Are you positive that you’re positive?: The downside to maintaining positivity as a first-year teacher

August 2021

Source: Teachers and Teaching, 27:6, 558-570

(Reviewed by the Portal Team)

This study follows a novice teacher in the US, who self-identified as a positive person, through her first year of teaching.
In doing so, the authors sought to understand:
1) how a new teacher maintains her positive disposition in the face of challenges in the first year of teaching, and
2) whether identifying as a positive person, and the process of maintaining that self-perception through the year, is beneficial to the teacher.

In this year-long qualitative study, the authors explore the experiences of a new teacher trying to maintain her positive disposition when faced with challenging emotional situations.
Using the lens of emotion traits and states, as proposed by Lazarus (1991), they explored the positive and negative experiences she had and the responses she had to them.
They did not enter into this study with the imposition of any definition of positivity or that the participant did or did not possess a positive disposition.
Their interest was to explore whether or not she would be able to maintain her self-perception as a positive person, and the processes that she might engage in to do so, throughout the school year.
The participant, Peyton, was enrolled in a pre-service teaching course in which the first author was a teaching assistant.
She was recruited due to her self-identification as a ‘positive person.
Peyton is a 24-year-old, White, female, first-year English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) teacher.
She had recently obtained her Master’s in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL).
Peyton also holds undergraduate degrees in international relations and Spanish.
Peyton’s prior teaching experience consists of her teaching internship during her final year of her two-year Master’s programme.
Peyton teaches in a public middle school (grades 6–8) in the Mid-Atlantic region of the United States.
The school serves approximately 1,000 students, of which more than half of the population is Hispanic.
Peyton teaches Advanced ESOL and Spanish 1.
Both courses are mixed grade and mixed ability level.
During the academic year (September 2018-June 2019), Peyton completed weekly emotion trackers (30 total) about her emotional experiences related to teaching.
The tracker consisted of a prompt to briefly list the pleasant and unpleasant experiences she could recall from the past week.
She then selected the two most salient experiences and answered three questions:
1) how she responded to each episode,
2) how she responded to the emotion evoked from each episode, and 3) how those emotions influenced her interactions in the classroom.
Lastly, she was asked to consider how these episodes impacted her disposition overall.
There were also interviews conducted every three weeks for a total of 10 interviews.
Interviews were opportunities to expound on any of the experiences reported, reflect on the status of Peyton’s emotion trait and outline processes she may have engaged in to regulate emotions.
The analysis was ongoing and iterative.

Findings and discussion
The findings indicate that Peyton was successful at maintaining her self-perception as a positive person throughout the school year.
While engaging in emotion work by use of regulation strategies were in some ways helpful, there were also detriments from the practices she selected.
These strategies also contributed to her false sense of positivity.
The strategies that she employed and the false sense of positivity created undermined Peyton’s ability to deeply reflect on, and learn from, her teaching experiences.
Peyton’s emotion regulation strategies had temporary positive outcomes, such as recharging when she felt stressed, feeling part of her school community, and expressing of negative feelings.
Having such personal outlets may help novice teachers maintain a positive outlook in light of negative circumstances, in the moment.
However, the strategies Peyton employed were a type of avoidance, a way of coping with the dissonance that accompanied each challenging experience.
Engaging in these activities allowed her to disconnect the emotional from the cognitive (Wang et al., 2017) by creating distance between the negative experiences she reported and the personal narrative she created.
By simply regulating her emotions instead of processing them, Peyton maintained her self perception and continually returned to a positive trait.
The authors are concerned that such outlets that perpetuate the disconnect between the cognitive and the emotional, and avoid the processing of emotion, may not be professionally beneficial or career sustaining.
As teacher educators, the authors recognise the importance of being able to successfully navigate the difficulties that can arise in the classroom from both an emotional and a pedagogical standpoint.
Whether or not teachers need to actually be ‘positive’ individuals in order to engage in this navigation is not a claim they are prepared to make.
However, Peyton’s distancing of the emotional from the cognitive during her difficult teaching experiences makes them wonder if teacher education could enhance the preparation of novice teachers by including more emphasis on the emotion work of teaching.
Such an emphasis may prepare teachers to cultivate tools in which they can confront and successfully navigate emotional experiences, rather than resorting to tactics that avoid them.

Problems of a false sense of positivity
While Peyton was able to maintain her self-perception as a positive person, her avoidance tactics appeared to show that she was actually maintaining a false sense of positivity.
Rather than cultivating an attitude and disposition that would alleviate stress and work through challenges, she avoided dissonant experiences.
The problem, then, with Peyton’s false sense of positivity is it kept her focused on her emotion trait.
The continued and productive attempts to return to a positive emotion trait may have indicated to Peyton that situations were satisfactory thus releasing her from the need to reflect in order to problem solve or improve her teaching (Ford & Troy, 2019).
As demonstrated at the end of year, Peyton did experience burnout.
Her dissonant emotion states could have served as an indicator to reflect and problem solve, allowing her to learn about herself as a teacher and improve her teaching (Stump, 2020).
Instead, the belief in this positive persona overshadowed the need for change.
She relied on her personal resources— personality traits, former coping strategies, etc.—which was not sufficient to sustain her during difficulties or to direct her professional development as a teacher.
Teachers who use their emotions as a space for learning, instead of avoidance, may actually maintain a more authentic state of positivity over time because they can recognise challenging situations and appropriately respond to them (e.g., Golombek & Doran, 2014; Johnson & Worden, 2014).
On the other hand, a false sense of positivity does not appear sustainable due to the threat of cynicism and burnout that can occur when problematic issues, such as classroom management or pedagogical decision making, arise and are not properly addressed (Maslach, 2003).
Emotion work and regulation is a part of teaching.
However, the authors challenge the understanding of emotion work and what regulation can be.
In addition to behaviour modifications, there needs to be a point in which teachers must recognise and process their emotions.
By highlighting the educative nature of emotions and how teachers can learn from both successful and challenging experiences, teacher education could prepare teachers to use the experiences they encounter to improve practice.
Such skills could encourage growth from one’s challenging teaching experiences instead of avoidance of them.

Ford, B. Q., & Troy, A. S. (2019). Reappraisal Reconsidered: A Closer Look at the Costs of an Acclaimed Emotion-Regulation Strategy. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 28(2), 195–203
Golombek, P., & Doran, M. (2014). Unifying cognition, emotion, and activity in language teacher professional development. Teaching and Teacher Education, 39, 102–111
Johnson, K. E., & Worden, D. (2014). Cognitive/emotional dissonance as growth points in learning to teach. Language and Sociocultural Theory, 1(2), 125–150
Lazarus, R. S. (1991). Emotion and adaptation. Oxford University Press.
Maslach, C. (2003). Job burnout: New directions in research and intervention. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 12(5), 189–192
Stump, M. (2020). Points of learning instead of states of being: Reimagining the role of emotions in teacher development through compassionate and developmental supports (Publication No. 27744260)[Doctoral dissertation, University of Maryland]. ProQuest Dissertations Publishing
Wang, X., Zheng, L., Zheng, Y., Sun, P., Zhou, F. A., & Guo, X. (2017). Immune to situation: The self-serving bias in unambiguous contexts. Frontiers in Psychology, 8(822), 1-8 

Updated: Mar. 29, 2022


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