Emotions in education

I’d always simply assumed that emotions were a good thing in the school setting. After all, I’ve built my “teaching persona” around my genuine emotions: I love the students, and teaching makes me happy; I am always my best teacher when I project this happiness and love into my classroom.

But there are obvious downsides to such an approach. When you love your students, does this make it harder when they let you down? When you love your students, and they do something terrible, unspeakable, outside school, does it become less easy to be their advocate in the classroom? When you love your students and they shout and swear at you, do we leave ourselves open to feeling a deeper swathe of negative emotion? And what is the impact of this emotion on the rest of the classes we teach that day?

And then there is anger. It has been a long time since I have heard real bellowing at a class or child, but I can’t help but shrink from the idea of it. The school where I trained was explicitly “no shouting” – that was rule number one. But it didn’t mean it didn’t happen. And I’ve heard it said that shouting and anger are fine, except when the emotion behind this is real, because then you’ve “lost it”, and that’s never ok.

I’m not so sure I agree. See, I don’t find anger a helpful emotion in a school setting. I’ve definitely had to suppress my anger, sometimes weekly, but I can’t see a time when to express this emotion would be helpful for the settings I’m working in. If a class won’t listen, why raise the volume? If you are angry, why not stay calm, and discuss the issues?

Then there’s anger directed at teachers from other teachers. Surely there is never a place for this. We’ve probably all been at the receiving end of some anger. When it occurs, it does make me consider: has this emotional response helped me be better at my job? Has this anger made me more likely to want to help you, or to change my behaviour or choices in the way you would like? We are professionals in a work environment; surely a better response would be supportive, considerate; searching not blaming, asking not demanding. I don’t believe it is possible to motivate teachers with anger.

Now, I’ve caught myself telling students I’m “disappointed” in them. Doug Lemov points out how unhelpful this is: when we make our responses more about us than our students, they are unlikely to change behaviour; the typical student will simply shrug it off (“oh, how unfortunate for you Miss that you are disappointed. I still don’t care”). Far better to remind students of the purpose of their learning, and the path they need to be on, and push it back to them.

A colleague once told me a story about leaving her first teaching job many years ago. On going to the Principal to hand in her notice, she was told that she was a “disappointment”; that she was “letting the school and the children down”. Similarly, what does this emotion achieve? Does this make it more likely for someone to change their mind?

When I went to my first Headteacher to say I was thinking about leaving, she listened to my concerns, and calmly asked me what she could do to make me happier in my work at that school. She then told me a story about how she became a teacher (something I will write about in the future with her blessing), and played into my strong sense of mission. I left that office feeling ten feet tall; a soldier in the war against educational disadvantage, following in the footsteps of a colossal educator. I did not seek another opportunity that year.

So is it best to leave emotion at the school gates? Are we stronger and more purposeful educators without it?

And then I come back to love. Because on those hardest of hard days, when all the class is against you, and colleagues are filled with frustration, and you wonder if you might just retire to a cubicle in an accountancy firm where no humans will ever disturb your placidity again, it comes right back to love. This is the driving emotion that brings us back to the classroom, back to focusing on the learning, back to putting in the extra emotional effort that strong behaviour management can often require.

On those days of rawest emotion, the remedy for me is to remember my students, close my door, and teach them – with love.

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One thought on “Emotions in education

  1. Pingback: A guide to this blog | Reading all the Books

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