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March 1, 2024
Vol. 81
No. 6

The Emotionally Intelligent School System

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What’s your standard operating procedure? Transparent expectations lead to better relationships up and down the hierarchical ladder.

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LeadershipSocial-emotional learning
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As educators, we use our emotional intelligence every day to manage the relationships schools depend on to function. When we use those skills explicitly and intentionally, our effectiveness as educators can dramatically improve. Identifying our strengths and needs, recognizing the verbal and non-verbal communication styles of our colleagues, communicating understanding of others’ perspectives, expressing our feelings directly and respectfully, and predicting and evaluating outcomes of our actions are particularly useful skills as we manage up and down the hierarchies of our schools and the systems within which they reside.

My Tale of Two Bosses

When I was a principal, one of my direct supervisors did not respond well to my enthusiasm when I knocked on his door to share ideas I had to improve the school. The more I noticed an issue and suggested a new approach to reading or serving lunch or dismissal routines, the more annoyed he seemed. But he also wanted to know any concerns I had, as they arose. After yet another enthusiastic effort on my part, to which my supervisor asked, “Why am I hearing about this just now?”, I went to see one of my mentors. I was discouraged enough to consider looking for another position. 
My mentor knew me well. She had been hearing my complaints about my supervisor for a year, and always ­commiserated with my situation. 
But not this time.
“Jeffrey, it’s like you’re banging your head against a wall instead of looking around for a door!” she said. “You’re acting like an adolescent who keeps doing the same thing to prove how imperfect their parents are.”
In my complaining, she heard my self-righteousness and endless frustration with the status quo, which could have also described me as a teenager. She said I seemed to be getting some pleasure in continuing to set myself up to experience my ­supervisor’s jabs—and then complain about them. 
My mentor continued: “Jeffrey, you know how to differentiate lessons for students. You also know that each faculty member is in a different place in their career, and you adjust your approach accordingly. Why do you expect every boss to be perfectly the same?” 
She added, “I think you’re still mourning the retirement of your old supervisor, who was wonderful, but the new boss is not the old boss. You know how this new boss operates. Why don’t you work to his strengths and avoid provoking his resistance, rather than setting him up to disappoint you again and again?”
Wow—she was right about every bit of this. My previous boss, my first as a principal, was supportive of ­everything I did; I never had to ­convince her of the value of my ideas. She appreciated my enthusiasm to jump into problem solving. One time, when I started to tell her all the details of my research and thinking that led to a decision, she interrupted me with a chuckle and said, “Jeffrey, we pay you to do all that because that’s your job. If you need my advice or input, ask for it. But if not, as long as you don’t break the law or bankrupt the school, go ahead.” We laughed. I didn’t understand at the time how deeply her standard operating procedure (SOP) impacted my unrealistic expectations for how all supervisors should work.
As my mentor pointed out, my new boss wanted to be informed of my ­concerns as soon as I noticed ­something that needed improvement, the exact opposite of my previous boss. My new supervisor wanted to be part of all steps, carefully looking over the details of any plan I developed. When he had said to me, “Why am I hearing about this just now?”, he was ­indirectly telling me his SOP.
So, I began to share with him my evolving thinking about potential initiatives. Sure enough, he was much more receptive to this approach and added his own ideas. At times, he found resources and funding for me that I couldn’t have secured on my own. I still preferred the freedom and the immediacy of action granted to me by my old boss, but she was gone. I learned to treat my new boss for who he was, and kept my job because, for the most part, it was still a good job.

Working Effectively with Your Supervisor

Everyone in a school leadership position is a middle manager, constrained by contracts, regulations, budgets, and evaluation rubrics. There is often a belief that those above us in the hierarchy have exponentially more power than we do—but that isn’t true. We often wish they were incredibly good at their jobs because of the impact their actions have on everyone below them. As it turns out, they’re a lot like the rest of us, leaning on a few solid practices and figuring out their own SOP, as well as their supervisor’s, as they learn on the job. That said, it would be helpful if we didn’t have to suffer from our boss’s very human idiosyncrasies and shortcomings. But lowering our expectations of them or doing as I did—repeating the same behavior to demonstrate that my boss was imperfect and then complaining about it—won’t help. Instead, you can do what my mentor guided me to do, and what I have done ever since in my coaching of educators: write a description of your boss’s standard operating procedure, as defined by the following questions, and scaffold your approach accordingly. 

Making explicit what has been an implicit aspect of your working relationship with your boss can create clarity and trust.

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Here are questions to help put into focus your supervisor’s SOP:
  • What are my boss’s non-­negotiables?
  • What are my boss’s current ­priorities?
  • What is an urgent matter for my boss?
  • How open is my boss’s door for dropping in?
  • What does respect for my boss’s position and authority look and sound like to them?
  • What is my boss’s preferred way to be contacted with noncritical information: an email, a note handed in passing, a conversation in the hallway, a phone call, a voice memo, making an appointment?
  • What is my boss’s decision-making process?
  • What is my boss’s preferred way to follow up? Does my boss mind being prompted for follow-up?
  • Does my boss like to hear the big picture and some details, or do they like to hear all the details?
  • Does my boss want staff to come with a concern early on, or wait until they have developed solutions to share?
  • In my role at the school, what does my boss most want and need from me?
  • How can my boss best hear critical feedback?
  • How does my boss identify with their race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, etc.—and in what ways does that matter in our work together?
I suggest sharing your answers to these questions with a trusted peer who has the same supervisor. You may find areas of absolute agreement, and together develop strategies to effectively get what you need from your supervisor, such as sending him an invitation to a grade-level meeting well in advance. You may come to the conclusion that you have a toxic boss—not usually the case, but it happens—and wisely limit your interactions to reduce your own stress. If your peer is having more success with your supervisor using different strategies than yours, adjust your strategies. In this process, you will humanize your boss, seeing both their strengths and weaknesses. You will become a more effective advocate managing up the hierarchy, a skill set unique to every school and system. 
There’s another step to this process that can be enormously worthwhile (although I would not recommend it with a toxic boss). Pick an aspect of your boss’s style that you think you understand well and ask them if you are accurate in your assessment. For example, “I’ve noticed that you seem to like when I come to you early in my thinking about a school initiative, instead of waiting to present a plan of action. My goal is to have an effective working relationship with you. Am I right in my thinking?”
Making explicit what has been an implicit aspect of your working ­relationship with your boss can create clarity and trust. You may also help your boss understand their SOP in ways they never considered, which could help them be more effective with the entire staff.

Working Effectively as a Supervisor

As I came to more clearly understand my supervisor’s SOP, I realized that the staff I supervised deserved to know my SOP. They shouldn’t have to guess, experiment, or possibly misread my style for months or years. I needed to tell them how to effectively communicate with me, so that I could more often benefit from their information, concerns, and ideas—and so they would experience less frustration.

I needed to tell them how to effectively communicate with me, so that I could more often benefit from their information, concerns, and ideas.

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I made a habit of sharing a few aspects of my SOP in staff meetings or in individual conversations. For example:
  • I am very specific about time. I want meetings to start on time, with a commitment that they end on time. When I say we will take a two-minute break, I mean 120 seconds. But I can be flexible when asked; for instance, if you say you need more than two minutes for a break, we will find a duration that works for all.
  • I don’t remember everything I am told in passing when I am walking down the hallway; there’s a risk I will not follow through. I’d prefer a note in my mailbox or a quick email, and then I promise to get back to you promptly.
  • As a school leader, I don’t have assigned predictable prep periods throughout the day, so I take 15-minute breaks from communication to focus deeply on a task or simply rest my mind. When I have my “Break” sign on my door, you can knock if there is an emergency that cannot wait.
Of course, there is a lot more to my SOP than those three items. I personally reflected on the questions I had considered about my supervisor (e.g., What are my non-negotiables?), and worked to communicate my answers to staff. I also adjusted my SOP when necessary. The most important goal however, more than any one element of my SOP, was to be sensitive to how my style—my hierarchical power—could impede or benefit the functioning of the school. We could all exercise our emotional intelligence for the greater good.

Working Effectively with Students

At the very bottom of a school’s organizational chart—so far at the bottom that they don’t usually appear on it—are the students. They have no contracts, no unions, no lounges—­literally no power in almost any aspect of their schooling. 
They must also figure out the SOP of every single adult they interact with. Some students, with seemingly innate emotional intelligence, can read adults very well; for the rest, adults can be quite puzzling. This might trigger anxiety and avoidance that undermine students’ focus and performance.
We need to share with students, in developmentally appropriate ways, our SOPs. They too should not be guessing, experimenting, or possibly misreading our intentions and needs—and they have a much smaller toolkit of skills to do that difficult task.

Imagine every employee in a school or district explicitly sharing, 'This is how I work well, and I want you to be effective working with me.'

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Here are a few SOP elements that teachers I work with have been sharing with students:
  • Early elementary teachers let their students know in what ways they want students to help one another out in class without needing permission to do so.
  • Teachers let students know when and how to give them feedback. For example, teachers encourage students to speak up if they give instructions too fast, inadvertently hurt a student’s feelings, or assign homework that took much longer to finish than predicted. Our students come from a wide variety of families and cultures that have norms about how children may speak to adults. By making such class norms explicit, we also make our classes more inclusive.
  • Many students who are friends outside of school bring their relationships of joking and teasing each other into the classroom. Teachers share their boundaries for what is acceptable playfulness, or what they consider detrimental to the learning ­environment.
The parallel is strong between supervisors sharing their SOP with staff and adults sharing their SOP with students. Communicating your entire SOP at once is too much. Pick out a few elements that matter most to you or are needed by the particular students you are working with. As the school year progresses, you will have many opportunities to make explicit certain elements of your SOP. Your transparency will give students insights and practice into managing their working relationships with the adults in the school. Being explicit about your SOP can be one of the most enduring lessons in emotional intelligence students will experience: you model self-awareness, integrate your SOP into your daily behaviors, and explicitly help your students learn to work better with adults. You may be the first adult who offers them these powerful learning opportunities.

Understanding Our Differences

Imagine every employee in a school or district, from superintendent to teachers, explicitly sharing, “This is how I work well, and I want you to be effective working with me.” We could learn every day to understand our many differences. We could support each other in getting tasks done. We could stop expecting ­perfection and help each other ­maximize our many strengths and talents.
We are already implicitly engaging our emotional intelligence to work together, learning through errors and conflicts. By making our SOPs transparent, we can proactively engage that emotional intelligence to be the best we can be every day.
End Notes

1 Benson, J. (2021). Improve every lesson plan with SEL. ASCD.

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