Your Emotions Matter!
December 13, 2023
December 13, 2023
By Elena Savina
Teaching is an emotional job. You may feel happy when your students are doing well and parents express appreciation for your work, or filled with joy when a student who struggled makes progress. No one has to tell you, though, that there can be plenty of negative emotions, too. You may experience anxiety when students are taking statewide tests – indeed, your work can be judged by some on how well your students do on those tests. You may feel sad when saying goodbye to your students or learning that one of your students lives in poverty. You may be angry when you cannot achieve your instructional goals, experience injustice, or when you are required to do a lot of paperwork, which distracts you from teaching. Keep in mind that all emotions are important, even negative ones.
Those emotions have a powerful effect on instruction, relationships in the classroom, students’ learning and behavior, and teachers’ well-being. Research shows us that when teachers experience positive emotions, they’re more effective and make learning more enjoyable for students. On the other hand, negative emotions limit teachers’ choices of instructional strategies and make teaching less effective. Furthermore, teachers can transmit their negative emotions to students; when teachers are stressed out, so are their students. Teaching is a relational job and relationships are always emotional. You show that you care for your students through your emotions.
Emotions signal that something is important for us. For example, if you are anxious about an upcoming observation by an instructional coach or principal, your anxiety may inform you that demonstrating competence is very important for you. Your anxiety may also signal that you do not have strong skills in a particular area, and you need to spend extra time on preparation. If you feel angry when parents are not involved in their children’s school life, it means that you care about your students and want to enlist all resources to make them successful. Furthermore, your anger may energize you to take an active part in school initiatives that strengthen parental involvement. These examples demonstrate that negative emotions are not useless or bad, they are functional. Therefore, ignoring or suppressing them is not helpful. Besides, suppression of emotions is not healthy as it can lead to hypertension, problems with memory, and diminished social support.
Education researcher and author Andy Hargreaves wrote, “Creating and sustaining a dynamic, engaging lesson… requires hard emotional work, investment, or labor. So too does remaining calm and unruffled when confronted by threatening student behavior.” How often do you put a smile on your face despite feeling tired or upset? Probably quite often. Teachers have beliefs called “feeling rules” about what emotions are appropriate and which are not to show to their students. They are more willing to show positive than negative emotions. Anger is especially problematic in this regard. When you express an “appropriate” emotion despite feeling a different emotion (for instance, you feel angry but show that you are content), you are doing emotional labor. Emotional labor consumes a lot of mental resources, eventually leaving you emotionally drained. That is why for the sake of your emotional health, it is important to be authentic in your emotional expression. Authentic emotional expression also facilitates learning and relationships in the classroom: students trust teachers more when teachers are open in their emotional expression. Just keep in mind that the intensity of emotional expression should be modulated so it does not provoke anxiety in your students.
What brings out teachers’ emotions? One major factor is student performance. This should surprise no one, as teachers are invested in their students. In addition, the quality of your students’ work reflects, in part, your teaching. It is a joy to know when your teaching efforts come to fruition! On the other hand, you may experience anger and shame when students are not doing well. (Keep in my mind that students’ performance is affected by many other factors besides your teaching, many of which are beyond your control.) Teachers may experience strong emotions when they are required to use educational practices that go against their professional philosophy. Have you ever asked yourself the following: “What is my role? Is it to promote students’ learning or is it to prepare them to take tests?” High-stakes testing is stressful not only for students, but for teachers as well. Additionally, focusing on standardized performance may contradict your idea of teaching as a caring profession.
Student behavior is another common evoker of teacher emotion. Think about a student who often violates discipline in your classroom. How do you feel about his or her behavior? Maybe angry or anxious? You may have mixed emotions: you feel angry and sad at the same time because you know that this student has an unfortunate family situation. When students are noncompliant, you have to spend time trying to address problem behavior that ultimately reduces your instructional time. No wonder that students’ problem behavior can evoke negative emotions – it derails you from teaching.
Relationships with students, parents, and colleagues are often loaded with emotions, both positive and negative. When students and parents show gratitude, when you have friendly and supporting colleagues, you will likely feel positive emotions. However, when relationships are strained and you feel underappreciated and unsupported, it may lead to feelings of disappointment and sadness.
Changes and reforms in education are another significant source of teacher emotions. We all need a predictable and stable environment to feel secure and in control. If we lose that sense of stability and face a lot of uncertainty, it can fuel anxiety. That is why educational leaders must be mindful when planning and implementing reforms and changes – they need to take into account teachers’ emotions. Sufficient preparation and soliciting teachers’ input can head off negative feelings in teachers.
It is important to know that it is not the situation itself that evokes our emotions, but how we react to it. For instance, you have a student who refuses to do an assignment. Different teachers may have different approaches or explanations in this situation. One teacher might think that the student does not like them. The resulting feelings, in this case, would be sadness and defeat. Another teacher might think that the student is noncompliant because they want to challenge the teacher’s authority. How would you feel in this situation, especially, if you believe that students have to respect authority figures? Perhaps angry? However, both appraisals could be wrong. The student is noncompliant because they had a sleepless night after their parents had a fight. Having this information, how would you feel about this student?
Teaching is a demanding profession. You are simultaneously managing numerous responsibilities: delivering instruction, observing and managing behavior in the classroom, responding to students’ needs, anticipating situations that will need your attention, and dealing with your own emotions. It is not surprising that emotional burnout is common among teachers. This happens when teachers frequently experience stress and have difficulty managing it. Signs of emotional burnout include increased emotional exhaustion, being irritable and quick to anger, avoiding social gatherings, problems with sleep, and anxiety. Emotional burnout reduces teachers’ ability to teach and decreases job satisfaction. Furthermore, it is one of the leading reasons why teachers leave the profession. To prevent emotional burnout and stay emotionally healthy, consider the several strategies described below.
Focus on positive emotional experiences. We have a tendency to notice negative emotions because they bother us, while positive emotions can quite often go unnoticed. Psychologist Barbara Fredrickson developed an interesting theory regarding positive emotions, called “broaden-and-built theory.” According to this theory, positive emotions broaden our repertoire of behavior, make us more creative, and more open for learning. They also build our resources that we can use when we are emotionally depleted or distressed. Furthermore, when we experience positive emotions right after stressful events, positive emotions help us to return to a normal state faster. This is why it can be critically important to attend to positive emotions. Develop a habit of noticing positive events every day. They don’t need to be big. Perhaps students were engaged in today’s lesson, or they worked well together. Maybe you enjoyed your drive to school looking at the nice scenery or maybe your colleague made a compliment about something you were wearing.
Build a social support system. Social support is essential for your emotional well-being. Find colleagues at your school who have similar values or teaching philosophy. Have a place where you can feel comfortable to talk with one another and build a sense of community.
Create a self-care routine. Self-care is very important for you to maintain your emotional well-being. As Andy Hargreaves wrote, teachers have “the obligation to receive care as well as to give it.” Find different ways to replenish yourself. This can be a hobby, going on evening walks, reading a book, or enjoying meals with friends. Stick to your self-care routine and remember when you say, “I don’t have time” is when you need it the most.
Separate your personal and professional lives. Leave school at school! As much as you care about your students and your work, take as little work as possible home and do not dwell on school-related issues in the evening. This can prevent a spillover of negative emotions to the next day. If you have difficulty separating yourself from negative events that happened during the day, you will likely wake up the next morning feeling exhausted and emotionally depleted. A good night’s sleep is also important as it helps us to regulate our emotions better.
Finally, be kind to yourself. Do not be overly self-critical –remember that we all have shortcomings. Do your best and celebrate your accomplishments!
Elena Savina, PhD, teaches in the graduate psychology program and the Institute for Innovation in Health and Human Services at James Madison University.