • John: Yep.
  • Meena: So these questions are so powerful, but what they point to for me is the importance of our presence as educators. Now there's a great quote by Haim Ginott, where he says, "I've come to a frightening conclusion that I am the decisive element in the classroom. It's my personal approach that creates the climate, it's my daily mood that makes the weather. As a teacher, I possess a tremendous power to make a child's life miserable or joyous."
  • Meena: So in every moment, we have an opportunity to build connections with young people and foster that connection in the classroom. Teaching is tough. Educators make more decisions during the course of the work day than any other profession, except surgeons.
  • John: Yep, so true.
  • Meena: That's why we're so tired at the end of the day. So things like mindfulness, it's become a buzzword. But this practice of presence, of coming back to oneself, of resourcing ourselves throughout the work day is really important. Because if we're not doing that, we can be more reactive, we aren't as attuned to the weather that we're bringing into the classroom. In those tough moments, we are not moving towards connection, but creating more disconnection.
  • Meena: So, I just want to share a story from my own time in the classroom. This is about, wow, probably 10 years ago, but it's so vivid in my mind. At the time, I was teaching at the American Embassy School in New Delhi and I was one of the only non-white teachers in my division. I had a student, a lot of the students there they're expats and their parents are there, whether they're connected with the embassy or whether they're working for a multi-national corporation. I was hiring an assistant, I was running our academic support program in our middle school at the time.
  • Meena: One of the boys in my class, I was sharing we're going to be hiring someone. He just said immediately, "Well, I hope it's not an Indian." There was a moment in me where I could really just feel my stomach churn and my heart beat fast, and just kind of all the memories of the discrimination that I've experienced growing up, not being part of the dominant culture, and continue to experience as a person of color. But in that moment, I was able to use my mindfulness practice to breathe, calm myself.
  • Meena: I think for me, a really key part of mindfulness is holding this stance of curiosity. Instead of saying, "That's unacceptable," it's like, "Oh, well, tell me more about that." What I got to uncover is that this little boy had a really difficult time understanding some of the Indian accents, and so we had a conversation about that. So I think it's important for us, as educators, to cultivate our own practice, so we're able to, in these moments, understand what's happening internally and make a wiser choice in the moment to move towards connection and to foster connection in the classroom as well.

“But we as adults, particularly those coming from the dominant culture, really need to be doing the adult work through holding an equity lens. So an example of that is, there's a common line in trauma-informed practices, where instead of saying to a student, "What's wrong with you?" You say, "What's happened to you?"”

Meena Srinivasan


  • Meena: There's a number of other practices that can really support a relationship-centered classroom. Another one that's really common, that one of my mentors, Ann McKay Bryson, developed are the three social-emotional learning signature practices. These can be integrated across content areas, across grade level. What they really consist of, are the first is a welcoming ritual, and this is an activity for inclusion. So the next is engaging pedagogy, and so these are really opportunities for thoughtful collaborative structures in the classroom.
  • Meena: I also encourage people to use a great practice developed by the organization Engaging Schools called 30, 90, 10, where every 30 minutes you try to have your students move 90 seconds, 10 feet if possible. Then finally, an optimistic closure, which is an opportunity for some reflection and looking forward. The two key components, when in designing a welcoming ritual or incorporating engaging pedagogy or utilizing an optimistic closure, are individual time for thinking and intentional social interaction.
  • Meena: These elements are really critical, because research has shown that think time or wait time results in significant benefits to students learning. Thoughtfully designed social interactions really support that collaborative learning and the building of those relationships in the classroom.
  • Meena: So one of my favorite examples of an optimistic close and something that I saw in Edutopia maybe a year and a half ago called Appreciation, Apology and Aha. It was a secondary classroom at Summit Preparatory Charter High School in Redwood City, California. The teacher had his students, just for a minute at the end of class, gather in a circle and they had an opportunity to share an appreciation that they had, an apology, if they were unskillful at all during the class, for an Aha in insight.
  • Meena: Now for this practice to really be effective, the teacher needed to spend some time co-constructing agreements for how the class is going to be in relationship. That's one thing that I talk about a lot in my book, around the importance of really co-constructing those agreements and holding each other accountable, and even having the students hold you accountable for how we're going to be in relationship with each other.
  • John: Wow. So first of all, any pause that's happening here, is because I am taking notes down like crazy. Because this is so good, so practical, and yet connects to just the importance of this greater work. Just a couple of things to spotlight. One, just how important it is that the number one way that we are going to teach the work of social-emotional learning and the practice is to role model it. Which then leads to, I think so quickly, we will go to, "All right, what do we need to teach students when it comes to social emotional-learning or whatever other pieces are connected to that?"
  • John: But really, as simple and obvious as it sounds, I don't think that it's simple in how it is being played out. That is, we need to do the adult work first. We need to be practicing the mindfulness. I loved the specific technique of holding the stance of curiosity, because so many emotions can come up in that moment. That story that you shared that is so powerful, and yet by digging in, you are able to, in that moment as the educator, even have empathy to learn more, just by even taking that stance of curiosity. So good.
  • John: The resources that you shared, the three SEL kind of core practices. It almost sounds like I've heard it before, like an emotional sandwich or emotional sandwiching of the lesson with a welcoming ritual, the engaging pedagogy, that optimistic closure. I had not heard yet and I love it, the 30, 90, 10 resource that you spoke about, which I think is great.
  • John: How about this, since we're close to kind of that 10 minute nature, which I know this is going to leave people wanting more. How can people, either connect to the work that you're doing, and or where would you direct them to learn more? Whether it's your book, how they can connect with you online, whatever that might be, if they are curious about digging deeper into this important work.
  • Meena: Yeah. Well, a lot of what I mentioned are in both of my publications, Teach, Breathe, Learn: Mindfulness in and out of the Classroom, and also my most recent publication, SEL Every Day: Integrating SEL with Instruction in Secondary Classrooms. So you can find those, they each have their own website or you could go to my website meenasrinivasan.com.
  • Meena: I am really focused now on this new and exciting organization that I'm running called Transformative Educational Leadership. You had lifted up that I'm a student of professor Ramchandra Gandhi, who passed away in 2006. It reminded me that the work that we're trying to do in this organization I run, which is really around building the leadership capacity of educators to engage in transformative work at its core, it's really around belonging.
  • John: Yep.
  • Meena: A shift in paradigm that Gandhi has really given to the world around non-violence. Non-violence really rests on a fundamental understanding, actually, of our relationship with each other and the planet. Really talking about love, which is something we don't do in education.
  • John: Yep, and should. Yep.
  • Meena: Yeah.
  • John: So good. Well, how about we end with this. One, I feel like I could talk to you for a really long time and would be grateful for that opportunity. But our time, I know that you're heading to another commitment here, but I just want to say thank you for the work that you're doing, it is incredibly important work. You know that, that's why you're so passionate about it. I know that people are going to be looking deeper into the resources that you just shared, and I can't wait until our paths cross again. But just want to say thank you for taking the time to share with us.
  • Meena: Thank you. Can I mention one other thing-
  • John: Please.
  • Meena: Because I do think it's really important, and you could decide however you'd want to edit it or include it. I think it's really important, you mentioned the adult work before, and the adult work is so fundamental. But we as adults, particularly those coming from the dominant culture, really need to be doing the adult work through holding an equity lens. So an example of that is, there's a common line in trauma-informed practices, where instead of saying to a student, "What's wrong with you?" You say, "What's happened to you?"
  • Meena: I would actually want to shift that to, not only what's right with you and really looking at the assets that all of our students bring, but for us to really look deeply at what are the causes and conditions, structurally, that are causing harm in our society. So as educators, we really do need to do that work and we need to really, not just be looking at things on an individual level, but on a systemic level as well.
  • John: Yeah, thank you for that. So, I mean, that is where we are at, that is where we need to be looking and digging more into. I love taking that, because it can so easily, some of those lines, be shared and be like, "Yeah, I've heard that before." And really miss then where we need to be paying attention on that systematic level and what are those constraints. I think that definitely we, even as an organization, have been digging deep into looking at all that we do through a lens of equity.
  • John: All right, well, this has been so wonderful. Thank you, Meena, so much for taking the time. I look forward to following your work even more and having our paths cross, hopefully soon. I know that you'll be presenting at the CASEL Conference, we will be there. So just thank you for your work and looking forward to connecting soon.
  • Meena: Thank you. Thank you for having me on, and I really appreciated this time with you. Take care.
  • John: You too.
  • John: Thanks for listening to the CharacterStrong Podcast. If you enjoyed this episode, feel free to share on your social media. Please rate, review and make sure to subscribe for future episodes on iTunes, Spotify, and Google Play. To learn more about CharacterStrong and how we're supporting schools, visit characterstrong.com.
  • John: Thanks for listening. Make it a great day.

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The CharacterStrong Team is a partnership of educators, speakers, and students who believe in creating sustainable change in schools and helping young people develop the skills of service, kindness, and empathy.