February 19th, 2014

The Emotions That Fuel Our Teaching

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I’ve been delving a bit into the emotional aspects of teaching. They continue to be largely ignored in the research literature and in our discussions of teaching. Could that be because emotional things fit uncomfortably in the objective, rational, intellect-driven culture of the academy? We teach in an environment where content continues to dominate the thinking of so many faculty that there’s little room left for consideration of the emotional. Nonetheless, I remain convinced that you cannot power a teaching career on intellect alone. Emotions are an ever-present part of teaching.

Are the emotions associated with teaching most strongly felt by new teachers? The March issue of The Teaching Professor newsletter highlights a fascinating study of sociology graduate students teaching for the first time. They wrote a 10-page reflective paper on their experiences, which the researchers analyzed. “The sheer emotionality of first-time teaching is one of the most striking aspects of our data.” (p. 20) A systematic review of the papers revealed 250 different emotional terms used to describe those first classroom experiences.

Emotions are usually thought of as being either negative or positive. In the study, more negative than positive emotions were named, but the new teachers described positive and negative feelings equally often. The negative emotions written about in their papers were ones we’ve all experienced—fear, nervousness, worry, frustrations, anxiety, concern, stress, and feelings of difficulty. Commonly mentioned positive emotions included enjoyment, comfort, confidence, excitement, reward, fun, and feelings of anticipation.

What may be felt more keenly early in a teaching career are the highs and lows—when a day goes well, there’s euphoria, when that first test is returned, despair. Although teaching may be less of a rollercoaster ride as a career progresses, it is rarely a flat road. Even seasoned veterans often experience feelings of anxiety and nervousness on the first day of class.

We don’t really need research to support the common sense observation that emotions affect behavior, but how does that work in the classroom? How do our feelings about the content, students, and our department affect our instructional decision-making? My first pass through literature yielded another study with findings relevant here. Keith Trigwell, who’s done some really excellent work on approaches to teaching, had 175 Australian faculty respond to two questionnaires. The first identified those approaches teacher favored—those that develop conceptual understanding and are more student-centered, or those that transmit knowledge and are more teacher-centered. The second survey was a 20-item Emotions in Teaching Inventory. He used a variety of statistical methods to compare individual answers on both surveys.

“The teachers who describe higher levels of emotions such as pride and motivation and lower frustration are teachers who describe their teaching in terms of a focus more on what the student is doing and experiencing.” (p. 617) When anxiety or nervousness is experienced at relative higher levels, teachers are more likely to report adopting approaches that focus on transmitting knowledge. If embarrassment is a highly rated emotion, then teachers describe using more teacher-focused methods.

His overarching conclusion suggests that “there are systematic relations between the ways teachers emotionally experience the context of teaching and the ways they approach their teaching.” (p. 617) Most of us aren’t going to think that’s an unexpected finding, but it doesn’t answer the chicken-egg question. Do the approaches cause these emotional responses or do we start with the emotions, which then move us in the direction of certain instructional methods?

I’m still looking for work that examines the emotional trajectory across teaching careers—that larger emotional landscape beyond the daily frustrations with students who don’t listen, don’t come prepared, and expect special dispensations; beyond those joyful moments when our efforts with a student pay off or a quiet compliment comes from an unexpected source. What about the continuing emotional energy good teaching demands? What fuels that need, and what happens when we’re out of emotional fuel? How long can you teach on empty?

References: Meanwell, E., and Kleiner, S. (2014). The emotional experience of first-time teaching: reflections from graduate instructors, 1997-2006. Teaching Sociology, 42 (1), 17-27.

Trigwell, K. (2012). Relations between teachers’ emotions in teaching and their approaches to teaching in higher education. Instructional Science, 40, 607-621.