Emotional Intelligence in the Classroom

The value of precision and outcome focused communication

I just heard a very funny story about a teacher and a 12-year old student that probably did not feel very funny to the person it happened to or to any teachers reading this.

It went like this: Student A is throwing crumpled up paper balls at Student B. The teacher says: “Stop throwing things at Student B!” The pupil obliges.

A minute later, Student A is throwing paper balls at Student C. The teacher (in a louder voice than before) says: “Stop behaving that way! Do you always have to be such a troublemaker?” The student stops doing it, glares at the teacher and the teacher has to control himself not to glare back and not to wag his finger at the pupil.

A minute later Student A starts tapping on his desk with his pen, causing the teacher to decide that he is purposefully being disruptive and sends him to the head teacher for punishment. Result: The teacher is upset at the disruptive student and the student feels wronged by an unfair teacher. Meanwhile, the mood in the classroom turns sour and both teacher and class are counting the minutes until the bell rings.

You don’t think that’s funny?

Let me tell you what makes it so funny from the outside:

First of all, Student A did what the teacher told him to do, he stopped throwing stuff at Student B and instead focused on Student C. Sure, that’s not what the teacher meant, but kids can be incredibly literal minded, especially when bored.

Second of all, any personal attacks (“Do you always have to be such a troublemaker?”) are very likely to trigger the fight or flight response in the recipient and therefore make it more difficult for them to listen to a rational request.

And finally, our emotions are very contagious and as soon as a teacher expresses his/her thoughts in an emotionally charged manner, s/he will find it much harder to keep control of a classroom.

Here are a few lessons we might want to apply and see how well they work for us:

Be precise: “stop being disruptive” could mean anything and you most likely have a different definition of “disruptive” than the student.

Think about the outcome you’re after: you probably don’t want any student to just be less disruptive, you want them to pay attention. Tell them!
“Could you please pay attention to this lesson for the next 15 minutes, as it is important for the next test? After that there is a break and we can play.”

Ask for understanding and cooperation: “Do you understand? Does that makes sense? Thank you!”

Don’t take anything personally and don’t ever use personal attacks: If other people do things that upset you, it’s very unlikely that they did it with malice aforethought. It is much more useful to assume that they had a bad day, ate the wrong thing or are simply not as emotionally well adjusted as you are.

Yes, you probably know all this stuff.

The question is, however, are you using it when you are stressed out and are you able to apply it when you have responsibility for the wellbeing and education of a classroom full of students?

No matter how you feel about it, they deserve to have you at your best.


Dirk Bansch is an international coach, trainer and speaker on Emotional Intelligence and Behavioral Change and can be contacted via his website www.dirkbansch.com