Thursday, June 23, 2011

Emotional Intelligence: Rolling Out the Red Carpet

While conversing with friends, we talk about a wide variety of topics that could certainly go in any direction. I find that I enjoy communicating with friends who are "colleagues" which includes educators of any stripe. We talk a lot about teaching philosophies including how to engage students on a more personal and professional level. When I say personal level, I mean drawing about what's called immediacy and rapport. Students have reported that one of their biggest issues in their classes isn't the work load, the length of the lecture, or the difficulty of the tests and while these issues certainly do come up, the most common complaint is from the perception that their teachers don't really give a damn about their success. Right now the college that I teach at, McLennan Community College, is undergoing re-accreditation and is subsequently evaluating a lot of our approaches in the area of student retention including a practice called "emotional intelligence." While I disagree with the direction we're taking in this area, I do agree this is an area worthy of our attention. Students in college have to deal with a lot and while many of them didn't learn effective strategies for discipline in high school, they may not have had those values instilled in them at home...a source of the overall problem. To assume that we can immediately or ever over time educate students on how to care about school is a little naive. Showing students that you care about their success and well-being is step one in my opinion. Implicitly, or better yet, explicitly telling students you want them to succeed can go a long way in motivating them. Sometimes all a person needs, in many contexts, is just to know that someone is in your corner. Many students have never even had a modicum of this sensation. Emotional intelligence strategies for me include immediately telling students I want to see them improve and succeed and that I will help them as far as they're willing to help themselves. Students need to be challenged, but in conjunction with someone guiding them with encouragement. It's easy to get worn down by students who don't seem to care at all, but by altering our perception we might be able to at the very least stave off further or future apathy.
My mentor and division chair in grad school had a similar philosophy which is where much of mine originated. Though he was young, brilliant, and well-credentialed, he treated us as equally. He communicated with us as though we were capable of the same quality of research and publishing that he himself was capable of. That level of confidence inspired us to give everything we possibly could. Why don't we try and relate to our students in the same way? We can keep the bar high but with inspiration and a more hands-on endeavor students will try all the more hard to clear that bar.
Returning to my original point, a conversation with a colleague who teaches at North Lake in Dallas, TX revealed that one of his institution colleagues would roll out a red carpet into his classroom on the first day of class where students would walk on it upon entering the room. He would later explain that everyone in his class was "a star on his red carpet." While some of his more jaded and cynical students would scoff at this, there was no doubt that many were actually flattered by that sentiment. I myself admire that gesture. Students need to be told that what they're doing is a big deal...because it is. It's not mere flattery or enthusiasm. College isn't supposed to be just what comes next nor is it a simple conduit to the professional world. College is a statement: I want to learn, to better myself, and hopefully contribute to the world in a positive way.
At the end of the semester I tell my students a Latin phrase: "Quo vadimus?" which translates to "Where are we going?" I tell them to never reach point where they stop asking "what's next?" They need to always put themselves in a place where they are learning, teaching, or hopefully both. Once that ceases, so basically does their life. Students will have the momentum to do this if it begins with at least one teacher who emphatically declares, "I give a damn about you and your future." This is what they need. This is what's going to help keep the world turning and the future laden with possibilities.