February 19th, 2014

The Emotions That Fuel Our Teaching


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.

  • Kathleen

    Excellent topic that deserves further research. My first teaching experience was given me with only two days' notice for preparation. I was a nervous wreck before walking into the classroom but, I knew my topic well and loved it. My enthusiasm was picked up by the students, and I walked out of that room exhilarated by the sense of power I'd discovered in being able to pique their interest in a subject entirely new to them. My style evolved into a combination of teacher-centered and student-centered activities, but I have found that even those occasional moments of frustration and downright anger could spark spur-of-the-moment ideas that became permanent tools in my repertoire. For example, I was nonplussed and furious that most of a class had not read the chapter of a novel assigned to them. My lesson plan for the session was instantly rendered worthless. I paced back and forth for half a minute, then started writing questions on the big blackboard I was lucky to have. I called on every last one in the class to come up to write an answer or opinion on the question I assigned them, so that no one escaped. It turned out to be the most useful device I ever had to get a Socratic dialogue going that avoided wasting time pulling teeth to get students to talk. The students liked it because they got to see what everyone else was thinking; no one student dominated a conversation; and even shy students got their chance to "speak." I've used it ever since. Meantime, back at the ranch, one sure fire way to destroy good teachers' enthusiasm is for administration to force projects and methods on them that interfere with their teaching time, carefully planned methods, and ultimate results. I do not want a "partner" nor do I want to "co-teach" some last-minute "high impact" project that requires tons of extra work interfering with my syllabus that was carefully planned to meet (and exceed) the course requirements. I know what I'm doing so, please, just back off.

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  • Kate

    This blog post was particularly interesting to me today. Yesterday, when I arrived home from teaching, I informed my husband that "days like today make me want to just stay home, be a mom…" Of course it was a day in class when I hadn't connected (from my perspective) with the students, students weren't prepared, emails were received before class with excuses explaining why presentations weren't ready, and the list goes on. I trudged to work this morning, not expecting anything to be different. Then, my students surprised me. The presentations were excellent. The students were engaged. We had intelligent conversations about the cultural topics, and I watched as one student in particular, from Macedonia, realized that his culture was not that unlike the Puerto Rican culture that we were studying. He was amazed. When I got home, I had different news for my husband "… I think I can keep after this. I needed a day like today to keep me going…" A one day swing of emotion. I've been teaching ten years and emotions (sometimes on a daily basis) influence my desire to keep teaching, connecting with students and watching them learn and grow.

    Thanks for your words.

  • Jelena M. Janjic

    Thank you for your writing! This is exactly what is needed if we are to even try to teach as whole persons and accept our students as whole too. Emotions are so integral to our life, they are here with us in academia completely present.
    Parker Palmer talked about emotions in this context very passionately several years back. Palmer said " We must take our students’ emotions as seriously as we take their intellects." in his article A New Professional: The Aims of Education Revisited (Linked here: http://www.changemag.org/Archives/Back%20Issues/N…. In my own work I focused on emotions of a teacher in the classroom. In the practice I shared at the Fifth Annual ACMHE Conference (linked here: http://www.acmheconference.org/presentation-list/… "“Welcoming the emotional life of teaching through mindfulness practice” the focal point was on tools that help us, teachers, welcome our own emotions in the classroom. Hope our conversations deepen and expand on emotional life in our classrooms, which hopefully leads to increased compassion to ourselves and others in our classrooms and beyond.
    Thank you again for bringing up this topic. It is crucial one.

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