The way you make me feel: why teachers’ emotions matter

20140401-150510.jpgIt would be an understatement to say that, on the whole, the morale of teachers is not good. Never in my experience of teaching have I been so aware of so many colleagues considering leaving the profession. This can be for a range of reasons, but many seem connected to the combination of being overworked due to a level of bureaucracy that seems unconnected to pupil progress and also a general sense of being undervalued. I have read comments from numerous teachers who feel that their managers contribute to their despondent feelings. This combined with the public perception that teachers cause problems for parents by striking, or are seen as whinging despite their ‘long holidays’, means that emotion is interwoven into the professional experience of being a teacher these days.

Most teachers, including myself, can recall times when colleagues and managers made us feel terrible. This could be directly, through managers being unfairly critical or disrespectful.   Or  indirectly; the lack of appropriate praise after a big venture, the lack of recognition of the effort that is being put in. Some have argued that teachers need to ‘grow up’ and not be so sensitive about such things, but does it really matter how you feel when you are working as a teacher.  I would argue that it makes all the difference.

There have been some amazing studies over the past few years looking at the importance of emotion as an aspect of educational leadership. Not least the developments of recognising Emotional Intelligence, pioneered by Daniel Goleman. This recognises that some have a better awareness than others of the emotions of other people. It also then goes on to show why you can gain a greater understanding of people through picking up on the emotions of others. The irony is that this work is almost taken for granted as part of teaching when it comes to recognising warning signs with pupils, but can often be sidelined with colleagues. 20140401-150627.jpgMegan Crawford (@DrMeganCrawford) has written a seminal work, ‘Getting to the Heart of Leadership: Emotion & Educational Leadership’ (2009), challenging leaders to reflect on their values and looking at the dynamics of the range of different relationships within school. I suspect her forthcoming book will also pick up this theme as well. Even in the last week my trusty ‘Educational Management Administration and Leadership’ journal from Sage (@Sage_EdResearch), the amazing publication, part of the membership of BELMAS (@Belmasoffice), covers a variety of aspects looking at Educational Leadership and emotion.  All of these references and more suggest there is no reason why leaders should not be reflecting on the emotional dimension of their leadership and in particular the way they make others feel. As an aside here, I would argue strongly against those who suggest that educational research must only be about pupil progress for it to be of any worth or relevance. Here is a case in point where the excellent research being done can have a direct influence on teachers’ working experiences, and therefore indirectly can influence the experience in the classroom.

Despite this work, there are still leaders who feel that they do not need to consider the feelings of their staff, or colleagues who feel it is acceptable to treat others badly in the professional context. Ask most teachers and they will have a ‘horror story’, or two, about something someone has said or done to them, perhaps to undermine them, to belittle, to be unsupportive, to fail to acknowledge their work, or worse still, take credit for others’ work.  We spend countless time in pastoral training sessions recognising the importance of developing listening skills when dealing with pupils and yet very little time and money is invested in staff to develop mentoring skills. Really listening to someone is a skill and one that matters a great deal in education, because we are dealing with people. People are complex, unpredictable, and multi-dimensional.

So what can we do to respond to the problem of low morale. Leader or not, we should be supportive of one another. Even on Twitter with educationalists it is depressing and frustrating when debates turn into point scoring, or worse still, sniping or deriding. Twitter is an opportunity to be supportive of others who are miles away. In schools so many teachers offer practical support through peer observations, through collaboration, sharing of work load, giving time and recognition when others don’t. Emotion doesn’t mean a lack of professionalism, instead it should be embraced as part of an on-going dialogue between teachers. Emotion can make things happen, can prompt a creative force and can reveal truths. Working in a school can be an emotional experience and events can occur that provoke emotional responses, so it’s good to embrace that there will be times when we need to talk. Being able to express our emotions and recognise our own emotional triggers also helps us to recognise that in others. The butterflies at the start of a term is a good thing, caring about the results your pupils get is a sign that it all still matters. Of course, the classroom itself is not necessarily the place to experience a full emotional crisis, but I know that I have benefitted hugely from the support of colleagues when having to deal with something particularly challenging.

Rather than seeing emotion and professionalism as mutually exclusive, we should embrace that our humanity means that emotion has a place in our work.  So even when morale is low we can comfort ourselves with a few of important points. Firstly, that even feeling low is an emotion, that shows we are still passionate, feeling creatures and that can only benefit our work with pupils and alongside colleagues. Secondly, being emotional creatures can help us deal with the nature of our work in education, which is with nurturing and developing the next generation. People are wonderfully complicated and the emotional dimension is an integral part of that. Finally, our terms are intense working experiences and yes we do have holidays and that means the holidays are for living fully to ensure we are well balanced human beings. So I hope everyone has a wonderful Holiday ready for the summer term ahead.

 

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