Leave Your Judgment at the Door

By Ariel Levenson

“Do I dare ask how you’re feeling?”

This was Marc Brackett’s opening inquiry last week as he began his keynote online presentation for Prizmah on emotional intelligence to a group of administrators and teachers.

Behind the safety of our Zoom squares, participants bared all: “anxious,” “exhausted,” “overworked,” “stressed” and “overwhelmed” populated the chat box like diagnostic codes lining a benefits claim. The follow-up question was equally omniscient: “How many of you have had a colleague, teacher or student melt down at some point today?”

Within the first fifteen minutes of the presentation, Brackett adeptly acknowledged that in our roles as school leaders, many of us complicate our stress further by “triple dipping.” “How many of you are checking email right now? And text messages? And helping a child of your own? All while attending this webinar?”

The man knew his crowd.

Brackett, a professor at the Yale Child Study Center and founder of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, is well versed in the science and art of paying attention to emotions.

As educators and administrators, many of us feel overwhelmed by the circumstances of the 2020-2021 school year, which has called on us to wear hats we’ve never worn before nor ever chose for ourselves. In addition to being educational wunderkinds, this year we must also be savvy chairside therapists and skilled, though untrained, virologists. Oh, and oracles who can predict closures, second waves, and the governor’s decisions.

And that’s just during third period. While teaching.

Unsurprisingly, these additional roles can take a toll on administrators’ collective psyche, and Brackett sought to reassure us: actually, it is okay to show your emotions. Actually, you have permission to feel. Actually, experiencing your emotions, and modeling how to handle them, is paramount to being a good colleague and manager.

Brackett emphasized the essentiality of seeing our emotions – and our humanity – not as something to work around but rather as an essential component to our work as educators, especially in these challenging times. Our daily lives center around teaching children, but our work also includes being responsive to the emotional needs of our students, our teachers and our parent body. In order to help others manage their emotions, we need to be able to take stock of our own emotions first.

The question is, In a time of uncertainty and with a new playbook filled with so many unknowns, how can we care for others while also caring for ourselves?

Emotional Scientists

As Brackett pointed out, emotions matter. The problem is in our cultural obsession with being “happy.” Brackett noted, “I’m a neurotic Jewish professor. Happy isn’t even in my genetics! I’m begging for contentment, not happiness!” So what can a bunch of neurotic Jewish educators do to help them develop resilience, a far more useful aspirational quality than happiness?

We need to give ourselves permission to feel. Emotional “judges” identify feelings as “errors” or “weaknesses.” On the contrary, Brackett argues that emotions aren’t weakness; they’re a sign of our humanity, and they strengthen relationships.

There are positive ways we can let our teachers, students and parents feel and experience their emotions, and there are detrimental ways that unfairly villainize emotions. Brackett encourages us to avoid judgment. Emotional “judges” see emotions as permanent. They are critical and closed, with a fixed mindset. Instead of being judges, we need to train ourselves to be emotional “scientists,” who accept all emotions – from whomever they come – as information. Scientists see emotions as ephemeral, and they are open, curious, and reflective, constantly in learner mode as they respond to each of the emotional earthquakes that erupt in their school throughout the day. Scientists are willing to get granular to support those in their community.

These are attitudes we need to embrace, not just for the varying constituents we support in our communities, but for ourselves. We need to do as Marc Brackett urges us: give ourselves permission to feel. It will make us more nurturing, more empathetic and kinder colleagues, on top of strengthening us as managers, teachers and humans.

Brackett mentioned in his session this salient quote by novelist Haruki Murakami: “Once the storm is over, you won’t remember how you made it through, how you managed to survive. You won’t even be sure whether the storm is really over … When you come out of the storm, you won’t be the same person who walked in. That’s what this storm’s all about.”

May we navigate all of our storms with resilience, as emotional scientists, as we anticipate the clearing ahead.

Ariel Horn Levenson is the Middle School Principal at Joseph Kushner Hebrew Academy in Livingston, NJ, where she also teaches. Levenson’s interests include leading professional development seminars for teachers, curriculum development, and teacher mentoring/coaching. Additionally, she is a writer, with her first children’s book, entitled DO NOT GO IN THERE!, published by Macmillan this past summer.