Teaching requires more than just a keen mind; it also demands emotional energy, and that is particularly true for new teachers. But what emotions do they experience? Are those feelings more positive than negative? Are certain emotions associated with particular teaching approaches? These are all interesting questions—and all are relatively unexplored in the research on first-time teachers. In fact the same could be said of the research on the role of emotions in teaching at all career stages.
A recent study provides results that offer both some answers to these questions and a host of other interesting details. In their study, the authors attempted to “assess and map the emotional dimension of the first semester of teaching.” (p. 17) They did so with a content analysis of 86 reflection papers, approximately 10 pages each, written by graduate students teaching for the first time. These graduate sociology students mostly taught the introductory course, all of them at the same institution, but across a number of different years. The paper assignment was relatively open-ended, with the beginning teachers being told “simply to reflect on their experiences of teaching for the first time.” (p. 19)
Researchers report being surprised by the amount of emotionally laden language they discovered in these papers: “The sheer emotionality of first-time teaching is one of the most striking aspects of our data.” (p. 20) Ninety-five percent of these first-time instructors wrote about the emotional demands of teaching. They describe a wide range of emotions. The instructors used emotional terms about 38 times (on average) per reflection, with a range of seven to 95 emotional terms used and an average of 18 different emotional terms per paper.
The emotions these new teachers wrote about were positive or negative. Only a few described their teaching experiences with neutral language. “Of the specific emotion terms we identified . . . approximately twice as many were negative, with 167 unique negative emotion terms used compared to 83 different positive emotion terms.” (p. 21) It should come as no surprise that the most common negative term used was fear
, followed by nervousness, worry, frustration, anxiety, concern, stress
On the positive side, common emotions were enjoyment, comfort, confidence, excitement, reward, feelings of liking
,and looking forward.
Many wrote that they were surprised
by teaching, and about 55 percent of the time what surprised them was positive. About 54 percent of the emotional language was negative. The researchers explain, “Instructors used more varied terminology to express negative emotions but described positive and negative feelings equally often.” (p. 21)
These new teachers were just as surprised as the researchers by how emotional their first teaching experiences were. They didn't expect the intensity of emotional responses triggered by their classroom experiences. A class that went well resulted in euphoria; one that didn't, a deep dive into despair. Some noted that this emotional rollercoaster made teaching an emotionally exhausting experience.
The researchers also wondered if certain emotions were felt in response to the use of particular instructional strategies. Ninety-two percent of these new teachers reported using lectures; 85 percent, discussion; 52 percent used media; 43 percent, group exercises; and 15 percent, games or simulations. A large majority (94 percent) reported that they used more than one of these strategies. “We found only one correlation between reported pedagogical strategies and emotions: Instructors who more frequently discussed positive self-emotions were also significantly more likely to report using group exercises.” (p. 24)
This research raises a whole set of follow-up questions. Most of us who have been teaching for a while can remember the emotional intensity of those first courses taught. That heightened emotional response fades, or does it just occur less often? The ups and downs are not as extreme, but teaching is rarely a “flat” experience. What role do the emotions play in the experiences of teachers at different career stages? And whether you're a beginning or an experienced teacher, what's the effect of these emotional aspects on teaching? Do they impact the motivation to teach? Do they shape our beliefs about students? Do they influence decision making about instructional policies and practices? These are important questions that merit personal reflection and more good scholarly analysis.
Meanwell, E., and Kleiner, S. (2014). The emotional experience of first-time teaching: Reflections from graduate instructors, 1997-2006. Teaching Sociology, 42 (1), 17-27.