Research, Teaching, Well at Work, Well-being

Love, Heartbreak, and Teacher Emotional Well-being

Protecting the “heartwork” of teaching

protecting the heartwork of teaching

Losing your passion for a calling you once loved is a kind of heartbreak, says Astrick Kendrick: occupational heartbreak. She explores the emotional labour of teaching and its role in teacher burnout and exhaustion. She also suggests steps that can be taken to “to ensure that rather than experiencing occupational heartbreak, educators stay committed to their heart’s work.”

I don’t remember a time when I didn’t want to be a teacher. From the first day of primary school, I looked at my teacher and decided that was what I wanted to be when I grew up. I didn’t explore any other career options, and when it came time to apply for post-secondary education, I applied to one university and one faculty. The only time I dealt with any uncertainty was in deciding between primary or secondary specialization. Thanks to a love for reading and a respect for my high school English teacher, I chose secondary English/Language Arts.

Twenty-four years later, I feel no regrets for following my “calling” even though my understanding of the profession has changed dramatically. Teaching is still my passion, and I have a deep love for engaging with students and connecting them to the language arts. Experiences with teaching a subject area that I didn’t explore in my undergraduate degree (Physical Education) in seven different schools with complex students has sorely tested that passion over time. And on one particularly difficult day, it almost extinguished that fire completely. Nearly losing my love for teaching was devastating and drove me to understand what had happened. Instead of giving up my life’s work, I decided to pursue graduate studies to understand more about teacher emotional well-being.

“Just as a carpenter is expected to provide manual labour as a part of their job description, educators are expected to provide emotional labour to maintain a calm and engaging school culture.”

Emotional labour and education

When I began my research for my Doctor of Education in 2015, I discovered the concept of emotional labour. This organizational construct, first described in The Managed Heart by Arlie Hochschild in 1984, describes the influence of organizational feeling rules on the expression of emotions by individual people as they go about their daily work. Just as a carpenter is expected to provide manual labour as a part of their job description, educators are expected to provide emotional labour to maintain a calm and engaging school culture. Unlike the carpenter who uses their physical body to perform job tasks, a teacher provides their positive emotions – enthusiasm, positivity, and joy – to perform their work. Even in times when a teacher might not feel calm and confident, she will act that way with her students.

Hochschild used the metaphor of acting to describe the portrayal of expected emotions while engaged in paid work. She described two types of organizational performance related to providing emotional labour: superficial and deep acting.

To understand these concepts, first consider the following hypothetical situation:

The date is June 17, and many of the students in a school are writing their Provincial Achievement Exams. Freda, a Physical Education teacher, has been assigned to supervise a group of students as they finish up this two-hour exam. She has spent the school year building positive relationships with these students, but she has struggled to connect with Joshua. All term, Joshua has displayed inattention, interrupted her when she was explaining games in class, and actively distracted other students in inappropriate ways. Her everyday interactions with Joshua are often difficult, but she is committed to building a strong relationship with each student.

The allocated exam time is nearly complete, with about half of the students waiting patiently for the rest to hand in their work. Rather than drawing or reading quietly like his peers, Joshua alternates between hopping onto the class couch, tapping his pencil repeatedly on his desk, and loudly whispering to anyone who is nearby. Freda repeatedly asks him to respect his classmates who are trying to focus on their exam.

Superficial acting would be used to mask the inappropriate emotions felt by the individual. Ongoing superficial acting in a workplace has been associated with emotional burnout and exhaustion. In this scenario, Freda might use superficial acting to cover up her mounting frustration with Joshua. While she might feel like screaming and yelling at him to quiet down, Freda would strive to speak politely and firmly to him. At the end of the exam supervision, Freda might feel fatigue from managing her frustration and might be irritable when interacting with another person.

Emotional Well-being, teacher in front of students

Deep acting, on the other hand, reflects an alignment between the person’s actual emotions and the expected display of emotions. If Freda, understanding that Joshua’s parents could not afford his medication, felt compassionate rather than frustrated by the displayed behaviour, her emotional display would line up with her actual feelings. This deep acting has been shown to be a protective factor against emotional burnout. In this case, Freda would feel fine after the supervision and would complete her day without any further concern.

Providing emotional labour is an expected part of being a teaching professional, as it should be. Teachers are normally the only adults with impressionable students at any given time, and if they appear frazzled, angry, or frustrated, it will be difficult to create effective pedagogic relationships with their students. Portraying organizationally expected emotions is a necessary part of maintaining professionalism, but if this emotional labour is primarily accomplished through superficial acting, the educator will eventually experience emotional burnout or unexpected outbursts.

Love, heartbreak, and educational turbulence

In my doctoral research, love stood out as an emotion associated with deep acting and was a protective factor for educators dealing with difficult times or situations. Teachers expressed love for students and love for subject area as reasons that they came to, and stayed in, the education field.

One of my participants described this love as “heartwork,” a pun on hard work. As a system level leader, she was responsible for assisting other educators with promoting the health and well-being of students. She poured her heart into the work because she was passionate about the positive academic outcomes associated with improving the health of children and youth. She was devastated when, due to financial cutbacks and restructuring, her job disappeared and all the work she had done along with it.

The change in financial priorities created educational turbulence for my participant. The other participants identified changes to curriculum without corresponding professional development; teaching in subject areas outside of the teacher’s expertise; and unmanageably complex classes of students as all causing educational turbulence leading to their occupational heartbreak. Unlike the sustaining effect of engaging in heartwork, heartbreak resulted in a devastating emotional exhaustion that forced the participants to question staying in the profession that they loved.

What can schools and leadership do?

Since completing my study in 2018, I have been presenting my findings to other teachers to determine if the experience of providing emotional labour is consistent and relatable to other teachers. I have spoken to over 100 teachers about this idea, and they have resoundingly agreed that providing ongoing emotional labour has contributed to their exhaustion and burnout at work.

“Simply recognizing that providing emotional labour is a part of educator professionalism is a first step.”

At the end of my workshop, I ask the question, “What do you need in order to release organizationally inappropriate emotions so that you can effectively work with students?”

The educators had several suggestions that could be implemented in school settings, many of which involve small, cheap tweaks to the work day:

  • More breaks, less emails, less demanding extracurriculars: we are spread too thin. We are getting away from actually being present and focused on our students.
  • Reduce the workload, increase opportunities for teachers to have calm in their day.
  • Class sizes (especially given the increasing diversity of our population) need to be reduced. Special needs students need to be supported.
  • Respect teacher transition time… Allow the teacher a few minutes before the next class comes in.
  • Ensure each staff member has a defined break period each day. Reduce expectations during break times so that breaks are actually breaks. Don’t organize so many meetings; give teachers the time they need to prep and decompress.
  • Offer activity and sport opportunities for staff during the work day and/or on non-instructional days. Create a staff work-out space.
  • Increase supports for teachers who are struggling mentally.
  • Carefully team up teachers to create support systems.
  • Create a Zen room that teachers can go to.
  • Say thank you and recognize successes.
  • We need a strong champion for teachers in the media.

Stakeholders, such as parents, educational assistants, teachers, school administrators, and system leaders, can all play a role in promoting emotional health within the school system. Simply recognizing that providing emotional labour is a part of educator professionalism is a first step. The ethical next step is to find ways to ensure that when educators have provided intense emotional labour, they are provided with a safe place during their work day – through uninterrupted time, in a physical location, or with a trusted friend – to release their emotions in a healthy manner.

Teacher emotional well-being - holding heart

Ultimately, determining what to do in the aftermath of providing emotional labour needs to be addressed by educators and supported by school and system leadership. Having a frank conversation with staff teams about what they need, and then following through with the requested supports and resources, is the best way to ensure that rather than experiencing occupational heartbreak, educators stay committed to their heart’s work.

Study Description

My doctoral research study explored the lived experience with emotional labour of five female Health Champions as they navigated through systemic instability while implementing Comprehensive School Health projects. I aimed to discover the immediate emotional and embodied experiences identified by five change agents in leadership roles who have served as a pre-service student teacher, educational assistant, teacher, school leader, and system leader while undertaking educational reforms introduced between 2009 and 2016 in Alberta. Framed by complex adaptive systems theory, this study uncovered insights into their common understanding of the phenomenon of emotional labour for educators, both in their daily work and while acting in leadership roles. The findings of this study included: insight into the unique nature of the emotional work of educators and the intensification of emotional labour for change agents in educational settings; a phenomenological example of a possible lived experience with emotional labour; and suggestions for areas of future study on emotional labour, implementing Comprehensive School Health reforms, and improving the wellbeing of educators.


Illustration: Diana Pham and Adobe Stock

First published in Education Canada, December 2019

Meet the Expert(s)

Astrid Kendrick bio

Dr. Astrid Kendrick

Adjunct Assistant Professor, University of Calgary

Astrid Kendrick has been a K-12 classroom teacher for nineteen years for the Calgary Board of Education and is an instructor at the the University of Calgary.

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