Breaking Free: Unlearning Emotional Messages

Last week, an aspiring principal shared something powerful in the Emotional Intelligence class that I teach at Columbia University Teachers College. She realized that the messages she had previously learned about leadership were opposite to what we were discussing in our course about using emotions and emotional intelligence skills to become a transformational leader. Not surprisingly, she was pretty upset about having believed those messages and was coming to terms with the fact that she had some unlearning to do.

It got me thinking about the many messages that we, as educators and school leaders, have internalized over time regarding emotions. Unfortunately, some of these messages are not only unhelpful in creating thriving learning communities, but they can also be damaging to our children, youth, and the overall health of our communities.

Join the next cohort of educators developing their own SEL skills to unlearn these hurful messages. Growing Your HEART Skills is now open for registration! Join solo or with your staff, and become part of a great community of like-minded educators who teach and lead with the HEART in mind.

Let’s take a closer look at a few examples:

  • Emotions are a sign of weakness. Educators may have learned that expressing emotions, such as frustration, sadness, or vulnerability, is a sign of weakness or incompetence.  When educators see emotions as a sign of weakness, they may ignore their own emotional well-being, leading to potential burnout and emotional detachment from students. Teachers may also find themselves in an unsafe working environment, where they don’t share their emotions to protect themselves.
  • Emotional detachment is necessary for effective teaching. Some educators may have been told that emotional detachment is essential for maintaining discipline and control in the classroom. While it’s important to establish boundaries, excessive emotional detachment can hinder meaningful connections with students and impede their social and emotional development. Remember, that we cannot teach what we don’t practice.
  • Personal emotions should not influence teaching. Educators may have been encouraged to separate their emotions from their professional role, assuming that emotions have no place in teaching and learning. However, emotions can play a significant role in building rapport, empathy, and understanding with students, and are the key ingredient that drives our behavior and thinking patterns. Suppressing personal emotions entirely can undermine the authenticity of the teacher-student relationship.
  • Students should not witness teacher vulnerability. Educators might have been told that showing vulnerability or struggling with emotions in front of students is unprofessional or could undermine their authority. While maintaining appropriate boundaries is crucial, modeling emotional intelligence and resilience can foster a positive classroom environment and help students develop their own emotional skills.
  • Emotions are a distraction from academic content. The focus on academic achievement and learning loss may have led some educators to believe that emotions are irrelevant or a distraction from the curriculum. However, emotions are integral to the learning process and can impact students’ motivation, engagement, and overall well-being. Recognizing and addressing emotions can enhance students’ ability to learn and retain information.

Have you come across any of these messages in your staff meetings, conversations with colleagues, or from your leadership team? It’s important to be aware that even if these messages aren’t explicitly stated, they might still be silently influencing decisions and actions within your school or district.

As you reflect on the school year and start planning for the next, I encourage you to think about the explicit and implicit messages about emotions that exist within yourself and your school. This reflection can provide valuable insights into where you need to focus your SEL efforts in the coming year to create authentic emotional experiences for educators and their students.

Not sure how to get started? Grab copies of Teaching with the HEART in Mind and host a book study. A discussion guide is available for download here.

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