Known Unknowns: Teaching and emotional labour

How emotional labour helps students succeed… and why you’ve never heard of it.

Last week, I visited willrobotstakemyjob.com to work out if teaching will still be a thing in 20 years. Luckily, teaching is only 1% likely to be taken over by a computer! I breathed a sigh of relief.

But why? TED talks tell us that the key to productivity is to gamify our lives, departments are mandating ICT use in classrooms, and YouTube sensation Eddie Woo is teaching students complex equations from the comfort of their sofas. So why is there no predicted computer takeover of education?

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The answer, if you ask any teacher, student or parent, is likely to be relationships. Teachers often say that the job is all about relationships. And the research supports this. In his seminal meta-analysis of educational research, John Hattie found that student-teacher relationships have an effect size of .72 – far above the .4 he recommends as sufficient.

This idea is also supported anecdotally. Ask any Uber driver, person who sits next to you on an aeroplane, or distant relative on your table at a wedding, and they will quickly identify for you the two or three teachers who really connected with them and made a difference in their lives. They will remember this teacher forty years later with affection and admiration.

Emotional labour

Teachers know the value of relationships, and leverage them to get results. But, as marriage counselors will tell you, relationships take work. In the context of the workplace, this is called emotional labour. And this is what teachers do when they deliberately, and caringly, take an interest in understanding, engaging and encouraging students.

Arlie Horschild defined emotional labour as requiring employees to manage ‘feelings and expectations to fulfil the requirements of the job’. This includes both surface acting, where real frustrations and anger are concealed, or deep emotional labour where the labour is consistent with the employee’s values, and real feeling can be drawn upon to display the right emotions. While surface level emoting can be harmful, deep emotional labour increases work satisfaction.

Emotional labour is performed by a wide variety of professions, including waitresses, police officers, doctors and CEOs. Waitresses must make customers feel comfortable and welcomed by smiling warmly. Police officers, on the other hand, must maintain authority and distance. And CEOs project a shared vision to everyone in the organisation, along with the confidence they will achieve it. While these roles might seem different, they have one thing in common – the way people use their expressions, words and actions is designed to produce feelings in others, and this is key to their ability to do their jobs well.

Teachers do this all the time. You would not see a good teacher walk in to class with shoulders hunched, speaking in a whisper, no matter how sad they felt inside. You would not notice an edge to the warm voice of an excellent teacher, even though they were reminding a student of classroom expectations for the fifteenth time that day. Emotional labour produces real results; the encouragement and excitement that a teacher conveys about a student’s achievements will directly affect how likely they are to try again next time.

Good teachers bring the party. Often, in schools where many students have experienced trauma, the teacher IS the party. The emotional energy that the teacher brings to the class is crucial to the success of the mission of educating all young people.

Recognition and reward

However teacher standards and role descriptions do not emphasise the crucial skill of emotional labour. Perhaps because it is hard to measure, it also is often absent from policy documents or school data.

The Australian Professional Standards for Teachers mention teachers supporting the ‘physical, social and intellectual development’ of students, but not their emotional development. Teachers should ‘manage student behaviour’, ‘support wellbeing’ and ‘establish…positive interactions’ but the words emotion and feeling do not appear in the document. Likewise, the role description for Victorian classroom teachers mentions only ‘effectively engaging’ students and implementing ‘classroom management’, but not engaging in emotional labour.

Emotional labour, a critical part of success for teachers, is hardly mentioned at all in key documents describing best practice. But why should it be? Some might argue that the skills involved in emotional labour are something that comes naturally with maturity. Some say that they are common sense and so ‘go without saying’.

I argue that no, skills needed for emotional labour do not come naturally. Not for most people. Teachers work hard on their skills to consistently convey positive affect, even when annoyed. They speak about the importance of human rights in a credible and totally-not-cringe-worthy way, not because they were born cool, but from hours of practice and reflection. They are sensitive not only because it is kind, but also because it works. And yes, that is work.

Competing priorities

But emotional labour has a PR problem. Traditionally valued in the realm of service industries and health care, emotional labour has been hard to measure and therefore, hard to compensate. There are lots of prizes for ‘Best Salesperson’, but none for ‘Best Listener’. And this is a problem because what gets measured, gets managed – and in teaching, the things that we can measure most easily may not be the most valuable.

Interest in measuring and valuing student growth in literacy and numeracy scores (as measured by tests like NAPLAN) has exploded. We should commend this focus if it results in our students heading into the world more skilled and more confident. But if we only value the things we can measure, we run the risk of undermining our best efforts. If schools and the education system cannot value, reward and promote quality emotional labour as much as quality instruction and planning, then they will be building an engine with no fuel to run it on.

Emotions get us up in the morning and keep us going through the tough times. The role of teachers in sparking joy and excitement, in providing encouragement and in modelling positive relationships and emotional regulation, should not be underestimated by the system. It certainly should not be ignored.

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