Every colleague I have talked to recently looks tired. Maybe it’s the weather? Maybe it’s the flu virus going around. These winter months can be tough.

In fact, most of my conversations with teachers these days focus on their emotional states or moods. We talk less about instructional practice and more about resilience and well-being.

A few days ago, I was on a coaching call with a high school teacher, and it centered around a challenging moment in her classroom. She described an emotionally-charged incident when she felt that her students had really let her (and themselves) down.

When she learned that they weren’t at all prepared to lead a reading activity for younger students in the school, she was frustrated, disappointed, and downright angry. She needed to find a way to regroup with them, but she wasn’t sure how to communicate, in the moment, without losing it.

Sound familiar to you at all? If you are a manager or leader in your organization, no doubt you can relate.

The Emotional Brain: Six Dimensions

This conversation led me back to a great book called The Emotional Life of Your Brain.

After thirty years of research in the field of affective neuroscience, Richard Davidson published a user-friendly book about his findings. It’s all about understanding your own particular “emotional fingerprint” (or emotional style, as he calls it).

The book’s key purpose is to map out the six brain-based components of “emotional style.” According to his theory, Davidson claims that we can each place ourselves on a continuum relative to the following six dimensions:

  • Resilience: How long does it take you to bounce back after a struggle?
  • Outlook: How long are you able to sustain positive emotions when good things happen to you?
  • Social Intuition: How well do you pick up social signals and cues from others?
  • Self-Awareness: Are you able to recognize bodily sensations that signal emotions
  • Sensitivity to Context: How much is your ability to emotionally regulate dependent on your context?
  • Attention: How sharply and clearly can you focus?

Reflecting on the Six Dimensions

After my coaching client described the incident in her classroom, we drew on these six dimensions to conduct a sort of “post-mortem” analysis of her emotional response at the time:

  • How much did you let others’ lack of preparedness get you down?
  • Did this incident stick with you throughout the day or were you able to let it go?
  • Did you correctly perceive others’ “anxiety” in that moment? Or did you see something that wasn’t necessarily present?
  • What did you feel in your body during that moment of upset? (Did you use it as a cue to slow down or adjust your approach?)
  • Would this incident have been more or less challenging for you to manage in a small group vs. a large group context? In another classroom? With another group of individuals?
  • How clearly did you see what was happening in that moment? Were you able to step back and focus on others’ behaviors before getting caught up in the wave of emotion?

After digging into these questions, the teacher was able to pinpoint her desire to leverage self-awareness, attention, and social intuition more in the future. She realized that she could have benefitted from taking a moment to consciously step back. If she would have asked her students to problem solve around this dilemma in their journals, then she might have been better able to observe her students in that moment, assess her own emotional state, and anticipate possible next steps.

And for the rest of us—how might we take these six dimensions and use them as tools for processing and reflecting on our own specific challenges?

More broadly speaking, how might we learn to become more aware of how we function on each dimension? Davidson’s book includes self-assessments for all six emotional style components, and he offers a brief online assessment for the first of the six, resilience, here.

Perhaps, most importantly, Chapter 11 of his book outlines simple “neurally inspired” exercises for changing your emotional style over time. Examples include:

  • Gratitude practices
  • Mindfulness meditation
  • Body scans
  • Focused-attention meditation (centered on an object)
  • Cognitive reappraisal training,

If you are looking for further science-based strategies for enhancing resilience, in particular, check out this article.

This month consider focusing on one of the six dimensions of emotional style. Then choose one exercise for nurturing your emotional brain. The most commonly cited practice in his book is mindfulness meditation. Research demonstrates that it can enhance self-awareness, attention, and resilience.

If you would like to better understand the range of mindfulness practices out there, take a look at this piece from the Greater Good Science Center called “How to Choose a Type of Mindfulness Meditation.”

Winter is the perfect time to quietly focus on the proper care of our emotional brains.

I just finished reading a lean, practical, and user-friendly book to enhance my coaching, facilitation, and general “getting along”(?!) skills. In The Coaching Habit, Michael Bungay Stanier describes what he calls the “TERA quotient” for increasing people’s level of engagement with you at work. Drawing from neuroscience, he claims that there are four factors driving every human being’s sense of engagement with others. I love his acronym for coaches and managers because it is highly relevant to teachers as well, and I see direct applications to working with 1) an individual student who appears apathetic, 2) an off-task group of students, 3) an entire classroom, and most certainly 4) a colleague or staff member you struggle to understand (and vice versa).

Underlying the TERA quotient, is recognition of the basic evolutionary drive to move toward rewards and away from risks in order to survive and thrive as humans. And, of course, moving away from risks is crucial in sustaining a much-needed sense of safety, which is a central consideration of this model.

As you read about the TERA quotient, note Stanier’s four key questions and consider just one person (or group of people) who may be challenging for you at this time. How might this student, colleague, or group of individuals respond to you if you made conscious adjustments relative to the four factors below?

T is for Tribe: “The brain is asking, ‘Are you with me, or are you against me’?”

How can you help students or colleagues feel a greater sense of belonging—as if they really are part of the group? Some strategies might include physical proximity (sitting or standing at the same level), a light, reassuring (and appropriate) touch on the arm (yay for oxytocin!), and the thoughtful use of language that moves away from “I” and toward “we.”

On a classroom level, key evidence-based strategies might include group generation of norms or a community agreement, highly structured cooperative learning activities with clear roles, shared materials, and structures for positive interdependence.

E is for Expectation: “The brain is figuring out, ‘Do I know the future or don’t I’?”

How might you alleviate any fears, confusion, or anxiety about what is going to happen next when approaching a charged discussion with a colleague or preparing students for a lesson or an assessment? In this case, the assumption is that too much uncertainty is disconcerting, so how can you prepare students or colleagues for what is to come? There is a fine line in instructional delivery, for sure (as you don’t want students to be too comfortable, and therefore, complacent). However, you can’t go wrong in providing a clear learning target and a detailed set of directions, verbally and visually. (And perhaps you might do that right after an intriguing inquiry activity or extended anticipatory set to whet their appetites.)

In terms of communicating expectations with a colleague or co-teacher, the more transparent the better. “I am hoping that we can discuss a detailed plan for tomorrow’s presentation, outline who is doing what, and how we might signal each other if we are going overtime or need to adjust our pacing? What are your needs and priorities for this meeting?” Clarity of intention alleviates the mystery and can burst the anxiety bubble.

R is for Rank: “Are you more important or less important than I am?”

Rank is not necessarily about someone’s actual title or formal position, but about how power dynamics are playing out in a given context and moment. If a colleague feels diminished or lower in status, he may also feel less safe and secure, and therefore less likely to risk engaging. If this is the case, consider how you might consciously attempt to adjust (or depress) your own status through humility, self-deprecation, and the practice of openly sharing your vulnerabilities. As a teacher, I find that those moments when I own my mistakes and joke about my quirks and foibles, my older students, in particular, are really with me.

There are also ways to help raise another person’s sense of rank or status. Note your physical position when talking with a student or colleague. At times it might be helpful to sit down while the other person stands, simply to shift the dynamic. Most importantly, ask good questions and engage in inquiry while deeply listening to indicate that you trust that another person or group of people can figure things out on their own. Step back, stop talking, get curious, and ask genuine questions.

A is for Autonomy: “Do I get a say or don’t I?”

Here again, questions are absolutely crucial in promoting a sense of voice and agency.

  • What are you hoping to get out of this meeting?
  • What is the most important topic to discuss right now?
  • What is the real challenge for you here?
  • What are you most excited to learn about in this unit?
  • If you could design a project to meet this target, what would you choose to do?
  • What was the most useful thing you learned today?

Apart from asking questions, offering options is equally important. Does the person in front of you feel like she has the opportunity to make any choices here? Or are you making all the choices? How can you adjust your joint goals for the conversation and/or lesson, so that there is some give and take?

The Four Big Questions

“Are you with me or against me? Do I know the future or don’t I? Are you more important or less important than I am? Do I get a say or don’t I?” As I appreciate how crucial these questions are to my own sense of safety in the workplace, I can also begin to grasp the significance of these questions for my colleagues (and students) as we negotiate a joint sense of safety and well-being together.

Consider focusing on one or two factors in the TERA quotient (Tribe, Expectation, Rank, or Autonomy) this week with that challenging colleague. Take note of any shifts in the quality of your interactions—and feel free to check in and comment below.