HomepageISTEEdSurge
Skip to content
ascd logo

Log in to Witsby: ASCD’s Next-Generation Professional Learning and Credentialing Platform
Join ASCD
March 1, 2024
Vol. 81
No. 6

Giving Educators Permission to Feel

author avatar
Adults in schools are feeling strong emotions. Tuning in to these feelings more fully can help them cope.

premium resources logo

Premium Resource

Social-emotional learningSchool Culture
Giving Educators Permission to Feel Header Image
Credit: Alice Mollon / Ikon Images
Since when do educators need permission to feel? Certainly, educators have feelings from the minute they wake up each morning until they go to bed at night—without getting anyone’s approval. Yet many schools seem to pretend otherwise. 
Research shows that how educators feel influences nearly everything in education, from instructional quality and student achievement to relationships with colleagues and students to classroom and school climate to educators’ own well-being. This begs the question: How are ­educators feeling?

What Emotions Are Educators Feeling Now? 

Over the last five years, the Yale Center for ­Emotional Intelligence, which I direct, has ­surveyed tens of thousands of educators from across the United States. We’ve asked them to describe, in their own words, how they’ve been feeling at work. Frustration, anxiety, worry, overwhelm, and sadness have recently topped the list. Joy and happiness are much further down. Yet, these data are unsurprising: During the height of the pandemic, research found clinically alarming levels of anxiety and depression among ­educators—a trend that appears unwavering (Pals & Koenigsknecht, 2022). 
The sources of the unpleasant feelings that educators most often pointed to include feeling unsupported by their administration around challenges to meet their students’ learning needs, student behavior, overabundance of paperwork, high-stakes testing, an ever-changing curriculum, work/life balance, poor relationships with colleagues and school leaders, economic stressors, and the sociopolitical state of the nation and their schools. 
All this is a problem because emotions like stress, anxiety, and frustration have negative consequences for educators’ health—and result in greater disengagement and lower motivation and achievement for students. Moreover, when educators are burned out, they report feeling less meaning and purpose in their work and are less positive role models for students. In one recent study, just 12 percent of teachers said they were “very satisfied” with their jobs (Will, 2022). 

How educators feel influences nearly everything in education, from instructional quality to in-school relationships to classroom and school climate.

Author Image

Yet our education system tends to either ignore the impact of educators’ feelings or deny that feelings are important. This mindset gets passed along to educators and then to students, who receive the message loud and clear. Before long, students, too, learn to suppress or act out their emotions. But when people deny themselves permission to feel, a long list of uninvited outcomes arises. We often lose the ability to perceive what we’re feeling. Because of that, we’re unable to label our feelings, so we can’t express them clearly, either. This leads to unconstructive ways of handling our emotions.
I frequently give talks to schools and districts and often ask educators to describe the differences among related but distinct emotions like anxiety, overwhelm, and stress. Consistently, the top response is, “there’s no difference.” This speaks volumes about our difficulty with understanding emotions. At first glance, these feelings might seem interchangeable, but they are in fact discrete emotional states. Anxiety is a feeling of uncertainty about the future or inability to control the future; overwhelm means overcome by emotions; and stress is a response to adverse or very demanding circumstances, especially when we don’t have resources to cope. 
Why is this lack of “emotional granularity” a problem? Because when we don’t identify how we or others are feeling with precise words, it becomes difficult for us to use our emotions wisely and make them work for us, instead of against us. When we label emotions precisely, things go better. For example, if a school principal understands that their staff is feeling anxious, she’ll see that offering an additional planning period or encouraging deep breathing likely won’t be helpful, though these might be good choices if staff were feeling stressed or overwhelmed. Strategies to improve communication about upcoming policy changes might be more effective because they respond to the underlying cause of anxiety.

How Do Educators Want to Feel at School?

Efforts to support educators’ emotional well-being could be aided by considering the question in this heading. People often seek emotional states that can support their well-being and personal and professional goals. In psychology, this is referred to as “ideal affect.” Educators’ ideal affect can vary as a function of personality type (like introversion or extroversion), social group or cultural norms, psychological needs not being met (e.g., a lack of a sense of agency over their circumstances), years in the profession, context (e.g., working with colleagues or teaching students), and what’s happening in the broader society. Over the last five years, our team has conducted multiple studies to unpack educators’ ideal affect. We’ve surveyed large, national samples of educators, compiled ­collective agreements (“charters”) that educators created with their ­colleagues that focused on how they wanted to feel at school, and conducted experiments where we asked educators to consider how they want to feel in their classrooms or with their colleagues. 
As predicted, educators’ ideal affect varied based on whether they responded individually or collectively, whether they were thinking of being in their classroom or working with colleagues, and the sociohistorical context. When responding to an online survey, the top emotion respondents wanted to feel was happy. The emotions teachers mentioned most in the teacher-created charters that we studied were supported and respected. When primed to think about their classroom, joy was at the top—but when asked to think about their work with colleagues, it was supported. Educators’ reported ideal affect also varied across time: In Fall 2020 it was excited, which shifted to appreciated in 2021, and calm in 2022. 

Can Educators Enhance Their Own Emotional Well-Being?

Before I answer this question, ­consider what most of us, seeing the findings just noted, would likely assume should happen: that school leaders should find ways to help educators consistently feel more positive emotions. This assumption is the result of a deep misunderstanding about the emotion system: that ­happiness and joy are the best and only emotions we should feel; if we aren’t visibly showing signs of joy, then we’ve failed. But what about the emotions of an educator who learns that a student has been badly bullied in their classroom? What about a teacher who is ­temperamentally subdued?
Positive emotions do open the mind to new possibilities, creating flexibility and openness. But they cannot fix everything. Unpleasant emotions have a constructive function: they help narrow and focus our attention. Joy alone won’t support an educator who’s managing a bullying problem. Anger expressed in a nonthreatening way—not contentment—motivates an ­educator who has been treated unfairly. And many introverts among us are overwhelmed by the ­expectation that we must show excitement all the time. 

Educators need the ability to experience and express all emotions.

Author Image

Educators need the ability to experience and express all emotions. ­Perpetual happiness can’t be our goal—it’s just not how real life works. And consider: When educators are expected to display mostly positive emotions, what’s the message to ­students?

What Practices Support Educators’ Emotional Intelligence? 

Our own research shows that educators with more developed emotional intelligence experience a greater balance of pleasant and unpleasant feelings and report less burnout. Research also shows that the most effective approaches to supporting educator wellness include leaders using evidence-based practices to develop educators’ emotional skills and school leaders applying the skills of emotional intelligence to build a positive school climate (Floman et al., in press). 
So what emotional skills should teachers develop to feel happiness at work more often? I use the acronym RULER to describe five key emotional intelligence skills:
  • Recognizing emotions in our own thoughts and ­physiology and recognizing others’ emotions through facial expressions, body language, vocal tone, and behavior
  • Understanding the causes and ­consequences of our ­emotions
  • Labeling emotions with precise feeling words
  • Expressing emotions according to social norms and ­cultural contexts
  • Regulating emotions with helpful strategies.
Most of us didn’t have a formal education in emotional intelligence. But good news: these skills can be acquired at any age. Educators from all backgrounds find them ­accessible—and sometimes life changing. These are real life skills, not “soft skills.”
The skills of emotional intelligence can be used individually, but their best application happens when an entire community develops these skills and reinforces each other’s EI. I’ve seen this happen with RULER, our center’s whole-school, evidence-based approach to social and emotional learning that is being deployed in more than 5,000 schools. RULER infuses the principles of emotion science (whose central tenet is that there are no bad emotions) and the skills of emotional intelligence into the DNA of a school. We support leaders, educators and staff, students, and families in cultivating an “emotions matter” mindset and in developing the skills of emotional intelligence. RULER has had positive impacts on academic performance, social and emotional skills development, classroom climate, stopping bullying, instructional quality, and educator stress and burnout. 
One RULER tool, the Mood Meter, helps educators and students refine their emotional intelligence skills. The tool, rooted in decades of science, was first introduced by David Caruso and Peter Salovey in The Emotionally Intelligent Manager (Wiley, 2004) and then expanded on in my book Permission to Feel (Celadon Books, 2020). It helps people learn that emotions have a certain level of pleasantness and energy associated with them. On the Mood Meter, the x-axis represents pleasantness—our subjective, private mental experience. The y-axis represents energy—the physical and mental energy running through our body and mind. The two axes cross to form four quadrants, each with its own color: 
  • The YELLOW quadrant is pleasant high energy and ­represents feelings like joy, excitement, and hopefulness.
  • The RED quadrant is unpleasant high energy—feelings like anxiety, frustration, and shock.
  • The BLUE quadrant is unpleasant low energy—feelings like disappointment, ­discouragement, and loneliness. 
  • The GREEN quadrant is pleasant low energy—feelings like calm and contented. 
Another related tool, an app called How We Feel (see fig. 1 below), was co-developed by my team and Ben Silbermann, co-founder of Pinterest. The app is designed to help people learn the skills of emotional intelligence. It’s available free on iOS and Android. How We Feel is programmed with words for over 200 emotions and their definitions. It has features that help people spot patterns over time based on context (like home or work), what they’re doing (like working, watching TV, or exercising) and who they’re with (friends, colleagues, no one, etc.). This app can support educators in answering complex questions like: Do I experience more pleasant emotions at home or at school? If at school, which emotions do I feel most often when I’m teaching versus when I’m socializing with colleagues? 
Brackett Figure 1
Having this data available is extremely useful for understanding patterns and creating plans to support one’s greater well-being, including healthy emotion regulation. How We Feel is programmed with evidence-based strategies a user can tap into to help them learn new ways to deal with their emotions. Strategies include mindfulness exercises, techniques to shift one’s thinking, and ways to connect with others. One educator told us he was able to “reframe” his thinking when frustrated with a student’s behavior. Another shared that the “reaching out” strategy helped her deal compassionately with a parent. 
Hundreds of thousands of people, including ­thousands of educators, use How We Feel each day. We’re getting reports of good results on how it’s helping their work. While no app can match the power of a whole-school approach to SEL, this app and others can be a great way to start emotional intelligence skill-building. In addition, several ­colleagues and I have built a free course for educators on healthy emotion regulation.

How Can Schools Support Educators’ Emotional Lives?

Our center’s research has shown that educators who work in schools with more positive emotional climates—and with administrators who have higher emotional intelligence—tend to experience fewer negative emotions and more positive ones. Educators in these schools report higher job satisfaction and fewer intentions to leave the profession (Floman et al., 2023). So if a school leader can forge a positive climate in their school, creating conditions that allow each staff member to feel the emotions that give them an overall sense of well-being at their job, they will likely see more of their staff and teachers remain at their school and do their jobs well.
One strategy that leaders in schools who’ve adopted RULER use to support educators’ well-being is to ask all faculty and staff to describe how they’d like to feel at school—their “ideal affect.” It’s as simple as asking How do you want to feel as a faculty/staff member in our school? This can be done through a survey or as a professional development activity on a day when all faculty and staff are present. Often the challenge arises when faculty and staff answer the second question: What can we do to support everyone in feeling these emotions more often? Leaders in schools facilitating this discussion generally give faculty and staff the opportunity to share ideas of what would help them experience their top few “hoped-for” feelings. Ideally, in this process, all staff members will agree on one or two observable behaviors—something some person or group within the school can realistically do—or some policy change, for each of the desired feelings. 

Understanding how educators feel—and want to feel—presents an opportunity to enhance educator wellness and improve the emotional and instructional climate in our schools.

Author Image

For example, our own research showed that the top two things educators believed would help them feel more appreciated (a feeling most teachers wanted to experience) were: being acknowledged by their leaders for their hard work and receiving encouragement from colleagues (Floman et al., in press). Of course, it’s not enough to just list the behaviors; the magic happens when school leaders follow through with them. Having teachers write out what they want to feel and what they hope to change, and keeping those expressed needs visible throughout the school, helps ensure follow through. Putting our needs in writing has a way of making them real for everyone and can be a reminder of the emotions teachers want to feel to be happier and less stressed on the job. 
It’s important to frequently revisit these hoped-for feelings and suggestions for specific changes at the school. This gives educators opportunities to share what’s working (and what’s not), hear gratitude for their work from ­colleagues, and receive ­encouragement from others in the school in ways that take into account each teacher’s expressed ideal affect.

The Ripple Effect

Understanding how educators feel—and want to feel—presents an opportunity to enhance educator wellness and improve the emotional and instructional climate in our schools. Of course, giving educators “permission to feel” doesn’t mean it’s OK for a teacher to, for instance, obsess over every time a parent complains. Strengthening emotional intelligence skills should have the opposite result; it should give teachers the ability to get through such difficult moments and learn and grow from them. 
When we give educators permission to feel, a host of positive outcomes ensues. Educators become more emotionally healthy and feel more satisfied and accomplished at work. That has a ripple effect on students, leading to better classroom instruction, better classroom climates, and higher student achievement. Let’s recognize that how educators feel, and what we do to support their emotional well-being, determines to a large extent the quality of educators’ and students’ experiences—in school and in life. 

Reflect & Discuss

➛ Does your school have any process for asking teachers how they feel at work, and how they want to feel? Do school leaders often ask teachers how they're feeling—and seem to truly want to know?

➛ Brackett says recent surveys show teachers feel a lot of frustration, anxiety, stress, and sadness at work—and less happiness. Does this match the emotions you've felt at work in recent years? What do you think is behind these feelings?

References

Floman, J. L., Ponnock, A., Jain, J., & Brackett, M. A. (2024). Emotionally intelligent school leadership predicts educator well-being before and during a crisis. Frontiers in Psychology, 14, 1159382.

Pals, T., & Koenigsknecht, M. (2022, November 15). Teachers experienced more anxiety than healthcare workers during the pandemic. AERA Newsroom.

Will, M. (2022, April 14). Teacher ­satisfaction hits an all-time low. ­Education Week.

 Marc A. Brackett is director of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, a professor at the Yale Child Study Center, and author of many books, including Permission to Feel (Celadon Books, 2020).

Learn More

ASCD is a community dedicated to educators' professional growth and well-being.

Let us help you put your vision into action.
Related Articles
View all
undefined
Social-emotional learning
Self-Care Is More Than a Buzzword
Jennifer Orr
1 month ago

undefined
The Value of “Expressive Flexibility”
Kate Stoltzfus
1 month ago

undefined
The Power of Educator EQ
Brooke Stafford-Brizard
1 month ago

undefined
Tell Us About
Educational Leadership Staff
1 month ago

undefined
EI: A Bedrock of Thriving Schools
Sarah McKibben
1 month ago
Related Articles
Self-Care Is More Than a Buzzword
Jennifer Orr
1 month ago

The Value of “Expressive Flexibility”
Kate Stoltzfus
1 month ago

The Power of Educator EQ
Brooke Stafford-Brizard
1 month ago

Tell Us About
Educational Leadership Staff
1 month ago

EI: A Bedrock of Thriving Schools
Sarah McKibben
1 month ago
From our issue
March 2024 Header Image
The Emotionally Intelligent Educator
Go To Publication