Strategies to cope with emotionally challenging situations in teacher education

December 2019

Source: Journal of Education for Teaching, 45:5, 540-552

(Reviewed by the Portal Team)

The aim of this study was to investigate student teachers’ coping with emotionally challenging situations in teacher education.
This work contributes to a student teacher perspective of coping.

A qualitative research design was chosen by the author.
Grounded theory methods guided data collection and offered an open and sensitive approach to studying social processes, meanings, and interactions based on participants’ perspectives and main concern.
Among the different versions of grounded theory the constructivist version was used (Charmaz 2014), which assumes a multiple, processual, and constructed social reality.
The theoretical foundation of symbolic interactionism was used in this study.

Twenty two student teachers, studying to become primary school teachers in Swedish compulsory schools for children aged six to 12, participated in the study.
All participants were studying in their last semester at the time of the data collection.
The student teachers had not yet completed their 20 weeks of work placement education when doing the interviews.

Data collection
The interview questions centred around
(a) reasons to work as a teacher,
(b) perceived distressing/stressful situations in teacher education, and
(c) worries about working as a teacher in the future.
The interviews were recorded and transcribed.

Data analysis
Grounded theory methods of coding, constant comparison, memo writing and sorting were used to analyse the data (Charmaz 2014; Glaser 1978; Glaser and Strauss 1967).

Emotionally challenging situations reported by the student teachers from work placement included lack of classroom control, violence and harassment among pupils, pupils with special needs, some teachers’ negative attitudes towards pupils, the way some teachers talked about their pupils and their families, and some pupils’ poor living situations.
In addition, emotionally challenging situations such as conflicts with supervising teachers and university teachers, as well as perceived irrelevant content of courses in the teacher education were discussed.
The participants expressed worries about their future teacher duties such as responsibility for student achievement, meeting parents, and stress and/or lack of time in the teaching profession.
According to the analysis, the student teachers’ main concern was coping with discrepancies between their ideal conceptions of teachers’ work and the experiences they had as student teachers.
The coping strategies used were in relation to resolving their main concern.
The most common discrepancies included:
(a) teaching practice being taught to be performed a certain way and then not practiced accordingly at the university or in work placement schools;
(b) supervising teachers and university teachers acting in ways towards student teachers or pupils in a way that the student teachers described as being unprofessional (not caring, racist, sexist etc.);
(c) engagement in social issues of pupils. Student teachers described having altruistic motives for choosing a teaching career.
Acting for better conditions for disadvantaged pupils was seen as being potentially exhaustive.
The discrepancy focused on student teachers’ wanting to help pupils generally and more specifically their experiences of change as impossible with regard to disadvantaged pupils.

A grounded theory of student teachers’ coping with emotionally challenging situations
The author reports that the analysis resulted in a grounded theory of student teachers’ coping with emotionally challenging situations during initial teacher education, consisting of three strategies used.
The emotionally challenging situations were formulated from both the student teachers’ experiences during their teacher education and from work placement education.
The situations were also influenced by the fact that the student teachers were about to start their teaching careers within a year.
When being close to starting to work, the student teachers described a need to cope with their main concern.
The main concern was connected to the discrepancies between student teachers’ experiences and ideals.
In adopting a strategy of change advocacy, the student teachers wanted to influence the emotionally challenging situation.
Using change advocacy meant acting to alter the situation that involved confrontations with pupils, student teachers, teachers, or supervising teachers.
For example, student teachers used change advocacy when they tried to influence their university teachers to make better connections between the ideals of teaching included in teacher education and their teaching practice.
Collective sharing was a strategy that could offer alleviation through witnessing, discussing, or observing as a part of the collective.
Being a member of a collective also conferred the privilege of having the support that the collective offered. Within the student teacher group and in connection with meeting teachers in work placement, support was given both tacitly and explicitly.
The student teachers experienced collective sharing as both a negative and positive influence.
For example, complaining allowed being part of the group, but after a while those who found this to be counterproductive separated themselves from the student teachers who they thought only focused on complaining.
The third coping strategy among the student teachers, responsibility reduction, included no clash between the person and the origin of the emotionally challenging situation.
There was no intention to change the situation.
Responsibility reduction included letting go in order to alleviate educational or work-related thoughts.
This strategy included the need to clarify the role of a teacher and reduce the responsibility of a teacher to what was experienced as realistic levels.
The author notes that coping using change advocacy, with collective sharing, or through responsibility reduction were not strategies exclusive of each other. The strategies influenced each other and were intertwined, with students moving back and forth between the strategies in their discussions.

Practical implications
In recognising emotions and coping as central Jokikokko (2016) challenges the idea of leaving emotions out of the classroom.
The author points out that this study emphasizes the importance of having emotions connected to teaching as integrated parts of the educational programme. Within teacher education, there might be a tendency to avoid talking about the emotions of teaching.
It seems to be especially important, based on this study, to strengthen the ties between the university and work placement in schools, for socialisation into the teacher occupation to include professional development (cf., Korthagen 2010).
The author suggests that this could include using practice-generated issues and bringing the perspectives of the student teachers into teaching at the university that addresses ways of coping, as shown in this study.
A problem that might inhibit this process is that teachers involved in teacher education have a varied set of ideas of what teacher professionalism is (Davies and Ferguson 1998).
The author emphasizes that this study could be used to discuss what are seen as professional coping strategies and how these might be taught in initial teacher education.

Charmaz, K. 2014. Constructing Grounded Theory. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
Davies, R., and J. Ferguson. 1998. “Professional’ or ‘competent’? the Roles of Higher Education and Schools in Initial Teacher Education.” Research Papers in Education 13: 67–86. doi:10.1080/ 0267152980130105
Glaser, B. 1978. Theoretical Sensitivity: Advances in the Methodology of Grounded Theory. Mill Valley, CA: Sociology Press
Glaser, B., and A. Strauss. 1967. The Discovery of Grounded Theory: Strategies for Qualitative Research. Chicago, IL: Aldine
Jokikokko, K. 2016. “Reframing Teachers’ Intercultural Learning as an Emotional Process.” Intercultural Education 27: 217–230. doi:10.1080/14675986.2016.1150648
Korthagen, F. A. 2010. “How Teacher Education Can Make a Difference.” Journal of Education for Teaching 36: 407–423. doi:10.1080/02607476.2010.513854. 

Updated: May. 09, 2020