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In order to build equitable schools, we'll need to have some really hard conversations. We'll have to talk about racism and slavery, about privilege and class, and about sexism and patriarchy. We'll have to talk about our own experiences as kids in school and about our own biases and misconceptions.

There's no way we have these conversations without experiencing emotions. And there's no way we can transform our schools without having these conversations. The road to equity is paved with emotions.

Along this road, many people will experience strong emotions, including anger, rage, grief, shame, and fear. We'll experience these emotions personally, and we'll be with others who are experiencing them because we'll need to have these conversations with colleagues, our students, and their families. And so, we'll need approaches to recognize emotions in ourselves and in others, and we'll need some ways to respond to these emotions.

Emotional Literacy Is Essential

Many are familiar with the term emotional intelligence, a term used to describe a set of emotional awareness and management skills. Emotional intelligence, in leading expert Daniel Goleman's definition, is how we recognize and manage our own emotions, as well as those of others.

I'm unsettled by the term emotional intelligence because of current and historical connotations of the word intelligence. I know I'm not alone in my discomfort. For this reason, I'm starting to use emotional literacy in its place, a term that implies a skill and knowledge set that can be expanded.

In order to build equitable schools, we must acquire a vast set of emotional literacy skills. We must learn to recognize our emotions when we're experiencing them, and we must acquire some strategies for mindfully experiencing them.

I'm also moving away from using the term management to describe how we relate to our feelings. Management connotes control and suppression -- and controlling emotions isn't going to get us where we need to go. We can learn to experience emotions mindfully and in ways that are healthy and that don't produce unintended consequences.

Emotions as a Source of Power

For over two decades, I have offered my contributions to build equitable schools -- to transform the experiences and outcomes of children, especially children who have been underserved in our schools. I know there are many of us engaged in interrupting the opportunity ("achievement") gap, curtailing the school-to-prison pipeline, and ensuring that English learners, students with learning differences, and children from low-income families graduate from high school.

Many of us have honed skills such as culturally responsive teaching. Many of us have engaged in reflection on how our social and cultural identities influence how we do our work. Those of us doing this challenging work of dismantling inequitable practices and structures, and building the schools our kids need and deserve, will need to explore and expand another knowledge and skill domain -- the domain of emotions.

I believe we aren't going to create truly transformed schools that have interrupted systemic oppression unless we talk about feelings.

Experience Your Emotions Mindfully

I have spent many years avoiding emotions. There's so much to do, and so little time, and emotions have seemed like annoyances that obstruct the real work. And yet, as much as I've tried, I can't avoid them -- not personally and not professionally. In teams, and between individuals, and within myself, emotions keep percolating up.

Now, I'm starting to see them as a source of energy, as an essential element on the road to transformation. When I notice them surfacing in myself and in others, I don't push them away or avoid them, I don't try to suppress them. I greet them. I'm getting curious and finding out that emotions are not that scary and that I can access them in a way that gives me strength, courage, and power.

I'm also finding that when I give them some time and attention, they respectfully move to the side and allow me to keep getting the hard work done. There's enough space in my mind, heart, and life for feelings, and there's no way to avoid them if I want to build equitable schools.

What are your thoughts and ideas on this post? Please share in the comments section below.

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Claire Mastromonaco's picture

Working with students with emotional disabilities really helps me take note of my own emotions. I am helping them become more self-regulated and respond in more positive ways. This helps me become more patient and tolerant; not that I allow them to misbehave, but my response is to model a more positive approach.

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Laura LaFontaine's picture

Great article. What I hear you saying is that you are practicing Mindfulness and this is allowing a great deal of self discovery. It is quite liberating to slowly and successfully begin to feel so comfortable in your own skin and to respond to your surroundings rather than react to it. And I agree with you that this needs to be a part of every school, every day.

Mary Langer Thompson's picture

One of the best ways to teach emotional literacy is through literature. English teachers know this best in my opinion. Although we should gather students' stories, let's not forget books like "To Kill a Mockingbird," by Harper Lee who passed not long ago. "The Diary of Anne Frank," "Night," "Huckleberry Finn" and many others are great places to start dialogues about solving our most emotional human dilemmas.

Amy Illingworth's picture

I appreciate your rationale for moving from emotional intelligence to mindful emotional literacy. Even more, I appreciate the social justice lens you focus on everything we do, on behalf of the students who need us to be their advocates the most. I hope that more and more adults build the confidence and skill set necessary to have these emotional and important conversations. Thank you!

jgeschwind's picture

I appreciate mindfulness as a personal tool, and useful for kids as well. Two thoughts:
First I am concerned when schools adopt mindfulness work to replace other social-emotional curricula that are much more explicit in the teaching of emotional skills - Strong Kids or Second Step for instance. Second, our large district has adopted equity work in a thoughtful way using the guidance of a national level training group - Pacific Education Group - core text being Courageous Conversations. PEG gives us a protocol for equity conversations that include the identification of emotions, as well as the lens of critical race theory. A similar approach might be useful to others.

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Kath Todd's picture

I agree with your perspective. Sadly, since emotional mindfulness does not generate "measurable data" and is not prescribed in current standards, this focus has been shoved aside at the expense of our students k-12. We see the results every day that we walk into our classrooms.

Chitrakala T Somasundaram's picture

I agree with you that emotional literacy is one of the tool to move towards equity schools. But one drastic change that we all have to do is starting to treat our next person as a human being and not approaching or replying to the person in a rude way, i.e not to have cultural stereotypes.How many of us give a smile to others everyday, the basic difference between human and animals. society is all mixed up and is leading to lose trust in one's own self.
So how do we trust others? Are we role modeling equity in all of our approaches?
Children do follow what we do and not what we say?

Eva Combs's picture

Elena, I appreciate your intelligent, thoughtful, and non-hyperbolic posts.

In thinking about the narrative around school, a giant and vital part of everyone's life, emotions run deep and you named powerful ones.

Thank you for giving me a different lens in thinking about this narrative.

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