George Lucas Educational Foundation
  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Pinterest
  • Share

Emotions are at the heart of what teachers do and why they do it. Educators come to teaching with dreams of changing the odds for disadvantaged children, inspiring a love for learning, or developing critical thinkers. Unfortunately, research shows that 40-50 percent of teachers will leave the classroom within their first five years. Stress among teachers has reached unprecedented levels, and according to the latest MetLife Survey of the American Teacher (PDF), over half of teachers reported "great stress at least several days a week." Teaching is an emotional practice, and teachers need support in strengthening their social and emotional skills to manage the stress that comes with teaching and stay in the profession for the long term.

Social and emotional competencies (SEC) are critical to avoid burnout and increase teacher well-being. Being able to connect with our own emotions and feelings before reacting to student misbehavior, finding ways to unwind after a busy day, or identifying our internal drivers are all ways of using our emotional intelligence to feel better with ourselves and the world around us. Since these competencies aren't generally taught in mandatory professional development courses or teacher preparation programs (there are a few exceptions like San Jose State University in California or The University of British Columbia in Canada), we cannot assume that all educators have them in equal measure. Some of these skills might come naturally to some teachers, while others might require more attention and additional development. Like our students, we all have strengths -- and some challenges!

Research has found that students learn better in safe, supportive environments. The same is true for adults. SEC are influenced by context. If your work environment is full of gossip and complaints, you will tend to display more negative behaviors; while if you work in a supportive, welcoming school, you will be more inclined to successfully manage stress and ask for or offer help when needed. Think about your current workplace. How is it affecting your behavior and the ways in which you relate to students and colleagues? Are you able to show your "better self"? Being aware of how your work environment affects your behavior will help you make different choices if necessary.

Why Should Teachers Develop Their SEC?

Based on current research, there are three ways in which teachers' SEC affect students and the learning environment:

1. Teachers’ SEC influence the quality of teacher-student relationships.

Teachers who are calm, positive, and content are more likely better equipped for treating students warmly and sensitively, even when students behave in challenging ways.

2. Teachers model SEC for students, intentionally or not.

Teachers navigate stressful situations every day -- and students are paying attention! They learn from how their teachers manage frustration, deal with conflicts, or maintain control in the classroom.

3. Teachers' SEC influence classroom organization and management.

Teachers must maintain a sense of calm, be organized, and develop social trust if they want a well-organized classroom that encourages creativity or student autonomy.

How Can Teachers Develop Their SEC?

Six Seconds, the Emotional Intelligence Network, has an action plan for using emotional intelligence (EQ) in daily life. This EQ model begins with three important pursuits: to become more aware, more intentional and more purposeful.

Know Yourself means clearly seeing what you feel and do, knowing your strengths and challenges, and recognizing your behavior patterns.

Choose Yourself means proactively responding to situations instead of reacting on autopilot.

Give Yourself means putting your vision into action, knowing your purpose, and doing things for a reason.

We experience emotions all the time, but we rarely pause to reflect on what emotions are or how they affect learning. In this EQ model, the first step is to develop and cultivate self-awareness. Emotional awareness starts with our ability to identify how we feel, not only the surface feelings (those that are obvious), but also the ones that are hidden.

Try this. Choose a recent situation that was emotionally charged and reflect on the following prompts:

  • How did you feel during this situation? Name the specific emotions that you felt. Dr. Dan Siegel, well-known speaker and author of The Whole-Brain Child, often says, "Name it to tame it," as naming emotions reduces their intensity.

  • What were your emotions telling you? Emotions are data, providing information about ourselves and the world around us. Exploring the meaning of our emotions is an important step toward developing self-awareness.

  • What did you do about these feelings? We often hide, ignore, or deny uncomfortable feelings, such as shame, fear, and anger. But ignoring these emotions won't make them go away! Emotions drive us to take action, and we might feel the urge to respond to certain situations in non-constructive ways. Taking time to name our feelings and explore their meaning will help us make better decisions.

  • Based on these reflections, what would you do differently the next time you're faced with a similar situation?

Teachers’ social and emotional skills are important in helping them avoid burnout, increase well-being, and create a positive learning environment. Teachers can start developing their emotional intelligence by cultivating self-awareness. When we are mindful of our emotions, we feel more in control and make better decisions.

How do you cultivate self-awareness in your daily life? Please share in the comments below.

Was this useful? (3)

Comments (26) Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Conversations on Edutopia (26) Sign in or register to comment

Lorea Martinez, PhD's picture
Lorea Martinez, PhD
SEL Consultant

Hi dem13, I didn't learn about the importance of social and emotional skills for adults until after leaving the classroom and I think it would have helped me to manage my own emotions and stress differently.

Shin Yoshida's picture

Hi Lorea
Mainly 6 - 8 grades, but I am sure there is just as much need in elementary (K-5) and in high school.
I will read the articule in PDK.

Julie Baron's picture
Julie Baron
Clinical Social Worker, Adolescent Therapist, Former Middle School Counselor, Author

This article is another great reminder of the value of our relationships with students. Engaging students effectively requires relationship skills not always taught in education and mental health professional training programs. We need to work on our own relationship skill sets to ensure we can be productive with youth. Check out What Works With Teens (New Harbinger,2015).

Lorea Martinez, PhD's picture
Lorea Martinez, PhD
SEL Consultant

Hi Julie, thank you for your comment. There are some great examples of the impact teaching these skills in training programs can have on teachers, but unfortunately there are only a few. As you said, these skills are necessary to establish positive and productive relationships with youth. And thank you for sharing the reference! I will definitely check it out.

Gary Kieser's picture

I think that the teaching profession could learn a lot from other high-stress professions. I am currently in education but have worked as a police officer and corrections officer, two of the highest-stress professions out there. The first 18-24 months of an officer's career is spent in field training with a seasoned mentor. The recruit receives daily feedback on their performance and this data is tracked intensely so that additional training can be provided as necessary. The field trainer instills the trainee with the agency's culture, expectations and procedures. This is expensive and time-consuming, but it has been proven to eliminate the same kinds of retention problems that education is currently experiencing. Law enforcement also utilizes stress inoculation through realistic training. If you've experienced someone screaming in your face in training, you are better prepared for it in real life. I would love to design a similar training process to train teachers how to respond to severe classroom behaviors.

tmayhueSEL's picture

Hi Shin,
I have a few resources that may be helpful. I'm the Social Emotional Learning Coordinator at my school (PreK-8) and we use Yale's RULER Emotional Intelligence Curriculum. Key in any and all SEL curriculum adoption is staff and faculty skill development. We model the behavior and reflective practices we want to see our students embracing. The following link is developed for High School, but could be adapted for 6-8 classrooms too.
*From the research and from school-based experience, grades 6-8 can present more challenges in adopting SEL - sometimes they view these types of programs as "for little kids" or just essentially not for them. I wish you luck! Feel free to connect with me on twitter: @tmayhueSEL

tmayhueSEL's picture

Hi Lorena,
Thank you for your wonderful post and I'm excited about the work you do! I'm the Social Emotional Coordinator at my school (PreK-8) and adopting an evidence-based SEL curriculum that provided skill-based training for both adults and students was our priority. I facilitated a PD workshop last Friday around tending to our own upset and reactions with students prior to teaching them the skills. Building trust and employing empathy as we do this work makes such a difference. As others have commented, this is a life-long process - and sometimes not an easy one. I'd love to further connect around your work and how these skills and competencies are brought to both faculty and students. Twitter, @tmayhueSEL
Tracy Mayhue

Lorea Martinez, PhD's picture
Lorea Martinez, PhD
SEL Consultant

Hi Gary, thank you for your comment. There are some great teacher residency programs in the US, like the one you described above, where teachers work along side a mentor for (at least) one school year before they take their own class. I am not sure if they discuss/develop teachers' social and emotional skills intentionally through the residency, but it definitely gives beginning teachers with an opportunity to learn with/from a mentor without the full responsibility of a classroom. If you have ideas for a training process for teachers, please share!

Lorea Martinez, PhD's picture
Lorea Martinez, PhD
SEL Consultant

Hi Tracy, thank you for reaching out and sharing additional resources with Shin! I'd love to continue the conversation and learn about the work you're doing!

Sign in to comment. Not a member? Register.