Secret Sauce

Secret Sauce: A Recipe for Growing Educator Emotional-Intelligence

In our final foundational article of the 4-part series, we take a look “under the hood” to explore just how FuelEd goes about growing emotionally intelligent educators that build relationship-driven schools. Surprise, surprise — it happens through the experience of a secure relationship.

First Love

One critical ingredient to being a secure attachment figure is having your own emotional needs met, usually through other secure relationships, so you can tend to the needs of others in a healthy way.

This experience of secure attachment often occurs in early childhood - a “first love” so to speak - and is transformative in that not only does it empower the receiver to approach adversity from a place of security, but it also seeds them with the power to pass that healing love onto others. Because the brain remains malleable long into adulthood, securely attached individuals have the power to grow more securely attached individuals just through being in relationships. This means that even if a child that doesn’t experience this first love in early childhood, they can still be transformed by a loving, secure relationship with another person.

For many students, this loving, secure person is an educator. And all it takes is one. One person to invest in them, to show them they matter, to listen to them, and to care about them. One person to make them feel safe, soothed, seen, and secure.

But who will be this person for the educator?

FuelEd as a Secure Attachment Figure

At FuelEd, our curriculum focuses on the science, skills, and self-awareness necessary to build relationships in schools, but our trainers and counselors are doing much more than delivering professional development and actively listening. The primary function of both of these roles is to help every educator become more securely attached, and in doing so enable them to build secure relationships. To make this happen, FuelEd trainers and counselors serve as secure attachment figures for educators, so those educators can then serve as secure attachment figures for their students, colleagues, and loved ones.

The following is our attempt to describe the qualities or "key ingredients" of the relationships we build with educators in the service of growing their emotional intelligence. We share this as a hopeful invitation to and guide for anyone who wants to promote growth in educators and place relationships at the center of every school.

Safety

Secure relationships develop when people feel safe. When people feel unsafe, they return to old patterns of behaving and relating. In order for an educator to experiment with new ways of being, the relationship where they are practicing must be safe for this type of risk-taking. Delving into self-awareness is central to FuelEd’s program but it also can feel scary. FuelEd trainers and counselors serve as emotional regulators or “amygdala whisperers,” keeping educators in that sweet spot where learning occurs: stimulated enough so they aren’t bored, yet safe enough so they can focus, learn, and grow.

Working in schools is challenging, interpersonal work. In a single day, educators can feel joy, wonder, fear, frustration, confusion, and despair, all of which go mostly unacknowledged. The hierarchical and, at times, punitive nature of some school cultures can leave educators feeling paranoid, scrutinized, and judged — the opposite of safe. In our programs, FuelEd trainers create a safe environment by always being mindful of any comments that may heighten a participant’s sense of threat, and the sessions are designed to build emotional safety with topics progressively diving deeper into self-exploration as trust is established. And for participants that engage in counseling, confidentiality is the first building block towards safety, giving educators the opportunity to process privately with someone whose only job is to listen without judgment.

Attunement

Secure relationships are formed when someone tunes in to us. Attunement is when someone is available enough to accurately notice and respond to our needs and feelings. While FuelEd trainers work with educators in large groups and FuelEd counselors work one-on-one, both act as emotional barometers, maintaining high levels of emotional awareness, sensing needs and feelings, and responding appropriately.

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Unconditional Acceptance

Secure relationships are built when we are unconditionally accepted, or valued for who we are. A prerequisite to unconditional acceptance is a trust that all people have an inherent tendency to become the best version of themselves when in the right environment and a belief that all behavior stems from prior experiences that can be understood and accepted. Unconditional acceptance communicates that the bridge between us cannot be irreparably damaged. It says, “While I may not always agree with you, get along with you, or even condone your actions, I will not cast you off as a person. Even if we rupture, we can repair. You cannot lose our connection, and there’s nothing you must do, or be, to deserve it either.”

FuelEd trainers strive to accept and value educators for who they are. They attentively listen without interruption, judgment, or disapproval. They are coached to be aware of times they might feel unaccepting towards an educator, and to avoid the temptation to ignore the “student.” Instead, they are trained to provide even greater attention, care, and warmth knowing that those who need the most love often ask for it in the most unloving of ways. FuelEd counselors vigilantly monitor their own language for solutions, reassurance, or interrogation, which can betray a sense of safety, and instead focus on being vulnerable and present with the participant. This non-judgemental way of being in relationship opens space for educators to safely reflect on their own issues, providing them with a sense of freedom, control, and direction from within.

Understanding

Secure relationships are built when we feel seen. When an educator speaks the unspeakable and is understood, they experience something powerful: “I’m not alone. I’m not crazy. Actually, I’m okay. Maybe I could even be good.” Our trainers and counselors provide understanding through empathic listening. They listen deeply to the content and feelings behind educators’ words and paraphrase their understanding. By reflecting an educator’s words, the Trainer and Counselor both validate the experience and serve as holding space for those emotions. They invite the person to make contact with their inner experiences and go deeper into themselves, learning more but also accepting and loving more.

Autonomy

Secure relationships require autonomy. Trusting that experience is our best teacher, and that the educator is capable of directing her own learning, means trainers and counselors must relinquish a sense of control common to those in helping professions. FuelEd’s curriculum is constructivist and experiential. Experiences are followed by opportunities to process, which helps educators find their own answers. This is in stark contrast to the teaching method that most are accustomed to, which begins with direct instruction and answers. Patience, trust in the process, and sharp focus are required of trainers as educators grapple, question, and engage. trainers serve as part-witness, part-guide as learning unfolds organically. For FuelEd’s counselors, the educator leads the therapist in their own journey of self-discovery. There is no universal structure to the sessions, no homework to complete, no one-size-fits-all goals to be met. The counselor follows the educator’s direction, trusting in their capacity to change.

Genuineness

Secure relationships develop when people are real. As social creatures, our brains are hardwired to analyze and understand others — doing so was critical to our survival. One study found that when an individual was placed in a brain scanner and asked to think about others, all sorts of neural networks would activate, but when the same person was asked to think about themselves, not much showed up in the scan. This points to the fact that personal blind spots are part of the human condition, but it also underscores the opportunity we have to grow one another through relationship.

When I honestly share my perceptions, reactions, or feelings about you with you, I give you insight into yourself that you could not have had access to without our relationship. When I am genuine, I help you grow.

Because educators with insecure attachment styles struggle with trust, genuine communication is crucial to restoring their ability to trust themselves and others. The deep, personal sharing that our trainers offer in FuelEd programming exemplifies genuineness and builds this trust. When a trainer shares their attachment story, exposing themselves and their earliest memories of pain, shame, and trauma to a group of educators, they are modeling an awareness of their thoughts and feelings as well as a vulnerability to share.

For participants engaging in counseling, being in a genuine relationship enables them to learn to trust, some of them for the first time. Being genuine requires the counselor to be aware of their own thoughts, feelings, and reactions to the educator, and also that they take the risk to share. When the counselor is irritated, he doesn’t pretend it does not exist but rather speaks his truth. Over time, truth builds trust.

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Whole Educator, Whole Child

For many years, cognitive behaviorism has shaped education with the belief that if we just change cognitions and behaviors, we can change student outcomes. But the latest research is pointing to the fact that information is actually not the most powerful agent of change - relationships are.

Building an education system for the whole child requires secure relationships.

Secure relationships in every classroom and every school requires whole educators.

Growing educators as whole people requires more secure relationships for the educators themselves.

It’s not a quick fix, it takes time and space, but it works. The very best thing we can do for our children is to make schools into places where secure relationships and adult development happen every day in the regular course of work. Places where educators are accepted for who they are and encouraged for who they can become.

Acknowledgments

Thank you for reading this four-part foundational article series on FuelEd’s framework of the science, skills, and self-awareness of relationships and our “secret sauce.” We would like to take a moment to acknowledge and appreciate those who laid the groundwork for this framework and all that we at FuelEd do.

The orientation of FuelEd’s training and counseling draws predominantly on the work of Carl Rogers’ humanistic, person-centered approach. The core tenant of this approach is that human beings have an inherent tendency to self-actualize – to become their best selves ­– when in the right environment. The right environment is a relationship with someone who provides you with the “core conditions” of empathy, unconditional acceptance, and genuineness. In addition to person-centered theory, FuelEd’s work draws on attachment theory, a field that studies the dynamics of long-term relationships between human beings, and interpersonal neurobiology, an interdisciplinary field positing that people are formed at the interface between relationships and the unfolding structure and function of the brain.

Our deepest gratitude and reverence goes to those who have influenced and guided our work including Carl Rogers, John Bowlby, Mary Ainsworth, Mary Main, Haim Ginnot, Louis Cozolino, Daniel Siegel, Allan Schore, Alice Miller, and Irvin Yalom.

About the author

Megan Marcus

Partner & Founder - San Diego CA

Megan holds a B.A. in Psychology from the University of California at Berkeley and Master’s degrees in Psychology from Pepperdine University. While at Pepperdine, Megan studied under Dr. Louis Cozolino and served as the lead researcher for his book, The Social Neuroscience of Education. Megan then completed a Master’s degree in Education, Policy, and Management from Harvard University, where she explored how to translate the elements of a therapists’ professional training to an educational setting. Her research with Dr. Cozolino and studies at Harvard combined to form the core beliefs that became the bedrock of FuelEd. Since 2012, Megan has passionately served the educational community as FuelEd’s Founder.

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