Emotional Work

After a summer 'holiday' filled with meetings, reading, discussions and proposals, the Teaching with Heart blog is back!

When Rachel and I set up Teaching with Heart we talked a lot about the emotional work that goes into jobs like teaching and counselling. The idea that 'work' includes both intellectual, physical and emotional tasks seemed obvious to us. But what is emotional work? As we've continued to talk to teachers and school leaders about their experiences of education, we've begun to ask more questions about it: when is it done? Is it always rewarding, always a burden, or some mix of these? Who sets emotional tasks and who monitors whether or not they are being done? Is there a right way to approach emotional work?

In trying to answer these questions I recently came across the work of Arlie Hochschild, who basically wrote the book(s) on emotional labour. In 'The Managed Heart', Hochschild talks about the way that certain client-facing roles - especially in the 'soft' sector - require employees not only to provide a service, but to provide an emotional and relational experience alongside this. For example, she found that air stewardesses were expected not only to ensure safety, serve food and drinks, and respond to passenger's needs, but also to project a feeling of calm in their movements, to engage with passengers in a way which bordered on the flirtatious, and to absorb and smile through verbal and sexual abuse. They had to ensure that at all times their emotions were in the service of their role, and not the other way around. Emotional work isn't work which is emotional, then, but work in which your emotions are required to be a part of the work.

In her research Hochschild found that it was not enough, for these companies, that you acted being calm and docile in the face of a passenger molesting you, you had to feel calm and docile too. Customers would know if you were just pretending to think they were the centre of your universe; instead you had to really, if only momentarily, believe it. In other words, as an employee you were required to go method, suspending what you actually believe and feel and giving yourself over to your role. 

Arlie Hochschild

Arlie Hochschild

Hochschild saw this as a pernicious state of affairs, contrasting the demands of emotional labour unfavourably with the physical labour documented by Marx and Engels. Where the factory owner owned only our bodies, she says, leaving our minds and emotions free to wander, the service-sector employer has begun to encroach upon our very selves, demanding that we 'be' a certain way, not just act it. In response to this encroaching, the employee can act in one of three ways: identify utterly with the role and risk losing their authentic self entirely, attempt to act out the role even though they don't feel it and risk burnout through the effort, or consciously split off from their role, 'playing' it ironically, and thereby splitting themselves.

But there is another side to emotional work, which Hochschild only briefly touches on, and which paints a more complex picture. In one telling chapter, she describes how, for many of the stewardesses, the emotional work that they did was rewarding and enjoyable. They spoke about the emotional work connecting them to something big and worthwhile. Some spoke of the airlines as a family, which although strict in its expectations, also gave them a sense of identity and stability.

Thinking about teaching, I believe the emotional work that we do has this double-edged quality too: for me it is both the reason I love teaching and the reason I left teaching. To illustrate the point I've picked out a few examples of the emotional work I was required to do, and the impact this had on me.

The first example comes from the emotional work I learnt to do as a TA and trainee teacher. I struggled, like I guess nearly everyone does, with a bunch of powerful emotions when the children I was responsible for misbehaved. If they were defiant or aggressive towards me, I reacted with fear, shame, and feelings of personal inadequacy. Soon I realised, by watching others, that my emotional reaction was not accepted in the schools I worked at. I saw that the sanctioned 'script' in the face of misbehaviour was not an emotional one but a technical one - I learnt to ignore the fear and turn my mind towards strategies which would deflate the tension or distract the misbehaviour. 

In other words, I had learnt to adapt my emotional responses to a culture in which displaying them was not permitted. Without any spoken instruction, I soaked up these new cultural injunctions, and rapidly became a better teacher who offered a more stable experience for my children. Indeed, I became known as someone who was emotionally dependable even with the most difficult children. I wasn't just ignoring the emotions - they no longer came up at all. This emotional work was welcome, and I even applied the lessons I learnt to other aspects of my life. It changed who I was, both as a teacher and a person.

[edit: in subsequent years I've come to look less positively on this experience. While it enabled me to operate better as a teacher, and gave me some useful tools in my personal life, it also set a pattern which caused me problems later. I learnt that emotional responses are not to be engaged with or explored, but rather are to be quietly let go of. If I had been able to explore those feelings of fear and inadequacy I might have been able to use them as a teacher, and grow with them as a person. Unexamined and unfelt, they lurked beneath the surface throughout my career and arose again when times got tougher.]

In my second teaching post I found myself working within an Early Years department whose philosophy and beliefs were a close match to my own. Here emotions were displayed and encouraged - specifically, I was required to play the role of someone who delighted in children's creativity and energy, who found joy in the unusual and idiosyncratic, and who smiled knowingly upon behaviours that elsewhere might be categorised as problematic. This role fit me like a glove, and the requirement to be authentic within it - to really believe that children are amazing rather than just pretending this - was not difficult for me to perform. In fact, the expectation that I be emotionally involved in my work was a wonderful permission, which allowed my emotional engagement to intensify and flourish. It afforded me a deep level of job satisfaction, as well as making me a more authentic, better teacher.

I'm not sure if I could find the same experience so easily now. It seems to me that schools are increasingly expecting teachers to be mere applicators of technique, with no expectation of emotional involvement. If my enthusiasm were once more to be piqued by children, the emotional work I would have to do would be negative rather than positive: dampening down my own responses in order to fit in with a culture which did not expect or allow these.

At the same school, though, I began to take on some managerial responsibilities, including leading on the teaching of synthetic phonics. When I was 'just' a class teacher I could teach phonics just fine. I was pretty good at it. I didn't believe in it, but because it was only 10-15 minutes of my day I could do it with an ironic energy and a sidelong glance to my TA that made it, actually, quite good fun. I was in Hochschild's third category, playing at being a phonics teacher but not really buying into it.

This ironic detachment served me and my classes well, but it did not work when I took on more responsibilities. Part of the emotional work of being a middle or senior leader in a school is to sell the school's policies to the teachers, children, wider staff and community. It's not enough that you tell your team that Year 1 phonics is important, you really have to believe it. You have to teach the phonics to children in ways that communicate how important it is, so that your children make exemplary progress and so that you can be used as a role model. You have to proselytise for phonics, singing its praises so that the school's strategic goals can be reached. For brief periods, I found myself doing just this - believing it - becoming submerged in the role so that I could no longer connect with the core self that knew it was all lies. At other times I regressed into snarky ironic detachment, ringing in my enthusiasm and undermining my poor performance with a comment or a look. But for the most part I tried, earnestly, to be a person that I didn't believe in. I worked hard at being the teacher that believed in phonics, all the while pushing down the voice that protested: 'this isn't what the children need!'

Ultimately it was that kind of tension - not primarily as it relates to phonics, but to broader political interference with children - which led me to quit teaching. This kind of tension between a self which didn't believe in the ideology schools were required to pursue and a role which required me to sell this pulled me apart. It left both parts of my identity - the teacher and the person - emotionally depleted and impossible to act out of. I thought back to the teacher I had been previously, who had stood up against practices which were not in children's interests and so avoided the traps that emotional work becomes when one works for a system which does not reflect one's own beliefs. I had been good at that, and still did some of the fighting, but ultimately I didn't have the strategic skills, or the emotional competence to do so as a manager as well as a teacher, and so I left.

But I don't want to leave it there. I've gone back into education both as a supply teacher and through Teaching with Heart, and I want to end by talking about some of the emotional work that I see (not) being done in schools today.

One of the things that stands out to me when I talk to newly qualified teachers is how different their expectations are compared to my generation, who qualified only 8 years ago. They have been bought up in a system which seems to have significantly less of the idealism or personal involvement that was taught to me as essential. They accept, because it's all they've ever known (and because it works), that primary education is just about results, and that the best way to get results is by adopting techniques. They are taught how to engage with children, but they are taught this as a technique, and are not expected to bring any of themselves to the table. 

These teachers don't seem to be troubled that they are required to play a role which doesn't fit with their beliefs about education because, in my experience, they don't expect to have any beliefs about education. They're not troubled by the lack of fit between the curriculum and the child because their expectation is that curricula are just things that you do to children, regardless. The result of this shift in culture is that these teachers are much less troubled in general. There is less stress, less anxiety than there was. But there is also less laughter, less impassioned debate, and less genuine human contact.

Doubtless the picture I paint is an extreme one - there are still idealistic NQTs just as there were teachers 30 years ago who rang it in from day one. But I do think we're witnessing a subtle cultural shift away from expectations of emotional work, towards a more manualised, technical kind of teaching. While this will avoid many of the problems emotional work brings (as the demands on the teacher's very self will be significantly less), and will probably lead to less of the burnout that my generation suffered from, it will also strip education of the intense human, family joys that emotional work brings, and will be much the poorer for this.