Special Report
School & District Management

School Leaders Need Emotional Intelligence. Here’s How They Build It

By Evie Blad — November 06, 2023 9 min read
A woman sits alongside students in rows of classroom desks. She raises her hand alongside several students as if they are ready to answer a question.
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The stress of the last few years has made emotional intelligence a crucial trait for educational leaders.

After exhausting their practical knowledge about things like testing, technology, and facilities to navigate pandemic-related challenges, school and district leaders said they’ve had to draw on skills that are much more difficult to learn and define.

They’ve had to learn to listen to the concerns of burned out teachers without feeling defensive about the policies and routines they helped create. They’ve walked the tightrope of parents’ competing expectations during an unprecedented time in schools. They’ve forced themselves to stop during busy days, making sure both adults and children feel heard during crucial moments.

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Collage illustration of an empathetic looking leader among images and iconography representing emotional intelligence
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As they work to motivate staff and support students, principals and district leaders have entered a very vulnerable place where their need to recognize and respond to emotions, to call out the individual contributions of their staff and students, and to address their own shortcomings in these areas is even more central to their work.

“I think leaders are often expected to have all of the answers, and oftentimes we fall into the trap of being closed off,” said Dan Cox, the superintendent of the Rochester, Ill., school district, adding that new challenges have intensified the need to be “curious and inquisitive” as leaders.

Education Week spoke to principals and superintendents about the value of emotional intelligence and their efforts to develop it. Their conclusion: The work is as difficult as it is urgent.

Recognizing the power of interpersonal skills

“Emotional intelligence,” a term that gained popularity in the business world in the 1990s, generally refers to traits that fall into key domains of self-awareness, self-management, social skills, empathy, and motivation.

Researchers say that when adults exhibit such strengths in schools, it can help build a sense of collective efficacy among teachers—the sense that they can effectively change circumstances when they work together—that has been tied to improved student achievement.

What is Emotional Intelligence?

Leaders are more effective when they are skilled at understanding, perceiving, and managing emotions—both their own and those of others—researchers have said.
For school and district leaders, such strengths are necessary to build healthy relationships with teachers, parents, and students and to weather the emotional demands of leading in public.
The concept was popularized in Emotional Intelligence, a 1995 book by psychologist Daniel Goleman. Researchers use varying definitions to explain emotional intelligence, but they often center on these traits:

  • Self-awareness — the ability to understand and anticipate one’s own emotions and how they affect others.
  • Self-management — the ability to control and regulate one’s own emotions, adapt to changes in the environment, and maintain a healthy outlook.
  • Social skill — the ability to build and maintain healthy relationships.
  • Empathy — the action of considering others’ emotions, needs, and experiences and factoring that understanding into decisionmaking.
  • Motivation — understanding how to spur others to action, both collectively and as individuals.

As school and district leaders seek to build systems that promote trust and positive relationships, many told Education Week that they can’t avoid taking a look inward.

“It’s no longer enough for us to just assume our position as principals is limited to operations and instruction,” said Suzan Harris, the principal of Henderson Middle School in Jackson, Ga. “It has to go back to being a human first.”

Suzan Harris, principal of Henderson Middle School, works with a student during a math class at the school in Jackson, Ga., on Oct. 16, 2023.

It’s not lost on Harris that many of the personal traits required for effective adult leadership echo the skills schools have sought to nurture in students through approaches like social-emotional learning and character education programs. To be effective, SEL work has to apply to everyone in the building, she said.

It’s no longer enough for us to just assume our position as principals is limited to operations and instruction.

“Post-COVID, I had to change my whole outlook on being a school leader,” Harris said. “When we went back to school, and after that first year, I almost left the profession. I did not have the skills to deal with meeting the needs of my students as well as my teachers.”

Building empathy by identifying individual needs

Facing a persistent substitute teacher shortage, teachers were stretched thin. Some grieved for loved ones who died during the pandemic. Many teachers were also parents, juggling disruption in their own children’s lives. Students were also deeply affected by the stress of adults at home and at school, Harris said.

“We realized that we as adults, we weren’t equipped to deal with the emotional needs of our students or of each other,” she said.

So Harris used some of her school’s federal COVID-19 relief aid for professional development through a program called Capturing Kids Hearts, which helped adults learn how to build more positive relationships with students, set classroom expectations, and be sensitive to nonverbal cues that a student is struggling or anxious.

86% of teachers partly and completely agree that the principals of their schools display empathy. 59% said the same of their district-level administrators. SOURCE: EdWeek Research Center Survey, 2023

Harris also recognized the need to change her own “one-size-fits-all” approach to supporting staff.

She had made it a habit to hand out “jeans passes,” which allow teachers a day to break the staff dress code in recognition of good work. One day, she noticed a pile of those passes spilling out of a teacher’s cubby and realized that teacher, a mother of two young children, might appreciate some extra time and flexibility much more than the chance to dress casually.

To develop her own sensitivity to the individual needs of teachers, Harris read a book called The 5 Languages of Appreciation in the Workplace, which outlined the various ways employees feel valued and communicate value to others—things like quality time, words of affirmation, and physical gifts.

Suzan Harris, principal of Henderson Middle School, makes her morning rounds greeting students and speaking to teachers at the school in Jackson, Ga., on Oct. 16, 2023.

“I had to be more in tune to what my teachers were going through,” Harris said. “The moment I got more in tune with them, they got more in tune with our kids.”

Motivating adults and students through an ‘inquiry stance’

Teachers often feel more motivated when they have opportunities for choice, and voice, leaders said. The key for leaders is to get out of the way.

Nicole Bottomley, the principal of King Phillip High School in Norfolk, Mass., tries to “start with yes” by allowing students to paint murals in school hallways or allowing teachers to develop new courses. At her former high school, teachers developed a “global citizen” graduation endorsement for students who complete interdisciplinary coursework and a capstone project. The result was a successful new program and teachers who felt more enthusiastic about their work.

83% of teachers partly or completely agree that their principals motivate others to be successful. 61% said the same of their district-level administrators. SOURCE: Education Week Research Center Survey, October 2023

Bottomley’s background as a mental health counselor informs her aim to take an “inquiry stance”—an approach that focuses on asking questions and identifying needs for improvement—with teachers. She looks for small ways to regularly invite feedback and demonstrate a willingness to respond to it.

When teachers, parents, or students approach her with a frustration, Bottomley says “tell me more” before arriving at a conclusion or suggesting a solution. When she gets even the smallest criticism, like emails correcting a typo in her weekly staff memo, she always tries to make her first response a “thank you.”

While leaders often think on the systems level, they need to recognize that their individual interactions also communicate important messages to students and staff, whether or not they intend to, Bottomley said.

Building self-awareness through a culture of feedback

Soliciting feedback is an area district leaders in particular have room to grow. A recent EdWeek Research Center survey asked teachers about their school and district leaders, and while 47 percent “completely agreed” that their principals regularly seek feedback, just 17 percent said the same of their central-office administrators.

Cox, the Rochester, Ill., superintendent, started at the district in April 2020, weeks after COVID sparked mass school closures around the country, making it very difficult to build those personal connections.

“Even though I was very experienced, I was new,” Cox said. “I had drafted this 100-day transition plan, but here I was entering a new school district and here I was building relationships while people were at home. And if they weren’t at home, I was meeting them in a mask.”

Determined to foster relationships, Cox spoke with over 270 people in one-on-one Zoom appointments to ask them what the district does well and what it could do better.

76% of teachers partly and completely agree that their principals seeks and respond to feedback on a regular basis. 50% said the same of their district-level administrators. SOURCE: EdWeek Research Center Survey, October 2023

“That’s the first time I started seeing those social-emotional needs, but [those conversations] were mostly student-centered,” he said. “But then over the course of the next 10 to 12 months, our staff burnout seemed to be higher, and I started having really intentional conversations with our teachers.”

Through surveys of teachers, focus groups, and meetings with union leaders, Cox identified two themes: Teachers wanted more time and resources, and they wanted to feel recognized and valued. So he sought to make himself more visible in schools—not to evaluate but just to be present. He also created more consistent and ongoing ways to seek teacher feedback. And he gave teachers control over some district decisions, like planning the calendar that sets important events, such as spring break, and determining how to schedule parent-teacher conferences.

In the longer term, Cox plans to use a very inhuman method—artificial intelligence—to build stronger personal connections and a more positive workplace. He has collaborated with a technology contractor to create an artificial intelligence computer platform to conduct ongoing, voluntary “stay interviews” with teachers.

In such interviews, administrators determine what employees value about their workplace and any factors that may cause them to leave. Through the AI platform, employees will be able to respond to prompts and follow-up questions, and they will be invited to schedule an in-person appointment with central-office leaders if they’d like to have further conversations. The program will compile employee responses and identify themes so that administrators can act quickly to respond to concerns, Cox said.

We have to become active and even borderline aggressive listeners who really promote connectedness and value.

In the meantime, he’s starting with himself. When a teacher recently joked with him about how the district’s transportation plan led to extra long bus duty for colleagues at her school, he recognized that it wasn’t just a joke and that he needed to make it up to the teachers and seek a long-term fix. It started with shutting down any defensiveness he may have felt and acknowledging the teacher’s frustration in the moment.

“We have to become active and even borderline aggressive listeners who really promote connectedness and value,” Cox said.

Starting with self-management

For leaders, being responsive to the needs of others starts with recognizing and managing their own emotions, said Nick Davies, an associate elementary school principal in Vancouver, Wash.

Davies uses the sound of school bells ringing in the hallways as a regular reminder to pause and be mindful and present in whatever he is doing in the moment—interacting with a student, observing a teacher, or talking with a parent.

He started mindfulness practices—relying on books and a meditation app—when he was in crisis mode a few years ago, juggling his work as an athletic director with his responsibilities as a doctoral student, the unpredictability of the pandemic, and the needs of his young family.

76% of teachers partly and completely agree that their principals manage conflict well. 56% said the same of their district-level administrators. SOURCE: EdWeek Research Center Survey, 2023

As the administrator of his school’s multitiered system of support, Davies often guides students through similar techniques, like “starfish breathing,” an exercise that directs children to take deep breaths in and out as they trace the perimeter of their outstretched hand with a finger.

“We are in a pretty heated educational environment right now,” Davies said. “Being able to understand emotions and being able to regulate yourself is important.”

He also strives to be vulnerable with staff and seek regular feedback about how he can improve in his leadership. That starts with small, routine changes like asking teachers “How can I help?” instead of “How are you doing?” when he greets them in the morning.

“I like to believe I’m in a growth mindset of ‘I can continue to get better,’” Davies said. “I have never arrived.”

A version of this article appeared in the November 15, 2023 edition of Education Week as School Leaders Need Emotional Intelligence. Here’s How They Build It

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