For as long as I can remember, I wanted to be a teacher. In fact, when I was a little girl, when it rained, I played school on our back porch. My friends would come over, and I would teach them a lesson that my teachers taught using extra worksheets that my fifth-grade teacher saved for me. On that porch, we practiced our handwriting, reviewed our spelling words, and talked about history. I even drilled them on their multiplication facts. It was a good time. I went all in teaching my students. I even had some props—a pop bottle and some scratch paper—because I thought that teachers also wrote notes and drank soda.

After years of studying, I became a teacher and worked in Chicago Public Schools, the third-largest urban school district in the United States, for more than 33 years. Like many others, I moved up the ranks within my district and served in many positions, including assistant principal and principal. I loved visiting classrooms, learning alongside students, and helping to shape teachers’ practice.

Cheryl D. Watkins is an education consultant and former principal in Chicago Public Schools.

When an opportunity to start a new school was offered, I worked with two teachers and two parents to write and submit a proposal to start that school. The proposal was filled with input from every educator, student, and parent with whom I had spoken throughout my career. I used my own grammar school experience to anchor my thoughts about what a good education entailed and soon became the founding principal of my dream school: Pershing West Middle School.

It didn’t take me long to realize that the principalship entailed so much more than being able to design a school on paper. School leadership included things I was never taught in pre-service courses, and I’m not just talking about “the novice nine,” the pounds you either lose or gain as you attempt to keep up with the demands of the job. I’m also not talking about the few hours of sleep you get each night that are punctuated with ideas—scribbled on a notepad next to your bed—that serve to be your first actions of the next day. It is all about emotional intelligence, knowing that who you are will impact everything you do and everyone with whom you come in contact.

As the leader of a school, you are the first one who gets called when things happen, whether they are good or bad, with the knowledge that you will be the “fixer.” Your immediate or prolonged responses to the issues that you face will do one of two things: Make the situation better or make the situation worse. Learning that school leaders must cultivate a unique skill set to bridge the gap between theory and practice, as they address the everydayness of school leadership, was pivotal for me. I learned that one of those bridges is called “emotional intelligence,” and it is a characteristic needed to maintain mental and emotional stability. It’s a prized skill that helps you to become more self-aware as you acknowledge the situations that push your buttons and navigate those moments when everyone is looking at you for leadership.

What Is Emotional Intelligence?

It has been said that emotional intelligence is the foundation of success because it connects to how emotions are managed in a healthy manner. According to the leading voices on the subject, it entails individuals knowing themselves, their range of emotions, and how they respond to the many issues that present themselves throughout the day.

Principals and assistant principals who possess emotional intelligence have the opportunity to support students and staff as they also navigate their own lives. Think about it: When a student gets stung by a bee during recess and is crying hysterically from the pain, your response can make that situation better or worse. Your voice on the walkie-talkie as you seek the whereabouts of the school nurse can make or break that moment. For me, it was about the teacher who went into labor at school. I met her as she walked down the hall, thinking she only needed to rest a little. I was wrong—her actions told the story that my insides were privately battling against. Her brow was furrowed, her steps were quick, and her breathing was shallow. She was trying to hide her anxiety about the arrival of her first son, and so was I. On the outside, I was cool and calm as I helped her get to the teachers’ lounge while asking who she would like me to call. On the inside, I was a nervous wreck, but I knew that if I demonstrated what I was feeling, it could be upsetting for her.

Not everyone is born with the ability to be emotionally intelligent, but it’s important to know that if that’s the case, all is not lost. According to Daniel Goleman, a psychologist who has written extensively on this topic, being emotionally intelligent is not always innate. You can become more emotionally in tune with your thoughts and feelings through introspection—first by being honest with yourself about who you are as a person, examining your responses to situations, and by identifying your fears and your triggers.

The second way to increase your emotional intelligence is by listening to and processing feedback. When others share their thoughts about how you addressed a situation, listen. Be open to hearing them, knowing that their words, whether critical or celebratory, will help you to increase what Goleman calls your emotional quotient (EQ). Lastly, he says that making an effective effort, identifying that growth area and doing something about it, is needed to increase EQ.

Effective effort is what propelled me to conduct a close examination of who I was. Here’s how I purposely went about improving my emotional intelligence, trusting that doing so would help me to improve relationships both at work and at home. I started reading books. Sounds simple, but it’s true. I read about being a better leader and what that entailed. I chose books that validated my obsession with maintaining my integrity and helped me to shape my communication style.

These books helped me as I delivered messages about the decisions being made for the betterment of the school, and the reasons behind them, to staff, students, parents, and the school community. Poring over books that were getting dusty on my shelves helped me to remember that I had every tool that I needed to maintain my emotionally intelligent status. These were books such as Good to Great by Jim Collins, Reframing Organizations: Artistry, Choice and Leadership by Lee G. Bolman and Terrence E. Deal, and The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen R. Covey.

First, Fill Your Cup

When I lead professional development sessions on how to become emotionally intelligent, I focus on three objectives, with the knowledge that no one can pour from an empty cup. They must first fill their own (that’s effective effort). To encourage participants to search themselves, to dissect the innermost thoughts that ground their actions, I ask them to complete a quick emotional intelligence self-assessment and then to analyze their results. It’s an opportunity for them to listen to other people discuss their strengths and areas of improvement (introspection and feedback).

During the sessions, which run three hours in length (there are breaks!), I introduce content to encourage school leaders to prioritize themselves as they go about doing the work that can be described as challenging and rewarding in the same breath. I mainly use The 15 Commitments of Conscious Leadership: A New Paradigm for Sustainable Success by Jim Dethmer, Diana Chapman, and Kaley Warner Klemp, a professional text, to facilitate individualized exploration on this topic. I focus on a few of the commitments needed to move from unconscious leadership, where situations happen to you, to conscious leadership, where things are started and completed by you.

To positively impact your EQ, I suggest leaning into Commitment 4, which is all about being candid in your communication efforts. Candor helps you to communicate without confusion and to be impeccable with your word. There’s also Commitment 6, which is about integrity. I share that embracing integrity is all about knowing the right thing to do, saying the right thing, and doing the right thing. But it’s really Commitment 9, embracing a life of play and rest, that I spend a lot of time unpacking. It’s a commitment that screams “You matter!” Ultimately, school and district leaders walk away from each session with an overarching commitment to do better, not just for others but for themselves.

I believe that each leader has what it takes to seek, obtain, and maintain their own emotional intelligence. It begins and continues with leaders putting themselves first on the list with the belief that if they are not emotionally grounded, they will not be able to support others as difficulties arise throughout their day.

To secure your own emotional intelligence, I invite you to identify how you pour back into yourself. Throughout the eight years that I was a principal, I worked seven days a week, and most of them for more than 14 hours a day. I had just enough time to make the drive home, heat something up to eat, review any work that I had stuffed into my bag, and grab a few hours of much-needed sleep. I considered the emotional and mental health of my faculty and staff but not my own.

One day, in a room filled mostly with people I didn’t know, I made a confession and a declaration. I confessed that I was tired, worn out by addressing the needs of my school constituents, and that I realized the unhealthy schedule I carved out for myself did not allow me to have the work/life balance I needed. On that same day, I publicly promised to prioritize myself so that I could be a better leader. That was the first of many more emotionally intelligent decisions I made trusting that when I was OK, I could help others along that same path.

One thing I would share with my faculty and staff at the beginning of the school year was that we would start strong and that we would end strong. Being emotionally intelligent will secure your strong start to this school year and your even stronger finish.

Cheryl D. Watkins, PhD, is a former network chief of schools for Chicago Public Schools, the founding principal of Pershing West Middle School, and the founder of Monarch Education Consultants LLC.