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I’m Not Sure About Testing Student Teachers for Emotional Intelligence

By Yvette Vignando – 13th March 2013

I’m very happy and optimistic about some of the changes the Federal government is proposing to teacher training. Teachers should, I believe, be more highly trained, paid and respected in our society – along with the medical profession, they are pretty much the lynchpin of a successful society. I look at Finland where teachers need a Master’s degree, are selected from the top academic quarter of graduates and are paid salaries commensurate with the rest of their professional population and I think “I hope one day …”. What made me stop and listen this week however, was reporting that Ministers Bowen and Garrett, in collaboration with Universities Australia, announced that as part of the National Plan for School Improvement, prospective teachers may be tested for emotional intelligence skills. 

If you know anything about me, you’ll know that I believe emotional intelligence education is important. So why would I baulk at the suggestion that new Australian teachers are to be tested for emotional intelligence? At first glance, that sounds brilliant. I absolutely believe that a skilled teacher with a high EQ will be a better teacher, and an important role model for students – at the bottom of this article I have extracted an idea of what an emotionally intelligent teacher “looks like”.

Teachers who have high levels of empathy, emotional self-and-other awareness, and emotional control, are much better equipped to manage a classroom and develop encouraging and inspiring relationships with their students.  There are studies that confirm the educational benefits of having emotionally intelligent teachers in the classroom. For example, a small recent study of Iranian students showed that there was a significant relationship between higher levels of a teacher’s emotional intelligence and students’ levels of learning motivation.

Where Will Teachers Learn Emotional Intelligence?

There are a number of high quality programs available to teach children social and emotional skills. Commonly called SEL (social and emotional learning) programs, children who are exposed to these programs regularly, have shown significant academic gains, sometimes of up to 11% in marks, and shown important social and emotional improvements that enhance classroom learning.  However, in Australia, neither the Federal nor the state governments have funded nationwide evaluated SEL curricula for schools.  If you search through drafts of the new National Curriculum, you will find mentions of emotional intelligence and explicit lists of certain EI skills as learning outcomes. However, you will not find in the National Curriculum any selection, naming or funding of a particular SEL curriculum for Australian schools, nor will you find mention of a teacher training program to enable teachers to deliver that curriculum as experts.

What you will find, if you look hard, is an increasing number of public and private schools going their own way and seeking out SEL programs to help their students. There was much publicity surrounding the excellent decision of Geelong Grammar to involve renowned positive psychology expert Professor Martin Seligman in learning at their schools; Geelong Grammar also generously made that knowledge available to some of their neighbouring public schools. And last year, in another example, The Australian reported on a Swedish emotional intelligence program being trialled by six Australian schools.

But my question is this: if prospective teachers are going to be assessed for their emotional intelligence, will the National Curriculum be amended accordingly?

Specifically, if we are looking for a difference in the next generation of teachers* and expecting them to have high level EI skills, won’t it be absolutely critical that they have had access to a nationwide SEL program throughout their primary and high school years? School students come from a variety of cultural and socio-economic backgrounds and of course have their own hard-wired temperaments; in some cases, schools will be the only place where a student has EI skills modelled and taught. We do want the next generation of teachers to come from a diverse background of students, so we need to ensure that like numeracy, literacy and other important skills, SEL is available to all.

What Exactly Is Proposed During a Teacher Education Admission Interview?

Media reporting of Ministers Bowen’s and Garrett’s announcements broadly stated that students wishing to be educated as teachers would be tested for their emotional intelligence. I made some enquiries of the media office for Mr Garrett and this reporting was clarified. What is currently proposed is:

  • As part of improving the admissions process, prospective students would be interviewed to assess their emotional intelligence;
  • The assessment would include ascertaining a prospective student’s emotional intelligence, resilience, commitment to teaching and their ability to communicate, inspire and hold the attention of a classroom. Students would also have to present a portfolio of activities to demonstrate their community involvement;
  • The government has asked The Australia Institute of Teaching and School Leadership to work with universities to develop an admissions interview program but it is “early days”; and
  • There is no proposal to teach an explicit emotional intelligence skills program to student teachers once they have been admitted into a teaching course; this would continue to be incidental learning in the process of being educated about general teaching skills.

More Reasons Why I am Concerned About a Proposal to Assess a Student’s Emotional Intelligence

Optimistically, I am hoping that in conjunction with this proposed change to choosing applicants for education degrees, the following things happen:

  • Introduction of a quality, evaluated SEL program nationwide in primary and high schools and continual assessment of that program for effectiveness.
  • Offer all existing teachers training in the delivery of SEL programs in the classroom.
  • Offer all existing teachers ongoing professional development in emotional intelligence skills.
  • Teach emotional intelligence skills as an explicit part of a teacher education degree.
  • Conduct evaluation research as the training progresses, to ensure trainee teachers are being taught EI skills in the most effective way.

But will they?

Pessimistically, or maybe realistically, I am not aware of any emotional intelligence test or interviewing technique to assess EI that is non-transparent  –  so I think it will be very difficult for The Australia Institute of Teaching and School Leadership and universities to devise such an interview.

In spite of some sellers of emotional intelligence assessments offering their instruments for recruitment/candidate selection processes, in my opinion, even the most excellent of them remain necessarily too transparent to be used in that way**.  I suspect it would be a far better investment of time and money to introduce SEL into schools in a systematic way, and stick to established psychological and competency-based testing of prospective education students. To be clear, I think interviews to establish the suitability of education degree candidates is an excellent idea; I am just not convinced that emotional intelligence assessment can be done in a rigorous, fair and reliable way at this stage. We’ll have to wait and see what happens next …

What Does an Emotionally Intelligent Teacher Look Like?

There are many ways to describe why emotional intelligence is important in the skillset of a teacher. As one example, here is an extract is from The Emotionally Intelligent Teacher: A Transformative Learning Model by Drs Kaye and Darwin Nelson and Dr Lowe :

  • Physical and mental health by gaining knowledge/techniques to break the habit of emotional reactivity (Stress Management);
  • Productivity and personal satisfaction by helping to harmonize their thinking and feeling minds (Self Esteem and Confidence);
  • ·Self esteem and confidence by learning specific emotional intelligence skills (Positive Personal Change);
  • Communication in personal and work relationships (Assertion);
  • Ability to manage anxiety and improve performance under pressure (Anxiety Management);
  • Ability to quickly establish and maintain effective interpersonal relationships (Comfort);
  • Ability to understand and accept differences in others and diversity issues (Empathy);
  • Ability to plan, formulate, implement effective problem solving procedures in stressful situations (Decision Making);
  • Ability to positively impact, persuade, and influence others (Leadership);
  • Ability to direct energy and motivation to accomplish personally meaningful goals (Drive Strength);
  • Ability to manage time to meet goals and assignments (Time Management);
  • Ability to complete tasks and responsibilities in a timely and dependable manner (Commitment Ethic); and
  • Ability to control and manage anger and improve performance under stressful conditions and situations (Anger Management).  

* Yes I know many, many fabulous teachers – I am not suggesting that the quality of teachers in Australia is very low. However, I do believe that Australia could do better at selecting, rewarding and respecting teachers as a profession.

** There are many excellent EI assessment instruments on the market: the EQMap, the Genos ei, the Bar-On EQi and the Mayer, Salovey and Caruso EI test are just four examples; all have different applications and strengths in different contexts. I think they are most useful in professional development work. 

You can read four education experts’ responses to the proposals here.


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