Research, Teaching, Well at Work, Well-being

Battling Bad Feelings

Understanding the emotional toll of teaching

Teachers often describe feeling anxious, exhausted, and unwell, and the sense of “being pulled in too many directions.” What is it about teaching that can feel so depleting, that induces what University of Toronto Distinguished Professor Mari Ruti calls “bad” feelings: those feelings that arise from the sense of not doing enough, not doing it well enough, and not being better at it? Stacey, a young and enthusiastic teacher from our research study,1 described teaching as feeling like, “physically and mentally you have nothing left to give.” While Stacey avowed that she loved her job, she also described being overwhelmed – exhausted by the demands of others and the needs of children, and torn by the expectations of the public, parents, principals and colleagues. Through Stacey and the other teachers we interviewed, we see how teachers are inundated with bad feelings.

Unsurprisingly, teachers, teachers’ organizations, and school districts have been seeking ways to help teachers cope with such bad feelings. Efforts to help teachers cope are often constructed through various discourses of self-help and manifest in the language and practices of wellness, well-being, and mindfulness. However, as educators and as researchers, we are concerned with the ways in which these self-help narratives might actually be unhelpful – a tempting snake oil aimed at “treating” the ailments of the teacher. Dr. Ruti explains that bad feelings often result from society’s increased demands for heightened performance, greater productivity, incessant self-improvement, and constant cheerfulness. Like Ruti, we understand these demands as effects of neoliberalism. In education, neoliberalism often manifests as a business model approach to education where costs and efficiencies override moral concerns and in which teacher success is defined in terms of student performance outcomes. Meanwhile, teachers’ professional development is based on expectations of relentless self-improvement.

Here, we want to critically consider teacher self-help narratives and their potential to magnify and misunderstand the bad feelings that teachers experience. We want to consider these feelings from a different perspective; that is, to consider bad feelings as important and intrinsic to the experience of teaching. We do this not in order to dismiss teachers’ feelings, but in a way that might make these feelings more bearable, allowing teachers to deflect the associated sense of inadequacy. We hope to illustrate how a different understanding of these bad feelings might enable us to appreciate the emotional toll of teaching and the ways in which they reflect living an ethical life in teaching.

Curing the ailing teacher

Through the increased societal demands of performance, productivity and self-improvement, self-help discourses become a method of blaming and responsibilizing the teacher for her protest. In other words, not meeting these expectations of improvement is projected as an individual problem – the fault of the teacher. Attempts to cure the ailing teacher have subsequently spawned endless numbers of products and services. For example, a Google search of the terms teachers and self-help elicits over 1,700,000,000 hits; literally, over a billion websites that offer tips, strategies, books, and lists that make suggestions such as, “choosing to live joyfully.” Indeed, as Stacey explained, “I always thought happiness was a choice and that, oh, ‘you can be positive.’” These expectations of self-improvement and incessant cheerfulness feed a lucrative well-being industry, which according to the Global Wellness Institute is worth over four trillion dollars. Thus, the requirement of constant self-improvement makes teachers the target of often-costly self-help products that include books, herbal remedies, medication, therapy, mindfulness training, and yoga. Dr. Ron Purser, an ordained Zen Dharma Teacher in the Korean Zen Taego order for Buddhism and a Professor of Management, likens these individualistic and hip pursuits of self-help as a form of McMindfulness, a corporatized and marketable product that promises self-fulfillment and self-improvement. Although these products might offer some benefits to individuals, the point here is that the increased expectations and scrutiny of teachers’ performance and productivity, makes teachers like Stacey feel as though they must work harder and longer, self-improve, and avail of costly treatments or programs in the process. Teachers must not only shoulder increasing pressures, they are expected to “stay calm and carry on” without protest!

We understand education as a public good and teaching as an ethical endeavour, wherein teachers seek to cultivate students’ understandings of and relationships with themselves, with others and with the world around them, in an effort to lead good and worthwhile lives. Yet, in education, neoliberalism has incited increased managerialism, fewer resources, more standardized testing, greater focus on individualism, and amplified competition. Stacey described feeling “quite conflicted, when admin are talking about a certain initiative or when they are saying ‘This is what you need to focus on,’ but that’s not necessarily what I feel is important for my kids.” These neoliberal ideologies create what Wendy Brown calls “miserable conditions,” in which the task of teaching is constructed as a technical means of knowledge transfer in the name of higher test scores. This creates a tension between teachers’ everyday obligations to engage ethically with students and the often-inhumane expectations of increasing performance indicators.

From this perspective, the self-help discourses serve to redirect the problems of the changing education system to those of problems of (or within) the teacher. In other words, self-help discourses consider teacher stress as the teacher’s fault, and subsequently directs teachers to choose happiness, to declutter, and to breathe. These simplistic “fixes” to teachers’ bad feelings distract us from considering – and critiquing – the conditions in which teachers are situated. Understood in this way, self-help discourses become the means to the neoliberal ends. Instead of cultivating ethical explorations of the self and one’s relationship with the world, self-help operates as another mechanism to control and manage the teacher. The message is, if Stacey could just fix her bad feelings, she could improve both productivity and performance.

Responsibilization of teachers

As education professor Julie McLeod explains, a teacher’s sense of responsibility – to her students, the profession, and the greater good of society – is different from responsibilization. Responsibilization is the requirement on teachers to take greater responsibility for the management of schooling and of children as a technical and regulatory event rather than as an ethical one. Stacey stated, “I feel responsible all the time” and gave examples of feeling responsible for educational assistants, the decisions of her principal, and “carrying her weight.” Responsibilization increases pressures on the teacher, reinforces regulation (of the teacher and of the student) and increases individualism, and thereby recasts teachers’ work from relationships with students to better management of others – and also better management of herself. Consider Stacey’s comment: “I learned a lot of great strategies to stay well. And I’m still working on that balance of like how do I take care of myself and what can I just say no to, so that I can actually feel well.” We see in Stacey’s response her internalized sense of responsibilization; wherein she feels responsible for finding better strategies in order to “feel well.” This internalized sense of responsibilization places the onus on Stacey to “fix” her bad feelings through self-improvement, individualizing and regulating her feelings and her being. Responsibilization recasts what is difficult about teaching as something that should be – and can be – better managed by the teacher.

Teachers’ bad feelings are not a sign of weakness or deficiency, but are symptoms of their sensitivity to students’ needs.

Moreover, the responsibilization of teaching is premised on gendered stereotypes of the teacher. As scholars Alison Prentice, Marjorie Theobald and Madeline Grumet have helped us to understand, teaching has long been considered women’s work, constructed as emotional labour, and relegated to the domestic, private sphere, like the home. Thus, teachers’ protestations about the conditions of their work are dismissed as “complaints,” fueled by gendered stereotypes of teachers as emotional, irrational, and even hysterical. The “complaining” teacher is ignored in political arenas and the teacher’s complaint is seen a symptom of her being unwell – and perhaps even irresponsible.

The emotional toll of obligation in teaching

As we discussed in the opening, self-help narratives make the teacher feel as though she needs to constantly improve her performance, productivity, and cheerfulness in order to be a “good,” or perhaps an even “better,” teacher. Yet, these discourses target and responsibilize the teacher, ultimately serving neoliberal agendas of improved performance, productivity and consumerism – privileging economic goals over ethical engagements. The alluring promises of such a productive and cheerful teaching life are what professor Lauren Berlant would call a “cruel optimism,” or the promise of something that is ultimately impossible to attain. Moreover, even striving to attain it might not be good for us. The constant pressure to improve one’s performance, productivity and cheerfulness is like a greyhound dog race; the unwitting dog is tricked into chasing the lure – but it is never meant to actually catch it.

In our research, we explored the emotional toll of obligation, considering bad feelings as intrinsic to the experience of teaching – not in order to fix or dismiss these feelings or to construct the teacher as hopeless or woeful, but rather to understand these feelings in a way that might make them more bearable. We are interested in shifting discourses about teachers and their feelings away from the faults and flaws of the teacher, and toward understanding teaching as a profoundly relational endeavour, replete with emotional experiences. Perhaps if teachers understood these feelings from a different perspective, they might fend off self-blame and deflect demands for self-improvement.

In exploring the emotional toll of teachers’ obligations, we are guided by the philosopher John Caputo, who describes obligation as a visceral sensation that compels teachers to act. Obligation is that force that teachers experience when they are compelled to respond to the student who is hungry, crying, lonely, failing, joyful, or angry. Obligation in these moments fixes the teacher to a sense of urgency and responsibility while necessitating judgement. When Stacey discovered that one of her students had been writing about suicide and self-harm in her notebook, Stacey described being “worried about her and trying to figure out my next steps.” In Stacey’s story, the anxiety of obligation was animated by bad feelings: she worried about the uncertainty of her decision (what to do?), wondered if she responded appropriately, feared that she might not meet the demands of others, and agonized about being harshly judged. It is in the midst of such bad feelings that we see the teacher’s ethical response – sensitive to the student, no script to follow, and yet, required to act. What we see in Stacey’s stories, and what is emblematic of the teachers we interviewed, is that teachers’ bad feelings represent the visceral responsiveness that characterizes educational relations: teachers feel their obligation to students, and those feelings can become burdensome. These feelings are, however, distinct from the feelings of frustration associated with the increased managerial demands of neoliberalism and its focus on student achievement and teacher accountability.

Put simply, teachers’ bad feelings are not a sign of weakness or deficiency but are a symptom of their sensitivity to students’ needs. With that in mind, teachers deserve the support of the larger society in shouldering education’s obligation to the young. As a starting point, governments, school districts, families, and communities need to engage in substantive conversations about what matters educationally; to consider collectively: What is education for? What is it we want for our children – and our world? How do we know that what we want is “good”? These are the questions that confront teachers in the everyday moments of classroom life. These are the questions that both guide and overwhelm the teacher. These are the questions that constitute an ethical life in teaching.

Photo: iStock

First published in Education Canada, September 2020


1 This article draws on research supported by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council. Our research team conducted qualitative interviews in two Canadian provinces with teachers who left, or who had considered leaving the profession due to its emotional toll. More about this research can be found at: Melanie D. Janzen and Anne M. Phelan, “‘Tugging at Our Sleeves: Understanding experiences of obligation in teaching,” Teaching Education (2018): 1-15. https://doi.org/10.1080/10476210.2017.1420157

Meet the Expert(s)

Melanie D. Janzen

Associate Professor, University of Manitoba

Melanie D. Janzen is Associate Professor in the Department of Curriculum, Teaching and Learning and is a research affiliate with the Centre for Human Rights Research at the University of Manitoba. Her SSHRC-funded research, with Dr. Phelan, examines the emotional toll of teachers’ obligations and their disengagement from the profession.

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Anne M. Phelan

Researcher, Faculty of Education, University of British Columbia

Anne M. Phelan is a Professor in the Department of Curriculum and Pedagogy and co-Director of the Centre for the Study of Teacher Education, at the University of British Columbia. She is also Honorary Professor in the Department of Policy and Leadership at the Education University of Hong Kong.

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