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6 Ways to Manage the Effects of Emotional Labor in Teaching

Emotional Labor

Good days and bad days, teaching is an emotional lift every day.

The term "emotional labor" was first coined by sociologist Arlie Hochschild in her 1983 book The Managed Heart. In it, Hochschild refers to the work of managing one's own emotions, which is a requirement often experienced by teachers and other professionals who have to be cheerful and accommodating in even the most stressful situations. "The point is," Hochschild explains, "that while you may also be doing physical and mental labor, you are crucially being hired and monitored for your capacity to manage and produce a feeling." For teachers, emotional labor can be an exhausting exercise of both evoking and suppressing feelings.

Further reading: Teacher Frustration: When Is Venting Good, When Is It Bad?    

The term has been expanded upon and appropriated by nearly everyone, but even under the strictest definition, teachers are especially required to perform emotional labor by managing their emotions and emotional displays on a minute-by-minute basis. After a meeting, for example, I was once reprimanded by my director for my body language, as I was apparently displaying unprofessional emotions to the group. This example, and countless others, shows that teachers are expected to adjust and control their emotions and emotional displays every day—whether it's with students, administrators, or parents. Here are six ways you can mitigate the negative effects of emotional labor.

1. Recognize What Emotional Labor Is

I had never heard of the concept of emotional labor until my colleague told me about it, but of course, I was intimately familiar with its symptoms and outcomes. I recognized certain forms, such as having to fake an emotion, change an expression or feeling on the spot, or change an actual feeling in order to change an emotion. Giving names to these behaviors—surface acting and deep acting, respectively—immediately made me feel vindicated. Knowing the emotional requirements of your job can help you plan a course of action for how to deal with them.

2. Learn Problem-Solving Techniques

If you're experiencing an issue at school, it's likely that other teachers have probably gone through the same situation. Discuss handling difficult parents with mentors and colleagues. When talking to parents, use certain foolproof scripts like "the good-bad sandwich," where you sandwich the student's challenge between two positive attributes. Stay consistent with discipline consequences, and learn how to deal with administrator frustrations by watching how others successfully navigate that terrain. When you learn how to manage the emotional conditions of your job, you'll be way ahead of the game.

 

3. Have Crucial Conversations

Understanding how to have crucial conversations—those that are necessary but uncomfortable or anxiety-provoking—can help alleviate uneasiness and prevent stress for everyone involved. Knowing what you want for yourself and others, recognizing when a conversation has upset others, seeing the real story, and moving into action effectively can help everyone at your school have difficult conversations in the most comfortable, respectful, and effective ways possible.

4. Remember the Rewards and Share Success Stories

I keep a file at school labeled "Students." In it, I have cards and emails from my students and their parents expressing their gratitude, updating me on their successes, and pointing out what they remember about my class. On especially difficult days, going through those memories always lifts my spirits, and it reminds me of why I do the work I do. In my professional learning group, teachers often share these funny or inspiring stories with others, creating solidarity and reminding us that we're all in this together.

5. Talk to Your Administrators

As allies, administrators can do a lot to help alleviate the emotional labor of teachers. They can provide a buffer to help manage the most difficult situations like abusive parents or extreme discipline problems. They can implement professional development to provide strategies and techniques for helping teachers cope with the frustrations and aggravations of their job. They can allow teachers to vent about things they can't discuss in the classroom. Most importantly, they can help set realistic expectations and create a happy and healthy school climate.

Further reading: 5 Ways to Deal With Negative Teachers    

6. Take Care of Yourself

Self-care should be part of every teacher-training program. Achieving a work-life balance by respecting your own time and learning to say no can help teachers cope with stress and reduce the effects of emotional labor. Learning how to recharge and rejuvenate over breaks and vacations can prevent burnout.

It's Not All Bad

While performing emotional labor should theoretically produce emotional dissonance, causing teaching to be "unpleasant, frustrating, or even alienating," some studies found that the emotional labor of teaching actually brings about positive outcomes, including "increase in job satisfaction, commitment, self-esteem, and work effectiveness." As part of your self-care regimen, take some time to assess the emotional labor required in your job, and don't forget to focus on the positives, too.