It was a crisp September morning, in Upstate New York (every day is crisp and cool when you live in New York, by the way). The year was 2015, and it was the first Monday of the month. I only remember this because I had just finished my once-a-year session at the gym known as Planet Fitness; or as I like to call it, “Free Pizza and Some Fitness.” As I walked out of the gym, stomach full from the free pizza, arms still the same size but my fingers stronger from holding the cheese-heavy pizza slices, I got a call that set my life on a new path. I was hired to teach third grade at a local elementary school. I had waited a whole year for this job; so it only made sense to flail my arms around in the middle of the Planet Fitness parking lot. For a minute, my lanky body and skinny arms could have been mistaken for those of an inflatable tube man. In fact, I should have gotten paid for my minute, because my antics undoubtedly brought in some new customers.
Two weeks later, I sat in my new office chair with my spine leaning as far back as it could go; my arms folded like a bouncer—except without the muscle part—and a feeling that this day couldn’t go wrong….Well, it went wrong. Uncommonly wrong!
My future students walked into the classroom at a turtle’s pace. In reality, their faces showed no excitement at all. Only one expression was written on all of their faces: fear. Fear of their new teacher and classmates; fear of how they act and what they wear, and what their peers might say about both; fear of being away from home. Fear of failure. Fear of success. Fear of emotions. Fear of getting bullied. Fear of being a bully. Fear of farting by mistake; or worse—fear of taking that fart to the second level by mistake. And of course, fear of the work itself. Fear…fear…fear.
But why? Why is there so much fear in a place that is supposed to enhance trust, courage, curiosity, love, and control of your sphincter muscles (sorry, I had to)….Well, there are numerous answers to this question, but I’d like to focus on one for this particular paper: emotional intelligence. It is my opinion that if we supplement emotional intelligence in our students, and teachers, then we will begin to see less fear in the classroom, and more acceptance in the hearts of each student. And if that occurs, we will see the impact emotional intelligence has on the democratic methods of education.
My Philosophy on Education
My philosophy on education is simple: the student comes first. No, I did not steal this slogan from my first job as a customer-service employee; it’s just how I feel about education. As I said, it’s a simple philosophy, yet it seems to be forgotten—far too often. At meetings, teachers will discuss ideas that hold no ties to the students (I’ve done it, as well). We must not forget why we became a teacher. I can only speak for myself, but I’m sure that the majority of us did not follow this profession for the high funds. We chose it for the vacation days—I mean the students! See? It’s easy to forget.
Since I believe students should come first in all decision making. I also believe we need to teach students to become the best they can be. Stop for a moment—put down that ice cream bowl—and think of a situation where students have just received their grades from an assignment. Maybe, you have yet to teach in a classroom. That’s alright, just think of your own experiences. What is the first thing children, of all ages, do when they receive a test? That’s right! They look to see what their buddies got; or they look to see what the class genius received. But what most of them are actually doing, is comparing themselves to their peers. The kid that received a 70%, wants to find someone—oh, just anyone—who received a lower grade. —I don’t want that for my students. I want them to look at their 70% and compare it to their 65% the previous week. Improvement!
My goal for my students, is to bring joy into their lives. They’re kids; so naturally, they enter school with joy. However, I see multiple students lose that joy as they move forward. Let’s face it, we are in charge of several students who have different likes and dislikes, fears and motivations, strengths and weaknesses; which makes teaching so challenging. It’s our job to understand and push our students to success. And I want my students to leave my classroom feeling like they can conquer the world. In a world that can be cruel—I want them to change it.
And in order to make change, we as teachers, and students, need to improve our emotional intelligence.
What is Emotional Intelligence?
It’s a beautiful day for recess: the sun is out, there’s a light breeze in the air, and the kickball field is just calling for attention. Some twenty students answer the field’s call. They rush toward the field—bellies still full from the lunch they scarfed down—in attempt to get there first (a big deal for elementary students). They all mob the field and take their places throughout. A third of the kids seem to have an understanding of the game; another third just happy to be apart of it, and the rest of the students just watch and cheer from the side.
The game begins. A kid named Matt (it’s always a kid named Matt) takes the plate. He’s a third-grader alright, but his body is ready for middle school and his face is growing a mustache that looks like it didn’t get enough nutrients. He gets into his kicking stance and prepares for the pitch. The kickball is pitched right down the middle. It’s pure poetry in motion. Matt pulls his hairy, thirty-year old leg back and swings it forward like a pendulum, and…BOOM! He blasts the ball into left field—and right into the hands of a peer. Out! they all call.
Now, here is the point where emotional intelligence (EI) comes into play. If Matt is able to brush it off, and head back to his team with the understanding that everything is going to be alright, then he is presenting a great example of a child with high EI. If, on the other hand, he decides to throw a tantrum because the pitch was too bouncy, and there should be a redo, then he is showing a poor example of emotional intelligence, and making himself look silly at the same time.
Emotional intelligence is simply the ability to recognize and control one’s emotions, and the emotions of others. It sounds so simple; yet, there are a number of students and adults who lack emotional intelligence. If, we can bring emotional intelligence to are students and teachers, it can have a tremendous impact on the democratic methods of education.
A Brief History
When you think of intelligence, what’s the first thing that jumps to your brain? For most of us, we think about, well—intelligence. We tend to think about an individual with a high IQ; we may think about our coworker, Becky, who always has the answer to problems. We may think of ourselves, and the many high scores we received in life. We may think of a lot of things before we think about emotional intelligence. In fact, many individuals may not know the term! I personally stumbled across it on my weekly visit to Barnes & Nobles. I picked up the practical guide, and have been curious ever since. The funny thing is—its been around for a very, long time. And there I was, thinking I had the brand new solution to education.
Although I was a little behind the trend, the impact it has on education, is still in its beginning stages. So, where did emotional intelligence come from? And how far will it go?
It all started, long ago, when a man named Plato said something. Yes, that’s all it was: a man said something a long time ago, and the thinkers of the time took off with it. A man who seems to be made out of stone said: “All learning has emotional base.” This makes a lot of sense, if you think about it. Again, envision that student who comes into class angry every day. How much learning are they going to do with emotions like that? Or, how about the student who comes to class each day with an eagerness to learn? That student will tend to retain more information than the student with constant anger. Even you (yes, you) may have had times where emotions have gotten the better of you. Emotions can lead us to learn; or take us away from learning.
As years went by, people from all different occupations began to think about the importance of emotional intelligence. Emotional intelligence picked up steam in the 50’s, when a man named Abraham Maslow, discussed the possibility that one could increase their emotional strengths. This was at a time when intelligence was the goal. A high intelligence was what people were striving for. And emotions where, well…who cares! No one really understood the impact emotions could have; but Maslow changed that type of thinking, and the world was beginning to see the value emotions could have on a person.
Peter Salovey and the great John Mayer (remember, it’s not the singer), took emotional intelligence a step further when they realized it does not stand separate from intelligence, but instead, correlates with intelligence. They believed, if one can control their emotions, then one can advance their intellect.
A few years later, a man named Daniel Goleman picked up where Solvay and Mayer left off, and wrote a bestseller on emotional intelligence. In his book, he discusses the many importances that emotional intelligence can have on education. He believes teachers with high emotional intelligence can motivate students to learn. And in a similar fashion, students who have a high-level of emotional intelligence, will make better decisions that affect their learning.
The work done by Goleman, and the many others before him, has carried over to today. You will see emotional intelligence as one of the main qualities employers look for in their workers. It’s a movement that’s increasing all over the world, and the sooner we see it in schools, the more our students will achieve.
Relation to Democratic Education and its Innovators
The direction education seems to be going today, can be scary at times. There is a high emphasis on achieving high-scores and data. Many schools are driven by data. This is not a bad thing. But should it be the driving force in education? When data is in the driver’s seat, the fuel that keeps it going are grades. And when that’s the case, we tend to teach students to achieve high scores. You’ll see it in many schools you observe or teach at. You want to know if this is true or not, ask the students. They are prone to telling it how it is. Don’t want to ask them? Then just observe them in a classroom setting. The students know who is “smart” and who is “stupid.” And how do they know this? Test scores, and the way the teacher operates the classroom. This is not to say the teacher is to blame; this is to say that education, like many things, has flaws.
When you look at democratic education, you may still see data being used. After all, it is important to see growth, and data can assist with decision making; but it’s not the only goal. Democratic education, in my opinion, is the teacher and students coming together as equals: they share rights in the classroom, and they work together to enhance learning. With that definition, you will see how emotional intelligence fits like the last puzzle piece. Without emotional intelligence, you may not have a true, democratic school. Let’s take a look at a few ways emotional intelligence and democratic education relate.
An Ever-Changing World
Our world, as we all know, is changing—and fast. While I’m writing this sentence, someone has likely thought of another piece of new technology that will help our world move even faster. Change is everywhere: in our homes, in the cars we drive, in the technology we use, and so much more. So why do we not see this fast-pace change in schools? Don’t get me wrong, there are amazing changes being made in our schools, but are we moving fast enough?
In a democratic school, educators need to be on board with change. They need to embrace it and engage themselves with what’s going on around them. This is easier said than done. Change is scary. Believe it or not, a few days ago I was scared to try a new education app with my students. It seemed like a great way to engage students in critical thinking; but if I failed, I lost a day teaching my students how to get answers right (sounds silly, doesn’t it?). Not a good look for a data-driven school. Since change is scary, we sometimes see less of it where it’s needed most: our schools. However, in a democratic environment, change is welcomed—and even encouraged. But can that happen if teachers are fearful to change?
With emotional intelligence in place, you will have teachers more willing to make that scary leap, and try new things. A teacher who has high, emotional intelligence will be able to control those emotions of fear, look toward the purpose of the change, see its potential, and act on it. If you have a school full of teachers like that, then change will be accepted, not pushed away.
Diversity is another important part of democratic education; and another way it relates to emotional intelligence. In a democratic classroom, you will see students collaborating as one. There is no one person that runs the show—not even the teacher. Students in this setting understand the benefits that diversity has on education, and there are plenty. Not only that, but they honor the diversity in the classroom. Something that, again, can be hard to accomplish.
Emotionally intelligent students and teacher, have the ability to understand others, and empathize with one another. Character traits that are needed if diversity is to be honored. To show you the difference, let’s take a look at two different classrooms: classroom A and B.
Classroom A is a wonderful class to be in. It’s filled with students who love to learn, and a teacher who enjoys her job. However, every time group work occurs, or a class discussion is to be had, the class falls apart. Students begin to yell, tears are flying around like a rainstorm, and the teacher proceeds to yell above them and end the discussion (no injuries occurred during this fake scenario).
Classroom B is just as wonderful as classroom A. The teacher is amazing with his students, and the students seem to learn from him, daily. Only in this classroom, group discussions are peaceful. There are no tears; there are no hurt feelings; and everyone has a chance to share her or his ideas.
The classroom that has more emotional intelligent students, is likely to be classroom B. Now, it’s important to mention before going further, not every student and teacher will have high emotional intelligence. Just like not every student in a class will have high intelligence. However, if there are more students with emotional intelligence, your class will have a better chance of looking like Classroom B.
You will also see a relation between reflection, in a democratic classroom, and emotional intelligence. Reflection is something that must be present in a democratic classroom. In my opinion, if there is no reflection, there can be no learning. Reflection allows you the time to think about the way something goes. In this case, it would be reflection on a lesson you’ve taught—but not just by you. The students also benefit from reflection in a democratic classroom.
Teachers still seem to be viewed as the all-knowing leader. If they say it, then it must be the truth, and that’s it! It’s a don’t ask questions mentality. This type of thought will not lead to a classroom working together. Because reflection is so important to learning, and improving in a democratic classroom; we would want to have as much emotional intelligence possible.
If the students and teacher lack emotional intelligence, they will be less mindful of how a lesson went. If you’re the teacher, then you may mistakenly think a lesson went perfect; when in reality, the students didn’t learn a thing. If you’re a student, you will lack the self-awareness to understand what is being taught is, well…nonsense. In contrast, a class who has multiple students with emotional intelligence, will have the ability to reflect as a class. Not only that, but you will be able to reflect without the fear of hurting the feelings of your peers.
Not only does emotional intelligence relate to democratic education; it also relates to the many authors who seem to take a democratic approach: Peter Gray, Paulo Freire, Ira Shor.
Peter Gray, in his book “Free to Learn,” discusses seven sins of forced education. And one of those sins, is judging students. I firmly believe that no teacher purposely puts shame on a student; but it does happen, whether by accident or on purpose. Long ago (still after Pluto), it wasn’t that rare for a teacher to use the ruler, as a scare tactic to get students to work. Although, I can’t prove this, many others say it was true. Moving forward, it was words that were used to “motivate” students. Teachers would embarrass the student in front of their peers. Yes, that’s what I’m thinking, too. Who was in charge of education? Today, we don’t see a lot of that, but we do have shame in testing. When you take a step back and look at the way we show data to our students, it seems sort of demeaning. We praise the students who score high, and we treat the rest like they’re not even present. Again, this is likely done unknowingly, but it does occur.
With emotional intelligence in place, we would have teachers who are mindful of the way they present data, and motivate students. Teachers would understand how using grades a certain way can benefit or demoralize a student. Students too, would benefit in this area. Students who have emotional intelligence will understand that the grade doesn’t define them; it is just a tool used to measure progress.
Freire shows the importance dialogue plays in a democratic classroom. If there is no dialogue in a classroom; then there will be little learning. Likewise, it needs to be positive dialogue that pushes the class in a positive direction. And finally, the dialogue needs to be shared amongst the classroom members. The teacher can’t dominate the discussion, and neither can one student lead discussions, all the time. Although, this may occur often in a classroom which lacks emotional intelligence.
Part of emotional intelligence is understanding one’s self. The other part, is understanding others and showing empathy towards one another. Students should be collaborating throughout the entire, school day. And in order to have that in place, students need to be good communicators. If they can communicate in a positive manner, they can begin to build relationships filled with emotional intelligence. It is emotional intelligence that gives students the ability to have a positive conversation with their peers. They will understand how to listen, and they will wait for the right moments to intervene. They will use words that don’tt hurt the feelings of others; and they will be able to understand—and respect—the values of others.
Similarly, teachers could benefit from emotional intelligence, as well. At times, we may teach our students how to act when dealing with others. We may show them that it’s not kind to talk negatively about others. Then, when all the kids are gone, it’s time to gossip about another teacher. See the problem? If teachers have emotional intelligence, they too, can begin creating positive dialogue.
We also see emotional intelligence present in the book, “When Students Have Power” by Ira Shor. Emotional intelligence can be present throughout the book, as Shor attempts to rid the Siberian classroom. In the Siberian classroom, we see students from different backgrounds filing into the classroom. They sit apart; they are quiet; and they just want to move on and get their grades. This is something that many college students—and high-school students—can relate to. It’s a habit that has been in place for many years. And I believe, emotional intelligence can be one factor to end this type of classroom.
The biggest reason I believe this, is because emotional intelligence creates authenticity. An important trait that can help end the labels we are all given at one point or another. Labels never tell the whole truth, but they can create the way we act, even when it means being untrue to ourselves. Which could be one of the reasons we disperse to certain seats in a classroom. Oh, I’m a goofball who doesn’t care? Well, I better head to the back of the room. If emotional intelligence is in place, students will not let labels define them, and they may be more likely to open up within a classroom.
Effects Emotional Intelligence Has on Democratic Education
With the way our education system is moving, a democratic classrooms seems like a challenge to attain. However, if we can find time to teach our students the value of emotional intelligence; then maybe, just maybe, democratic education can be reached. Emotional intelligence has been proven to produce positive relationships; it can help you grow as an individual; it can help you manage stress, and so much more. But what about in the classroom? Can emotional intelligence help students and teachers develop the characteristics needed in a democratic classroom? The answer. Abso-lutely! Emotional intelligence can have a huge impact in the classroom. And if implemented in the correct way, it can help change education for the better.
EI Lowers Bullying
Bullying is all around us: the classroom, the lunchroom, the bus, at home, online, at work, at church—everywhere. Yet, there aren’t many strategies being enforced to deal with it.. Sure, we have DASA meetings, and we’re “trained” on how to help kids deal with a big-bad bully. But do we use those strategies? And it’s not just kids! Adults bully, too. Teachers bully other teachers, and our peers will either join forces with the bully, turn the other way, or sometimes, help the victim. We teach our students not to bully. We show them the effects bullying can have on someone’s life, but it seems to stop there.
Teachers are busy individuals; dealing with multiple students every hour. No matter the grade level, students will make you work for every penny. So, it’s understandable that teachers may shoo away a student complaining about being called names during lunch. The teacher may think it’s nothing serious, or think the situation will handle itself. Well…it does. And sometimes the way it handles itself is very serious. So what can emotional intelligence do to lessen bullying, and impact democratic education?
For one, emotional-intelligent students show less negative behaviors. The reason this is the case, is because emotional intelligence helps you manage your emotions. It allows you to have a better understanding of why negative emotions are occurring, and you are more equipped to handle the situation. To show this character trait in action, let’s take a look at a bullying situation. A victim, who gets picked on regularly, and does not have high emotional intelligence, will likely strike back at the bully, or more—they’ll attempt to one up them. In this situation, you have a lose-lose: the bully and victim are now going back and forth like a boxer, until one of them ends up losing. There can also be the scenario where the victim takes actions out on his family, or even himself. It’s a very serious issue.
Now, let’s take that same scenario, but the victim has high, emotional intelligence. That victim will be more suited to handle a situation like that in a way that causes less harm to himself, and to the bully. They will understand the situation at a higher-level, and carry out strategies that take care of the situation without the harm. Even more fascinating, is the fact that the victim may show empathy for the bully, and may even help the bully who could be struggling with their own issues.
The best case scenario, is if both students have high emotional intelligence. If that is true, then you will not have to worry, as much, about a bullying situation. Clinical research is currently being done to prove this matter. However, some studies have already shown that emotional intelligence can help limit bullying. In Basque Country, Spain, 794 adolescent students were tested to show just that. Researchers observed and collected data on these students as they went about their school day. The biggest collection of data was found through surveys. Surveys that showed whether or not the class, and individuals in the class, were aware and taught how to handle emotions. They found the classrooms that discussed emotions, and practiced dealing with emotions, formed positive relationships with students and teachers; which brought down negative behavior, as well as behavior such as bullying
The ability to form relationships, cut down on negative behavior, and act before you think, would have a large impact on democratic education. Since democratic views call for shared power; you would need students—and don’t forget teachers—to be able to form relationships, and exhibit positive behavior. Nothing will ever be perfect. Sadly, there will always be evil in this world. But with emotional intelligence, we can limit bully-like behavior.
Academics, Goals, and Groups
Our country seems to be obsessed with data and analytics; and schools are no different. We have pre-tests and post-tests, school exams and state exams, exam-exams and exams. They are constant. And students strive to do well on these test. They are taught they are important for futures success. And, who doesn’t want to feel successful. But all this testing can do damage to the emotional state-of-mind. That’s where emotional intelligence comes into play.
Emotional intelligence may not be what helps you with the actual knowledge needed to complete a test. However, it does help you retain information, maintain concentration, and in the long run, learn at an effective rate. Students, like us, deal with troubles every day. Some more than others. Some students come to school with negative emotions already in place. The things students can go through are horrifying, and it’s easier for us to block it out and pretend every students doing well. But in fact, many students aren’t doing well, and there can be too many reasons to count: abuse, neglect, malnutrition, loss, divorce, sickness, there are just numerous issues that could be in a child’s life. Do you think a child that deals with any of those things will achieve high grades? Or do well in any school environment? The answer is likely, no.
Working memory, a term coined by cognitive scientists, allows students to retain information needed to complete a task. If emotions are too much for a student to handle, this working memory is lost, and their ability to perform well in school will be low. Emotional intelligence may not save a student from the years of dealing with negative situations—but it can help them see the light at the end of the tunnel, so to say. In other words, they have a better chance of understanding there are things out of their control; they will manage their life stresses better, and their working memory will be in tact.
Emotional intelligence can also help students set, and attain, goals for themselves. Yes, our students have goals upon goals; but how many of them truly understand the goals they set for themselves. And even more important, are the goals even important to them as an individual. Teachers can be persuasive, and whether they mean to or not, they can push goals on students with ease. From my experience with elementary students, goals can mean nothing more than a requirement for some students. The teacher wants us to have goals? Alright, let me think…to do better?—kind of a good goal, but not too specific.
When students have emotional intelligence, they are more likely to set goals that have purpose; goals they want to meet. The reason they can do this, is because they understand themselves at a higher level. They are aware of what they can do and what they need to improve on. And because that’s true, students are more likely to meet the goals they set.
Finally, emotional intelligence will impact group collaboration at a high level. And by now, you can probably guess why. Students who show emotional intelligence will be more mindful of how they speak. They will show empathy toward every group member. They will have those positive relationships. And they will manage their feelings; knowing the words being said are not directed at them, but towards the goal to be achieved. There will be no more sighs and sour faces when Billy has to work with Alex. They will accept everyone. And in a democratic classroom, that is important to have.
Can it be Taught?
The good news is, yes, it can be taught. The bad news is, it will take time to implement. Like most good things, emotional intelligence will take time: it needs to be accepted by the school; then, it needs to be implemented; which means more training, and more hours. All things teachers love! But it’s worth it! And it can start with you. Dr. David Watson, describes children needing to ‘catch’ emotional intelligence. It can’t be taught alone. It’s not a math or science, but a way to deal with emotions. So, the best way to teach it—show it. Emotional intelligence needs to be modeled daily. Teachers need to take time to discuss how to handle real-life situations, and better, show them how to deal with it. I believe you can share life struggles with students in an appropriate manner. Of course, you will not tell them everything. There has to be boundaries. However, there are many life happenings you can share with them. Show them how you deal with stress, and eventually students will pick up on it.
A simple way to do this, would be to bring another teacher into the classroom and model certain behaviors. If you do this, not only will you be building emotional intelligence with your students, but you’ll be building it in yourself, as well. So, it all starts with you, the teacher.
Emotional intelligence is on the rise. It is in every future job our students may hold. It will help them deal with the hardships of life; it will help them build relationships, and more. So why hold this from your students any longer? Start teaching them emotional intelligence at an early age, and watch, as your students grow to be wonderful people in society.
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