‘Will This Build Me or Break Me?’: The Embodied Emotional Work of a Teacher Candidate

April, 2021

Source: Studying Teacher Education, 17:1, 82-99

(Reviewed by the Portal Team)

This self-study explores the experience of one teacher candidate. It explores a quandary that Elizabeth (who goes by Liz) felt regarding being drawn to learning in some of her courses and struggling to ‘feel curious, intrigued, exhausted and excited’ about learning in other courses in her teacher education program.
As a teacher candidate, she saw herself as student and a learner who sometimes struggled to engage.
Engaging in a self-study examining specifically what influenced her own engagement in learning in some courses and not in others, positioned Liz’s experiences and analysis at the center of this inquiry.
Liz translated this living contradiction into the following research question: Why do I have such different responses to different courses and professors in my teacher education program?
By including and centering the experiences of a teacher candidate, this research was designed to better understand what promotes student engagement in learning in a teacher education program.
Employing self-study methodology in her inquiry allowed her to focus on three aspects, her body, mind, and emotions as she experienced different teacher educators and courses throughout her teacher education program.

This self-study is used to shed light on her decision-making process regarding investing or merely performing her embodied and emotional work of learning while encountering challenging content, entering various learning environments, and engaging in relationships with teacher educators.

The authors designed this self-study to make public Liz’s exploration of her learning practice so that others can identify how her practice and context are relevant to their own experiences and work.
In this regard, it is a self-initiated disciplined inquiry into situated practice with the aim of improving that practice (LaBoskey, 2004; Mena & Russell, 2017).
Liz, the first author of this self-study, is an undergraduate teacher candidate in her final year of teacher education at a university in the mountain west region of the United States.
Liz’s experiences of wanting to learn but feeling unable to learn within teacher education courses and with some teacher educators provided a living contradiction for her to explore (Loughran, 2007; Pinnegar, 1998; Whitehead, 1996).
Operating as a critical friend, Erin read and analyzed Liz’s reflective journal for the intent of asking probing questions, challenging assumptions, and pushing Liz to make meaning of her experiences (Costa & Kallick, 1993; Pinnegar & Hamilton, 2010).
As part of the data came from Liz’s experiences in Erin’s class, they invited another teacher educator in the teacher education program, Ramona, to join them as a meta-critical friend (Fletcher et al., 2016; see also Russell & Berry, 2016) and as a methodological consultant as she had experience in self-study of teacher education practice (S-STEP) methodology.
In this capacity, Ramona operated in a ‘dual dimension’ of this self-study to challenge and support the critical analysis of Liz and Erin’s methods, assumptions and conclusions (Loughran & Brubaker, 2015, p. 259). By employing both a critical and meta-critical friend, the authors highlight their rigorous analysis of Liz’s learning experiences that further broadens the trustworthiness of this self-study.

Data and Analysis
As this exploration began during spring term, the experiences from Liz’s first fall and winter semester courses were written in retrospect from memory, and personal reflections of her experiences during her spring, summer, and second fall courses were written throughout the course of those semesters.
In line with self-study methodologies, the data for this self-study comes from multiple sources, including
a) Liz’s personal reflection journal,
b) analytic memos surrounding themes in Liz’s learning experiences, and
c) notes and journal entries from conversations with critical friends.
These were written throughout the year during and immediately after participating in the courses as a student and in one case as a teaching assistant.
The major assertions from the data analyzed and the critiques and observations from the critical friend interview were compared by all three authors.
This formed their assertions for understanding – their results.
They worked to embed a critical collaborative inquiry (Samaras, 2010) into their data analysis steps so that they could more rigorously interrogate their data and the patterns revealed.

Findings and discussion
This self-study investigates the living contradiction rooted in Liz’s experience of learning and investing throughout her teacher education program.
The study highlights the emotional work involved in a teacher candidate’s choices to invest, or not, in learning in her classes.
Liz’s decision-making process involved moving toward investment in learning, or more superficial performance, in her emotional work.
These decisions depended, in part, on her deliberations of whether the emotional geographies provided opportunities that she perceived would ‘build her’ or ‘break her.
The authors’ findings demonstrate how the emotional work of investing in learning can be recognized as both intrapersonal and embodied, as well as interpersonal, and enacted within a social world.
In this manner, their self-study contributes empirical descriptions of theoretical constructs including emotional geographies and the process of deciding to invest or perform emotional work (Ahmed, 2004; Holland et al., 1998; Zembylas, 2007).
A strong theme in this emotional work is the role of understanding positioning in relation to power in the classroom.
The socio-political context of the emotional geography of classrooms set up emotional rules that Liz then felt inscribed on her body.
Therefore, the emotional work of investing should be recognized as both intrapersonal and embodied, as well as interpersonal, and enacted within a social world (Ahmed, 2004; Holland et al., 1998; Zembylas, 2007).
Additionally, the expression norms of teacher educators influenced how Liz experienced the emotional geographies and rules of instructors’ classes.
She perceived that instructors who explicitly shared their own identities, personal experiences, and embodied responses signaled to her that emotional work was recognized and valued.
This facilitated her decision to invest in learning.
Explicit attention to the ways teacher candidates experience emotional geographies in teacher education programs can facilitate the work that teacher educators do to support learning and investment.
Taking time to listen to student experiences and voices is an opportunity to understand how emotional geographies are constructed as learning spaces for teacher candidates.
Efforts by Liz to understand the emotional rules of various instructors’ classes can be understood as her efforts to identify and occupy her place within each emotional geography.
This work to find a place within the emotional geographies of instructors’ classes can be considered an embodied effort to negotiate emotions, dissonance, and power within the sociality of teacher education programs (Clark, 2004; Holland et al., 1998).
Investment in learning actively requires students to make decisions about their position, identity and belonging within educational relationships (Kohl, 1995; Pinnegar, 2005).
Liz was able to find mentors that she could trust to hold an emotionally supportive space for her to do her emotional work and find her own sense of self.
These relationships, between teacher educators and this teacher candidate, demonstrate the relational work of teaching and learning in a context of power.
Certainly, not all teacher candidates’ emotional work will look the same.
Equally, not all teacher educators can, or should, accommodate every teacher candidate’s needs and desires for particular emotional geographies and emotional rules.
However, teacher educators who have gained the ‘moral authority’ from teacher candidates and who are emotionally credible can open up spaces for teacher candidates to do this work.
The authors recognize that this is also emotional work for teacher educators (Cutri & Whiting, 2015).
This emotional work of teacher educators and teacher candidates is embedded in personal, ideological commitments and is an act of authenticity and coherence to a sense of self (Cutri & Whiting, 2015; Hochschild, 1979; Whitehead, 1996).
In this study, Liz could clearly see a choice for her as a teacher candidate between emotional work as personal investment in contrast to a social performance of learning.
This self-study offers teacher educators insight into the benefits of being aware of a teacher candidate’s emotional work and the potential influence it can have on their decisions to invest in learning.

Ahmed, S. (2004). Affective economies. Social Text, 22(2), 117–139.
Clark, C. (2004). Emotional gifts and “you first” micropolitics: Niceness in the socioemotional economy. Ch 23 in A. S. Manstead, N. Frijda, & A. Fisher (Eds.), Feelings and emotions: The Amsterdam symposium (pp. 402–421). Cambridge University Press.
Costa, A. L., & Kallick, B. (1993). Through the lens of a critical friend. Educational leadership, 51, 49–49.
Cutri, R. M., & Whiting, E. F. (2015). The emotional work of discomfort and vulnerability in multicultural teacher education. Teachers and Teaching, 21(8), 1010–1025.
Fletcher, T., Ní Chróinín, D., & O’Sullivan, M., (2016). A layered approach to critical friendship as a means to support pedagogical innovation in pre-service teacher education. Studying Teacher Education, 12(3), 302–319.
Holland, D., Lachicotte, W., Jr., Skinner, D., & Cain, C. (1998). Identity and agency in cultural worlds. Harvard University Press.
Hochschild, A. R. (1979). Emotion work, feeling rules, and social structure. American Journal of Sociology, 85(3), 551–575.
Kohl, H. R. (1995). “I won’t learn from you”: And other thoughts on creative maladjustment. New Press.
LaBoskey, V. K. (2004). The methodology of self-study and its theoretical underpinnings. In J. J. Loughran, M. L. Hamilton, V. K. LaBoskey, & T. Russell (Eds.), International handbook of selfstudy of teaching and teacher education practices (pp. 817–869). Springer.
Loughran, J. (2007). Researching teacher education practices: Responding to challenges, demands, and expectations of self-study. Journal of Teacher Education, 58(1), 12–20.
Loughran, J., & Brubaker, N. (2015). Working with a critical friend: A self-study of executive coaching. Studying Teacher Education, 11(3), 255–271.
Mena, J., & Russell, T. (2017). Collaboration, multiple methods, trustworthiness: Issues arising from the 2014 international conference on self-study of teacher education practices. Studying Teacher Education, 13(1), 105–122.
Pinnegar, S. (1998). Introduction to part II: Methodological perspectives. In M. L. Hamilton (Ed.). Reconceptualizing teacher practice: Self-study in teacher education (pp. 31–33). Psychology Press.
Pinnegar, S. (2005). Identity development, moral authority and the teacher educator. In G. Hoban (Ed.). The missing links in teacher education design (pp. 259–279). Springer.
Russell, T., & Berry, A. (2016). Five challenging self-studies of teacher and teacher educator development. Studying Teacher Education, 12(3), 241–243
Samaras, A. P. (2010). Self-study teacher research: Improving your practice through collaborative inquiry. Sage.
Whitehead, J. (1996). Living educational theories and living contradictions: A response to Mike Newby. Journal of Philosophy of Education, 30, 457–461
Zembylas, M. (2007). Theory and methodology in researching emotions in education. International Journal of Research & Method in Education, 30(1), 57–72

Updated: Oct. 06, 2021