Teacher wellbeing: how to boost emotional intelligence

Emotional intelligence is a buzzword in the profession, but do you know what it means? And how can you increase it?

Jo Steer

Developing your emotional intelligence could make you a happier teacher, says Jo Steer

If you’re up to speed on your educational buzzwords, you’ll be familiar with the idea of emotional intelligence.

But do you really know what it means? Many don’t.

Emotional intelligence isn’t, as I once thought, a simple matter of taking a deep breath and smiling politely as you picture yourself choke-slamming an irritating colleague to the ground.

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Becoming more emotional intelligent means becoming more self-aware. It’s about noticing changes in your body and mind, being quick to recognise what’s happening and why, and deciding on a course of action (or inaction). It means listening to a feeling, without drowning it in prosecco and Quality Street. 

This process isn’t always easy, especially when you’re as stressed out as so many teachers are.

When you’re coping with issues like anxiety, it can be tough to spot the difference between genuine emotions that require action and faux-emotions that are the result of habitually practised thoughts, feelings and behaviours.

But if you’re concerned that you have defective intuition, don’t worry. Here are some steps to follow that will help you to pinpoint where the discomfort is coming from, and how to reduce it.

teacher wellbeing emotion

Emotional intelligence: noticing thoughts and feelings

Take a few minutes to sit down and notice the kind of thoughts and pictures that are present in your mind. Think of it like you’d think of walking into a room where the TV is on: simply notice which "channel" is playing in your mind.

After a minute or so, expand your attention towards the body, scanning from feet to head, mentally noting any sensations that you encounter along the way. 

Where are they? Do they rise and fall? Do they worsen as you’re listening to a particular thought, or viewing a particular image? We’re not changing anything at this point, only noticing.

Switching unhelpful thoughts and images

Now, review what you saw. Were the feelings in your body connected to unhelpful thoughts and images in your head, or were they separate? 

If, for example, you’re feeling more than the expected level of anxiety at the idea of your new Year 9 class, notice whether the feeling coincides with your mind screaming, “They’re going to see I’m not good enough!” as you picture yourself having a full-blown panic attack in front of them. If it does, we’re most likely talking about a habit.

You can ease the discomfort by swapping those thoughts and images out for more helpful ones. For example, hearing “Whatever happens, I’ll handle it” while picturing yourself handling it. 

Just remember that if this is a habit that you’ve practised many times before, it isn’t going to just stop overnight. Be prepared to repeat these steps, again and again.

Reading and responding to the message

But what about those horrible feelings that just keep coming back, even when thoughts and images are on-side? When this happens, it’s our brain’s way of communicating with us: something is wrong, and it needs to be made right.

Be honest. Are you anxious because you haven’t been producing great lesson plans? Are you likely to be observed by someone who is unscrupulously harsh? Will a look through the books reveal that you’re just not coping?

Only you can find the answers to these questions. Only you will know how to respond, whether it’s having a difficult conversation that needs to be had, changing your perspective towards a problem or making plans for an even bigger change, like a change of job.

Jo Steer is a teacher and experienced leader of SEND interventions

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