Why I Teach Emotional Intelligence

By Dr. Lisa Hoeffner

March 12, 2018

Let me start by saying that I’m an English professor at a community college. And after almost thirty years of teaching and one particularly grueling semester, it seemed obvious to me: most students simply didn’t care about learning.

I could spend an entire weekend working on a presentation to teach my students to critically evaluate web sources. I could cobble together a fascinating video presentation to start the unit. I could show students websites that look legitimate but aren’t. I could reprint a hilarious page from The Onion to see if I could dupe my students. And I could even create my own fake website to prove to students how easy it is to serve up faulty information. But if my students don’t show up, or if they don’t listen because they are on their phones, or if they simply don’t care, none of that careful and creative planning matters.

Improving my teaching didn’t seem to be the answer to increasing retention and increasing real learning in my classroom. What I needed were different students.

If it weren’t for these students, I’d be a great teacher!

So the question remains: What can I do to help the students I have become good students, the kind who persist, who have grit, who delay gratification because they are in touch with their life goals?

I knew that, in part, the answer was nothing. Maturity is a huge factor in caring about college, and for many students, maturity won’t come until they’ve made a few F’s, dropped a few (or more than a few) classes, or even dropped out of school and returned. But maturity isn’t the only factor.

What if we could help our students become aware of the emotions that so often drive the poor decisions they sometimes make? What if we could help students drill down and figure out why they resist listening in class or why they resist the hard work required to complete a research paper? What if we could help students deal with the emotions—boredom, anger, frustration, fear, apathy, impatience—that are so often at the root of bad decisions? If we could start our classes with a three-week boot camp in emotional self-awareness and emotional self-management, would we see greater learning? Would we see an increase in motivation and a decrease in withdrawals?

The research says the answer is to the last question is yes. Emotional intelligence (EI) skills do matter in academic persistence and success. Significant data exists to support the idea that emotional self-awareness, emotional self-management, and relationship management are requisite skills for lasting success—both academic and personal. And fortunately, institutions such as the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence have begun to link theory with practice by creating programs that transform the culture of schools and infuse EI development into curricula.

These insights led me to yet another question: what can I do to in my classroom to facilitate the development of EI skills? My research—and lots of experimentation in my own classroom—has resulted in these insights:

  1. Learning More about EI Research - My own reading, study, and practice of EI was the most important factor in figuring out how to facilitate the EI development of my students. (And you can’t start reading EI literature without becoming intrigued by your own EI strengths and weaknesses!) To teach my students EI skills such as self-awareness, emotional self-management, teamwork skills, developing intrinsic motivation, and so on, I must personally be engaged in my own EI development.

  2. Identifying & Changing My Own Responses - By learning a few methods for identifying and (this is the key) changing my emotional responses to triggers, I can help students learn to do the same.

  3. Integrating EI Strategies into Every Class Session - I can find teachable moments that facilitate EI development in every class session. A few classroom strategies have helped me to more intentionally infuse EI development into my IRW and English classes:

    1. From the first day of class, I make students aware of the power of EI and continually discuss specific EI skills in the context of assignment requirements and persistence struggles.
    2. We use readings that do double duty as both models for writing and as instructive commentaries on EI development. For example, readings about the power of failure, the emotional reasons for procrastination, and the value of a growth mindset easily facilitate an EI focus.
    3. I design collaborative projects that teach students how to work with others. One of the most important—and often lacking—skills employers want these days is the ability to work in a team effectively. Self-awareness and empathy skills can be intentionally taught and developed within the context of collaborative projects.
    4. My students are prompted to discuss their own EI insights, opportunities, and struggles, both in class and in journal writing.

What I have learned is that making EI development an intentional part of the course allows students to discuss the way they feel about assignments. And that is a huge step in managing those feelings that so often lead to discouragement, complacency, and failure.

At the end of one class session, as students packed up and trickled out of the classroom, one of my quiet students slowly gathered his materials, clearly waiting for the others to leave. Jonathan walked to my desk and said, "I was going to ask you to sign my drop slip today, but what you said in class really hit me. You talked about how anger is sometimes a mask for fear. I’ve been mad about this class because the work is so hard. But I think I’m fearful about writing a rhetorical analysis. It’s funny because I can deal with fear. In the army, I spent a lot of time in Afghanistan and learned to face fears. But I am not so good at dealing with anger. I’m going to think about this and see if it helps me write that essay."

Jonathan was true to his word. He and I talked frequently over the course of the semester, and he faced his fear of failure, eventually passing the class with an A. In the process, I learned that I don’t need a psychology credential to take the time to address some of those debilitating emotions and provide students with a few tools to deal with those feelings. (In Jonathan’s class, I talked about the RULER tool created by the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence.)

If you are interested in learning more about how you can facilitate your students’ development of emotional intelligence, check out the resources that follow. I promise: a focus on EI development will change both your personal EI skills and your students’ success.


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Lisa Hoeffner

Dr. Lisa Hoeffner – McLennan Community College

Lisa Hoeffner earned a PhD in English with a specialization in rhetoric from the University of Houston. Since 1998, Dr. Hoeffner has served in two positions—professor of English and professor of reading—at McLennan Community College in Waco, Texas. She speaks nationally on the topic of preparing students for college-level work and has served as a private consultant for high schools and colleges seeking to improve their college preparedness programs. She also presents nationally on the topic of embedding emotional intelligence development in the classroom. Her current research focuses on the importance of teaching critical thinking in a post-truth world, and she is writing a composition textbook that facilitates such teaching. She is the author of Common Places: Integrated Reading and Writing (McGraw-Hill, 2018) and Common Ground: Integrated Reading and Writing Basics (McGraw-Hill, 2018).