Teacher emotions in their professional lives: implications for teacher development

November, 2020

Source: Asia-Pacific Journal of Teacher Education, 48:5, 491-507

(Reviewed by the Portal Team)

To support teachers in understanding their emotions and therefore better manage them, the aim of this study has been to investigate how teachers perceive their emotions in their professional lives in primary schools in China.
It seems that the consequences of teacher emotions are empirically and conceptually significant.
Consequently, the author undertook to investigate teacher emotions with this in mind.
Specifically, he aimed to identify what emotions teachers experience in primary schools in China.
The research question of this study is proposed as: What kinds of emotions are reported by Chinese primary teachers in relation to Bronfenbrenner’s ecological framework?

Drawing from a series of studies on teacher emotion and its impacts, this paper is comprised of a qualitative study and a quantitative survey.

The qualitative study

The qualitative study investigated how teachers perceive their emotions in primary schools in China through individual semi-structured interviews.
A convenience sample of 25 teachers from seven schools in Liaoning province was interviewed.

Instrument and analysis procedure
The semi-structured interview protocol was deployed as the research instrument, which used three major questions:
(1) please depict 10 kinds of emotions that you have experienced as a teacher within or outside school;
(2) please describe some emotion-related situations;
(3) please give two examples of an emotional context that impressed you the most.
The data were analysed using deductive content analysis.

The quantitative study

With the same research aim, 1,700 primary school teachers were approached and 1,492 valid questionnaires from 43 primary schools in China were returned, giving a response rate of 88%.

Instrument and data analysis
The self-developed Teacher Emotion Inventory (TEI) based on the authors’ previous study (Chen, 2016) encompassed 26 items which could be allocated into the four system levels (e.g., micro-system, meso-system, exo-system, and macro-system).
The survey was carried out at the end of the academic year.
Participants were asked to describe their emotional experience regarding the listed emotions during the last academic year.
The frequency rating scale consisted of six points starting from “never” to “almost always”.
The TEI was utilised to support the qualitative findings in this study using mean scores of corresponding items.

Results and discussion
This study demonstrated that a high intensity of emotions (both positive and negative) is present at the micro-system level, evident from both the qualitative and quantitative data and emanating from interactions with students, such as caring, happiness, love, satisfaction, anger, frustration, and worry.
Teachers indeed experienced pleasant emotions when they saw their students make progress and enjoy their teaching.
On the contrary, teachers felt tensions in engaging with students and enhancing their achievement when students did not take ownership of their learning.
Although the amount of positive and negative emotions was almost equal, attention should be drawn to the interactions with students.
It was striking to find that teachers in this study experienced a large amount of negative emotions, i.e. in almost equal numbers to positive emotions (33 positive vs 32 negative emotions) from the qualitative data and a larger number from the quantitative data (11 positive vs 15 negative items).
A warning is given here about the macro-system level since all emotions reported at that level were negative from the qualitative data and also about the meso-system level since the high number of negative emotions were identified at that level from the quantitative data.
Teachers expressed intense negative feelings regarding stiff promotion policies, idealistic education reforms, and unfair public blame at the macro-system level and unrealistic expectations from parents and unhealthy collegial competition at the meso-system level.
Kelchtermans (2011) argued that teachers suffer from negative feelings in relation to aspects of teachers’ work, resulting in withdrawal and protective stances.
It seems teacher vulnerability may in fact worsen before it can improve considerably in the Chinese context in the near future (Gao, 2008). One encouraging message is that it seems that younger teachers in this study were more positive than older ones.
On the other hand, Chinese culture may contribute to the large amount of negative emotions.
Taking collegial relationship as an example, Chinese society advocates more collectivism than individualism.
In theory, people are expected to forgo personal ambitions to fit in with and maintain a harmonious society (Sundararajan, 2015).
Such Chinese harmony has been found not only to help but also to hinder emotions and other important human capabilities.
People in cultures of this type may suppress spontaneity which is considered the hallmark of true feelings and is the way to express authentic emotions.
To survive in the current circumstances, teachers’ capacity for regulating emotions is crucial, since that can neutralise potentially negative or emotionally harmful situations (Newberry, Gallant, & Riley, 2013).
Gallant (2013) addressed that teachers need to consciously regulate and balance their emotions especially with early-years students.
Fortunately, most teachers in this study realised the need to control and express their emotions although some teachers might be more successful at it than others.
The findings keep pace with those in other studies in which teachers struggled with emotional regulation in difficult situations.
Emotion regulation is one thing, emotional expression is another.
The teachers in this study also recognised how to establish emotional balance and how to express their emotions (Gallant, 2013).
Tsang (2011, p. 1312) noted that teachers are being “encouraged not to express emotions that are either too strong (anger, joy, sadness) or too weak”.
This was also reported by a teacher in this study.
Zembylas (2007) explained that this kind of emotional rule is embedded in school culture and education.
Emotion display is a complex phenomenon and individual and professional differences can affect the display of emotions (Yuu, 2010).
However, the quantitative results in this study provide evidence that teachers’ age and teaching experience had significant effects on emotions.
The younger teachers reported a higher frequency of emotions compared with their older colleagues.
This may be caused by the fact that younger teachers don’t have sufficient emotional competence or may not fully understand the real situation of the teaching profession.

Implications for teacher education
This study provides several implications for teacher education.
It is suggested that initial teacher education and teacher training programmes should take the issue of emotional regulation teaching strategies into consideration, specifically by involving a combination of cognitive and emotional knowledge and regulation teaching strategies.
Understanding emotional regulation is one thing, but the development of emotional regulation teaching strategies in relevant settings is a separate issue.
Consequently, it is proposed that teacher educators should not only focus on emotional regulation training but also on the issue of emotional display for pre-service and in-service teachers.
This calls for interventions targeting teachers’ experiences of emotions.
Teacher education programmes could include such emotion regulation trainings so that teachers are prepared to handle emotion-eliciting situations in a healthy manner.
Socio-cultural factors and psychological factors have influences on an individual’s emotion.
Hence, an understanding of individuals’ emotions and their emotion regulations needs to include social-cultural contexts.
Consequently, efforts should be made to consider the cultural influences on teacher emotion, paying particular attention to older and experienced teachers since they reported more negative emotions and less positive emotions than their younger peers.

Bronfenbrenner, U. (2005). Making human beings human: Bioecological perspectives on human development. Thousand Oakes, CA: Sage Publications.
Chen, J. (2016). Understanding teacher emotions: The development of a teacher emotion inventory. Teaching and Teacher Education, 55, 68–77.
Gallant, A. (2013). Self-conscious emotions: How two teachers explore the emotional work of teaching. Bradford, Canada: Emerald Group Publishing Limited.
Gao, X. (2008). Teachers’ professional vulnerability and cultural tradition: A Chinese paradox. Teaching and Teacher Education, 24(1), 154–165.
Kelchtermans, G. (2011). Vulnerability in teaching: The moral and political roots of structural conditions. In C. Day & J. C. K. Lee (Eds.), New understanding of teacher’s work: Emotions and educational change (pp. 65–84). New York: Springer.
Newberry, M., Gallant, A., & Riley, P. J. (2013). Emotion and school: Understanding how the hidden curriculum influences relationships, leadership, teaching, and learning. UK: Emerald Group Publishing Limited.
Sundararajan, L. (2015). Understanding emotion in Chinese culture: Thinking through psychology. New York, NY: Springer International Publishing.
Tsang, K. (2011). Emotional labor of teaching. Educational Researcher, 2(8), 1312–1316.
Yuu, K. (2010). Expressing emotions in teaching: Inducement, suppression, and disclosure as caring profession. Educational Studies in Japan: International Yearbook, 5, 63–78.
Zembylas, M. (2007). Emotional ecology: The intersection of emotional knowledge and pedagogical content knowledge in teaching. Teaching and Teacher Education, 23, 355–367. 

Updated: May. 11, 2021