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To Be a Great Educator and Leader, Emotional Intelligence Is Essential (Opinion)

The word “emotion” brings out some strong emotions when people hear it. After all, in this recent article written by Education Week reporters Arianna Prothero & Vanessa Solis, social-emotional learning is cited as a buzzword that teachers can’t stand. The reality is that emotional intelligence should be at the forefront of leadership, and it’s something I interact with often. I would argue that many leaders do not work on this enough and I’m including myself in that statement.

Emotional intelligence has been described as “non cognitive capabilities, competencies, and skills that influence one’s ability to succeed in coping with environmental demands and pressures” (Bar-On, 1988). Goleman describes emotional intelligence through five competencies: (a) self-awareness, (b) self-regulation, (c) motivation, (d) social skills, and (e) empathy.

Research on emotional intelligence and its competencies is not new, so in education, why do we often shy away from the conversation? The concept can be considered abstract in nature based on one’s opinion and influence. However, I would argue that despite the ever-changing policies and procedures in our school settings, one aspect never changes: The ongoing and insurmountable number of conversations we have with colleagues and staff to positively influence student success happens daily. The way in which we communicate with others can impact relationships, trust, and change. Therefore, how can we make this topic permeate our schools’ climate and culture? Let’s prepare ourselves for these conversations thoughtfully since practices should initially start with ourselves.

Time to Reflect

One of the most challenging areas I find in my leadership practice is finding time to reflect on my interactions and practices. It’s something I am working on. In the book, Good to Great, Jim Collin shares with us that:

Great leaders look out of the window to apportion credit to factors outside themselves when things go well (and if they cannot find a specific person or event to give credit to, they credit good luck). At the same time, they look in the mirror to apportion responsibility, never blaming bad luck when things go poorly.

In order to reflect, leaders need to be aware of their own emotional intelligence and find ready-to-go strategies, especially when we consider the ever-changing demands of public education.

Additionally, it’s always a good practice to try to find that all elusive time to ponder as you begin to enhance your own emotional intelligence. I used five emotional intelligence attributes to frame the questions. Take some time to consider your answers to each one. Write them down.

Self-awareness: One’s ability to recognize their own emotions, strengths, and challenges. Here are some questions to ponder as you consider your own self-awareness:

  • When someone is coming to me with an issue, do I respond reactively?
  • Am I curt?
  • What is my tone when responding to my staff and does my tone welcome feedback?
  • Can there be more than one way of viewing the current concern?

Self-regulation: The ability to monitor and regulate one’s behaviors. Here are some questions to ponder as you consider your own self-regulation:

  • If an employee or a colleague is going in circles on a topic, and you feel like rolling your eyes, do you stop and tell yourself not to do so?
  • If a staff member is giving an incorrect or rude comment, do you angrily interrupt or do you respond respectfully?

Motivation: Being excited and engaged in an environment. Here are some thoughts to ponder as you consider your own motivation:

  • Motivation over a topic may be reflected through your tone of voice, how you present information to staff, or issues that arise. Motivation can be contagious!
  • Do you appear excited over a topic that your colleague or staff member is raving about?

Social skills: The ability to be able to speak to people from all walks of life purposefully. Here are some questions to ponder as you consider your own social skills:

  • How do your conversations start and begin with others?
  • Do you keep it to the regular “How are you?” and “Good morning”? If so, what more can I learn about my colleague to improve our work environment?

Empathy: Being aware of how your actions impact others’ feelings. Here are some questions to ponder as you consider your own empathy:

  • You have an important implementation plan to share with the staff. Have you considered the implications for implementation with staff that require much support initially?
  • What about staff members that always excel in everything they do?
  • Is your plan reasonable?

Make Space for Reflection

One strategy to consider as a leader is to track your actions for one week. Where did you spend your time? After the week is completed, grab a coffee or tea and take time to reflect on how you spent your week. Don’t judge yourself for not doing enough. We often judge ourselves way too harshly.

After reflecting on how you spend your time, consider some spaces where you can practice reflection. Is it right after school? Is it in the morning before students arrive? Is it during your commute?

In school and district settings, we are often limited in reflection opportunities, but I challenge you to consider these attributes as you lead districts, schools, classrooms, and colleagues. Ongoing discussion and reflection is critical to our professional success and student achievement. If we know this to be true, why not begin this reflection adventure? Let’s continue this practice together!

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