Teacher Anger: What to do When You’re Reaching the Breaking Point

Do you ever reach a point where you’ve just had it with your students—they still aren’t following directions you’ve repeatedly delivered, they’re still talking not so quietly in the back of the room, and too many of them are still turning in work that has been dashed off at the last minute?

So what do you do? March into class and more or less let them have it?

Well, if you do, you certainly are not alone. In a study of teacher anger, researchers asked students to think of a specific teacher who had become angry in class and then describe that angry episode. Only five of the 301 students asked could not think of an angry-teacher event.

Specifically, these researchers were interested in seeing if they could identify some conditions under which the expression of teacher anger was seen as violating expected norms for teacher behavior. In a nutshell, they discovered that “teacher anger is not in and of itself a classroom norm violation. It is the manner in which anger is expressed that defines it as a norm violation.” (p. 85)

Expressions of anger by teachers are deemed appropriate when teachers “avoid intense, aggressive anger displays and instead assertively and directly discuss the problem with the class.” (p. 85) When they have those discussions, teachers are well advised to be fair and open and to consider carefully student perceptions of what has happened and why.

Put another way, even if you’re mad as hell, you want to turn down the volume, you don’t want to use a lot of emotional language, you don’t want to throw things (chalk, papers), you don’t want to exaggerate (not every last person in the class is lazy), you don’t want to turn red and look as though a stroke may be imminent, and you don’t want to be rude or condescending. You want to describe how student behavior affects you and what it causes you to do and to think. You also want to propose some alternatives—identify behaviors that are appropriate. You know yourself best, but sometimes it makes sense to let the intense wave of emotions pass before you respond. You want to control your emotions rather than let them control you.

If you do express anger in ways that violate norms, those expressions negatively influence student perceptions of you and your course. Any expression of anger is a high-stakes moment, as seen by how readily students remember them. Interesting side note: these researchers found that angry displays students considered inappropriate at the beginning of the course were more accepted by students later in the course. The researchers think that once students get to know a teacher and come to trust how she is running the course, they are more willing to accept an angry display.

If you think these research results indicate that you should suppress angry feelings—not let students know that you are upset by what they’ve done (or haven’t done)—that conclusion is not supported by this research. What these researchers found was that “students perceived teachers who did not display anger as neither appropriate [nor] inappropriate.” (p. 85) In other words, suppressing anger does not gain you higher marks with students. It gains you no marks. It’s back to what the researchers observed initially: “Not all angry episodes are similarly perceived. The way teachers express their anger affects how students respond.” (p. 86)

Reference: McPherson, M. B., Kearney, P., and Plax, T. G. (2003). The dark side of instruction: Teacher anger as classroom norm violations. Journal of Applied Communication Research, 31 (1), 76-90.

Reprinted from “Teacher Anger: When Does it Violate Expected Norms of Teacher Behavior.” The Teaching Professor, 23.10 (2009): 5.

Photo courtesy of RL Hyde, Flickr Creative Commons license.