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Why teachers can no longer ‘hide’ their emotions

A new article highlights how teachers believe they have to hide their emotions in the profession, which is correlating with both mental health problems and high rates of burnout in the sector.

In a piece published in The Conversation, Curtin University education expert Dr Saul Karnovsky argues that pre-service teachers should not only receive training in the technical and cognitive aspects of teaching, but also in how to manage aspects of their mental health, including emotions. 

“Despite all the theory, training and practical experience, research shows teachers’ professional lives can be highly demanding, pressured, stressful and at times, emotionally exhausting,” Karnovsky said. 

The lecturer and Bachelor of Education (Secondary) course-coordinator also referred to his doctoral research, which involved monitoring pre-service teachers throughout their degree. One of his major findings was that there appeared to be “an invisible rule book that defines what teachers can and cannot do with their emotions”.

Karnovsky found that pre-service teachers developed this “invisible rule book” for emotions very early in their careers, basing their assumptions on how teachers should behave. They then cemented these assumptions further when they began their school placements. 

Some of the most insightful findings of how pre-service teachers thought teachers should behave was gleaned from the interviews, questionnaires and focus groups Karnovsky conducted, as well as diary entries. 

Don’t ever cry in front of students, because if you do, they will see you as weak and eat you alive,” one participant said.

Another stated: “Don’t show your emotional vulnerability, especially not to other teachers, because if you do, they might think you are not right for the job.”

Through comments such as these and other observations, the Curtin lecturer found that pre-service teachers thought “hiding” their emotions was an invaluable skill to develop. Failing to develop the ability to put on “a brave face” would be equated with negative students' perceptions of them being unprofessional or out of control. 

“One participant experienced ‘intense frustration’ during school placement in trying to manage and engage a group of behaviourally difficult students, which led to her feeling ‘emotionally overwhelmed’," Karnovsky said.

“She hid these emotions from her supervising teacher, telling me she did not want to ‘appear weak’. So she held back her tears because she would ‘hate’ being the ‘little woman that cries at work, who gets upset’.”

Mental health concerns

One of the concerns Karnovsky holds is that teaching is “emotionally demanding”, especially when faced with “a range of emotional challenges including working with difficult students and communities, managing increasing administrative control over their work and standardisation reforms”. 

These emotional challenges, if not managed appropriately, can result in significant mental health problems. To underscore this point, Karnovsky refers to a relatively recent Australian study which concluded that teachers are experiencing anxiety and depression at concerning rates and levels. 

Perhaps this is why some studies show that one in every two teachers will “burn out” or “simply leave” leave the profession in the first five years of their careers.

“Because teaching is emotionally demanding, teachers experience what is known as 'emotional labour'. This is when teachers have to manage, suppress or feign their emotions as part of the work. Like other forms of labour, doing so can become exhausting,” Karnovsky states. 

It’s time to address the reality

At the heart of Karnovsky’s article is not only an acknowledgement of how emotionally taxing teaching is, but also a cautionary warning of the consequences of not providing teachers – particularly those in the early part of their careers – with the tools and guidance to deal with these emotional challenges. It is also a call to the sector to begin addressing this issue now. 

If we are to ensure thousands of newly enrolled teachers are to thrive in their courses and careers, we must make the invisible emotional rules of the profession seen and heard,” the education expert states. 

“I believe if pre-service teachers can come together with teacher educators to explore these emotional rules, they could build resilience to confront the many emotional challenges of modern teaching.”

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One comment

  1. Whenever relationships between any humans is put under a microscope a whole lot of emotions will surface. Teaching brings out as many emotions as there are, types of emotions. We are happy when we see success, get angry, sad, disappointed, frustrated, … We are human. And since we are human, we will suffer as many mental illnesses as other professions.

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