World Traveler Becomes World Leader on SEL Day

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During his 18 years as a special education teacher in his hometown of Woodlynne, N.J., Tom Santo used to spend his summers traveling the world. He was not snorkeling in the Bahamas, visiting museums in Paris, or hiking in the Swiss Alps. He was working in places like Lebanon, Kenya, the Canary Islands, Poland, Romania, and Nicaragua, among others, performing public service missions with nonprofit organizations and teaching special education and English as a Second Language to young children. “This has kind of shaped my holistic educational philosophy that I have because I have so many international experiences and friends who have a different take on what education should be like and not just the American point of view,” Santo said.

In 2000, Santo took that holistic philosophy to his current role as principal of Zane North Elementary School in Collingswood, a Pre-K to 5 school of about 180 students, where he was an early believer in the importance of character education and social-emotional learning. In his first year on the job, Zane North was named “Kindest School in New Jersey.” This distinction brought him to the Princeton Leadership Institute, where he met Eileen Dachnowicz, who quickly became a mentor and helped him develop a character education program at Zane North.

“Eileen guided me to and Rutgers University, where I met Dr. Phil Brown and Dr. Maurice Elias. They were all a part of that process and were really at the forefront of the social-emotional learning movement,” Santo said. “I was a sponge soaking up all of the information they shared about character education at national conferences, and I thought it would be a good thing for me to go and get some training at the national level and network with people.”

He followed their advice to start slowly and focus on one or two initiatives. The first character program he instituted at Zane North was the Secret Pass. “When one of my students needed a time out, rather than getting removed from the classroom and interrupting the instructional process, they could use the free pass up to five times in a month and go to my office or a safe zone,” Santo explained. “We would write on the back of the pass where they came out of, so we could see if there was a pattern and know where there was a frustration for the child. It worked really well for upper elementary students, and it became a best practice under”

Two years later, he introduced the CHAT (Conversations Help All Triumph) program, where the idea was to have students have a conversation without an agenda. “Too much conversation at school was adult driven; so I flipped it, and we got into small groups and we said, ‘OK you tell me what you want to talk about,’” he said. “I found that the boys would talk about structure and organization and the girls would talk about feelings and emotions. And they would talk to their teacher, come up with some solutions, and then I would come in and try to make some changes if at all possible.”

The success of these character programs at Zane North has led to a number of recognitions, including a National School of Character and its current status as a PTA National School of Excellence. Being given the national recognition has presented Santo with the opportunity to share with other schools his holistic educational philosophy of being a small school with a big heart, whose mission is to develop student leaders for the 21st century. “The theme that I selected for this year is Choose Joy,” Santo said. “We are an elementary school. It should be a place of fun; it should be a place of learning. The research really gives us good information that when you celebrate learning with joy, typically students in social emotional learning have academic strengths and minimal discipline problems because there are limited interruptions to the instructional process.”

Santo has instituted and posted on Twitter a number of creative ideas to bring joy to the students, including “bounce a ball walk and talks,” and an original SEL rap performed by Santo himself. Santo also credits recently retired Superintendent of Collingswood, Dr. Scott Oswald, for his support of social-emotional learning and the imaginative ways that he supported character education in the school setting.

A most recent recognition of Santo’s work in Social Emotional Learning was posted on March 26 on, when he was named SEL World Leader on International SEL Day for earning 21 badges, five more than the runner up. A badge is earned for the SEL work you submit on behalf of your school, if it is verified and approved by the SEL4US organization. Santo hopes that this honor brings attention to the importance of the work. “I had a wealth of information, and I love to mentor and give opportunities to other principals who see the benefits of working smarter, not harder,” he said.

Santo believes the focus on SEL in education is here to stay and says it is imperative that educators continue to address student anxiety, mental angst, and teacher turnover. “There are a lot of issues that are dealt with in the academic environment and the schooling environment that has to do with mental health,” he said. “The increases in concern for this is at a critical level, and if we don’t implement the cure for it, which is character education or SEL, then we are doing a disservice in our roles as leaders in education.”