“You cannot interact with students and be devoid of emotions.” – Dr. J.
Emotions are present in every aspect of our communication, whether or not we are aware of the existence of it. For example, you are having an emotional reaction right now as you read this opening introduction. You either feel a sense of connection to what you are reading, and want to continue, or you believe you already know enough about the subject and feel it would not be worth your time to continue.
When I refer to having emotions present with all communication, both written and spoken, it does not mean you are having an extreme emotional reaction. Rather it means you are reacting in a particular manner about what it is you are feeling or hearing, and you are responding accordingly. Now there are instances in which the words, spoken or written, are so provocative or inflammatory that it does in fact prompt a strong emotional reaction from you. Those are the moments that you must carefully chose your response, which can be challenging to do at times.
As an educator, and someone who teaches principally online, my interactions and communication occur with learners most in written form, which means I’m receiving classroom messages, emails, and written classroom posts. The reactions I experience occur the moment I read something that has been posted or written and sent to me. My response is often immediate, unless I feel something negative and I am aware of the need to wait and process my response. I may also have to wait and conduct further research for an answer, which forces me to wait on providing a response.
I realize there has been much written about the subject of emotional intelligence, and there is an established definition of this topic as well. However, my view of becoming emotionally intelligent is somewhat different, especially as it is related to the work of an educator. I want to expand upon the idea of recognizing and managing emotions, by viewing the reactions and responses to what we read and hear as levels of mental processing. I want to discuss the importance of moving past Level One or reactionary responses to our learners, which is where emotional responses occur, and move into Level Two or the place within the mind where well-informed and emotionally intelligent responses are formed.
Level One: Emotionally Reactionary Responses
How I view the mind’s ability to process information, for the purpose of what I’m writing, is through the distinction of two different levels. Level One processing occurs when information or input is received. At this level, information is received and processed through filters that include biases, beliefs, opinions, perceptions, and so on. At Level One, processing occurs automatically. Rarely do we ever consciously think about the influence of our biases, beliefs, and opinions as we are reading or listening to information received. It’s within this initial level that our responses to requests received tend to be more immediate, almost automatic, sometimes reactive, and when prompted from the wording within the response, emotional.
Because Level One responses occur so quickly, and often without consideration for how emotions influence the outcome, these reactions would not be considered the most emotionally intelligent. Consider the last time you received an email or message from one of your students. How quickly did you respond? Did you stop and think about how you felt or the emotions you experienced?
More than likely you realized how you were feeling but did not recognize the impact of those emotions on the actions you were about to take and instead, you immediately addressed the message. If the response was not communicated in the most appropriate manner, you may also later regret how you reactively responded or wish you would have chosen a better reply. This is the value of hindsight and looking back after actions have already been taken.
Level Two: Emotionally Intelligent Responses
I consider this level of the mind’s ability to process information to be the heart of where logic, reasoning, and rational thinking occurs. A Level Two response is more proactive in nature, which means there is time taken to intentionally consider what has been stated or requested, prior to formulating a response. This does not mean every communication request received by a learner needs to be processed in this manner. However, as an educator I’ve found it is important for my instructional practice to be more mindful of how I respond to learner requests, as a means of becoming emotionally well-developed.
As an example, when a learner sends a classroom message or email and expresses their unhappiness with his or her grade, and the tone of the message conveys extreme frustration, what is your immediate response to this situation? There are a number of possible answers to choose from for this scenario, beginning with an immediate or reactionary Level One response that informs the learner about the grading scale and feedback provided. The next possibility is to provide a Level Two response and explain at length the justification for the current grade, which may lead to an ongoing series of lengthy email exchanges.
There is another option, one I have learned through time and practice, and it embodies Level Two as an emotionally intelligent response. This response takes time to empathize with the learner, not offer explanations or justification, and instead, requests a telephone conversation. As an online educator I realize there may be obstacles for trying to make this strategy work, especially if you are working in an adjunct role, yet an ability to communicate one-on-one with a learner for this type of situation can help to relieve their discomfort and continue to build a productive working relationship.
I’ve had tremendous success with this approach, despite any scheduling challenges which occur at times, and learners discover someone cares about their progress, which is extremely important for distance learning. If you are going to try this approach, you can decide upon the specifics, such as days and times for telephone contact, and this will help to overcome any potential availability barriers.
How to Become an Emotionally Intelligent Educator
It is likely most of our responses to classroom communication occur from a Level One perspective, which means we are receiving information and requests and responding fairly quickly, unless otherwise required. This means our daily communication is being processed as a matter of routine and we are relying upon our built-in filters to help us address what we are receiving. Included in those filters are emotional reactions, which can range from minimal feelings to extremely negative feelings.
If something received from a learner causes an emotional reaction, do you know how to process what you are feeling in an effective manner? This is where becoming an emotionally intelligent educator becomes important.
To respond immediately is to remain at Level One and allow yourself to be reactive. But to wait and give yourself time to think more logically and rationally about the communication and information received, along with what was felt and the most effective way to respond, is to move into a Level Two response. The following are strategies you can use to help elevate your responses from Level One to Level Two.
Strategy #1: Read and Critically Assess
When information is received from a learner, whether by email or classroom message, it needs to be read from an assessment point-of-perspective. Is this something you can or should address as a matter of routine? Did you experience any form of emotional reaction?
If this is a relatively routine request, and something you can address quickly without any emotional reaction, there is no need to move beyond Level One. If the learner has made a request and it is more involved or complex, or you experienced any form of emotional reaction, then you are going to need more time to process it.
This presents you with an opportunity to pause, reflect, and engage the mind further, and determine the most effective response needed, in order to bring about the most productive outcome. You decide then how much time this communication warrants.
Strategy #2: Level Up
Once you have paused and decided to take time to reflect further upon an email or classroom message, this allows you to move into Level Two. What has occurred is a conscious awareness of what you are thinking about, as to your reaction to the message received. Now you will be more aware of your internal filters, along with any emotional reactions experienced.
As you spend time, even just a moment or two, reflecting upon the message, you can begin to engage the rational, practical, and logical part of your mind. This is dependent upon the condition you are able to first work past any negative emotions. You must first address your emotional reaction before you can help the learner with their request. This requires intentionally calming yourself and returning to a professional state-of-mind, no matter how personal the message communicated may have felt.
As you begin to engage the mind in a productive manner, you can then focus on the matter at hand. Now you can see the learner as a person, someone who needs assistance, allowing you to determine the best course of action and outcome. What I’ve learned, through time and experience, is the more lag time or processing time I allow, the better informed my responses will become. Level Two mental processing will increase the effectiveness of your responses and likelihood of sustained productive relationships with your learners.
Becoming Emotionally Intelligent Takes Practice
All educators have many responsibilities to complete and the receipt of messages and requests from learners will only add more time to a busy day. The thought of having to slow down and be intentional in your response may seem like adding more time and yet, the end result is likely to be worth it, for those messages in need of additional time and thought. The initial thought process used, or Level One, includes your reactionary response that is influenced by internal filters. What you want is to engage Level Two, or the part of the mind that processes information in a more logical manner. This is how you can become emotionally intelligent, which is critical for your work as an educator.
Learners come to the classroom with varying degrees of skills, experience, and knowledge. Their expectations also vary, which includes what they expect from their instructor. All this adds up to a classroom with learners who hold expectations which may or may not be realistic, and academic developmental needs that must be managed from an individual perspective. To best address these learners, you as the educator, need to be able to process what you read from an unbiased, emotionally-controlled, logical, rational, and proactive approach.
Becoming emotionally intelligent takes practice, making time to evaluate communication received. You do not need to become devoid of emotions, only aware of how you are responding and the potential impact of the emotions used. The further away from reactive responses you can move, to the use of logic and reasoning, the more effective you will become in managing your responses. As a result of slowing down your responses, you will likely find yourself becoming better prepared, more confident in handling requests, and developing much stronger relationships with your learners. You may also discover emotions can be effectively used in communication, even with an intelligently responsive reply.
Dr. Bruce A. Johnson is an inspirational author, writer, and teacher.
Dr. Johnson’s background involved helping others, including people and organizations. His roles have included Manager of Training and Development, Human Performance Improvement Consultant, Online Instructor, Career Coach, Curriculum Developer, Manager of Faculty Development, and Chief Academic Officer.
Since 2005, Dr. J has specialized in distance learning, adult learning, faculty development, online teaching, career management, career development, and human performance improvement. He has a Ph.D. in Postsecondary and Adult Education, a Certificate in Training and Performance Improvement, and a Master of Business Administration, MBA. Presently Dr. J is a Core Faculty member for one of the premiere online universities.