'Don't bottle it up': Why teachers need to talk about their emotions

For stressed out teachers, bottling their emotions and getting on with the job is a common theme.

Indeed, there has been a long-standing expectation that teachers should put on a brave face and ignore their emotions – an expectation that some experts say can lead to mental health ramifications down the line.

In his doctoral research, Saul Karnovsky, a lecturer and Bachelor of Education (Secondary) Course Coordinator at Curtin University, followed pre-service teachers throughout their course.

Karnovsky spoke with and collected questionnaires from almost one hundred education students in a large Western Australian university. The goal was to find out how someone who wants to become a teacher learnt what they should or should not be doing with their emotions in secondary schools.

He found there exists an invisible rule book that defines what teachers can and cannot do with their emotions.

The pre-service teachers surveyed said they learnt about the rules for emotional behaviour from expectations and assumptions about teacher’s work, which was confirmed when they began training in school placements.

From interviews, focus groups, diary entries and questionnaires, Karnovsky summarised some of the unwritten rules these teaching students spoke of:

  • Don’t ever cry in front of students, because if you do, they will see you as weak and eat you alive.
  • Don’t lose your temper, shout or get angry, because if you do, students will lose respect for you.
  • 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.

But teachers shouldn’t feel alone, says Karnovsky.

His research also found that when pre-service teachers felt safe to express their vulnerable emotions with trusted colleagues they often felt more secure in their learning at that school and supported to confront issues or problems they were facing in learning to teach.

“I believe that senior school leaders play a vital part in supporting pre-service teachers to explore the unwritten rules of emotional conduct in learning to teach,” Karnovsky told The Educator.

“First and foremost, I believe that senior leadership needs to facilitate a strong positive culture within their schools that allow pre-service teachers to come together in social dialogue with their mentor teachers and professional colleagues”.

Karnovsky says this social dialogue would privilege an open and honest approach to the norms and expectations of emotional conduct in the school and in the teaching profession.

“For example, experienced teachers could explain to PST’s their understanding of what a professional teacher should or should not do with their emotions,” he explained.

“This open dialogue would reveal that there are certain norms about teacher emotional conduct that adhere to conventional understandings of emotional practice, specifically that the profession tends towards a policing of vulnerable, difficult or problematic emotions”.

Karnovsky said senior leaders should embrace supportive strategies for pre-service teachers to confront and express their emotional vulnerability in a safe, non-judgemental environment signalling that it is okay to feel guilt, hopelessness, shame or doubt in teaching.

“This approach breaks with the traditional professional norm of requiring teachers to mask, hide or privately manage their difficult emotions, and may buffer the deleterious effects of emotional labour”.