Investigation into the role of emotions in tertiary teaching
A pilot study into the emotions experienced by tertiary educators in their teaching contexts.
Date completed: April 2010
Despite increasing international research evidence of the importance of emotions in teaching, minimal attention has been paid to the role of emotion in advancing higher learning here in Aotearoa, New Zealand. Of the research that has been conducted, the evidence suggests that tertiary students’ continued enrolment beyond the first year may depend quite significantly on teaching methods that provide excitement and create an interest for the student in a subject (Leach, Zepke & Prebble, 2006). Recent Ako Aotearoa-funded research has revealed this is particularly the case for Māori students. Greenwood and Te Aika (2009, p.7) reported that tertiary teachers’ strong support of Māori students’ “emotional and spiritual space” has been integral to these students’ success in tertiary level study. Recognising the role that emotion plays in the tertiary teacher-learning nexus could make an important contribution to tertiary teaching.
The primary aims of this pilot research project were to identify what emotions are currently experienced by tertiary teachers in their teaching contexts, and what emotional management strategies, if any, they report. We also sought to identify ways that tertiary teachers might be supported in their wellbeing to promote a positive learning environment.
The specific research questions adopted were intended:
- To identify the range of emotions experienced by tertiary teachers in teaching situations using Oatley and Duncan’s (1992) diary method;
- To explore the emotion regulation goals and strategies of tertiary teachers using Sutton’s (2004) interview method;
- To examine the self-reported subjective wellbeing and emotional intelligence of tertiary teachers;
- To identify future directions for research into emotions in tertiary teaching in Aotearoa New Zealand.
Methods and Results
Four tertiary institutions (one university, one polytechnic, and two private training providers) were invited to participate in this project. Each institution gave permission for their staff to participate; with those willing then contacting the principal researcher— anonymously to their institution if they so wished, to accept the invitation to participate. Participants were provided with structured diaries with which to record up to four emotional experiences per day for five days. On completion of this task, the principal researcher interviewed each participant. After the interview, participants were asked to complete a set of online subjective wellbeing questionnaires. All participant and tertiary institution data was then coded to protect the participants’ anonymity. Fifteen participants across the four tertiary institutions completed diaries, fourteen of whom then attended the individual semi-structured interview. Twelve participants completed a set of online questionnaires using internet entries.
Summary of Results
The diary results provided information on the frequencies of emotions recorded as part of the tertiary teachers’ daily experiences over five days. The most frequently reported positive emotions were happiness, satisfaction and enthusiasm. The most frequently reported negative emotions were anger, disappointment and frustration. Negative emotions were more frequently associated with negative physiological effects such as bodily tension, which occasionally lasted for several hours. The most commonly reported triggers for both positive and negative emotions came from the teachers’ interactions with their students, and generally tertiary teachers responded to these experiences in cognitive and behavioural ways.
All fourteen tertiary teachers talked about the importance of managing their emotions during their teaching. Their main reasons were to prevent negative effects of negative emotions on their teaching, on their students, on the student-teacher relationship and also on their internal states. The emotion most likely to be regulated was anger for which the teachers used mainly cognitive and behavioural methods to down-regulate. Some teachers also used methods to up-regulate their enthusiasm to encourage students. The majority of the tertiary teachers thought that positive emotions should not be regulated. The main reason given for positive emotion regulation was to achieve an optimal level of happiness so that students could concentrate on their learning.
Measuring Happiness, Reported Subjective Wellbeing and Emotional Intelligence of the Tertiary Teachers
For the purposes of the present study, three commonly-used questionnaires well-validated to measure happiness, satisfaction, and positive and negative affect were employed. The combined use of multiple and diverse scales for measurement were to allow for a multi-dimensional capture of emotional experience. This included the use of the Assessing Emotions Scale (Schutte, Malouff, & Bhullar, 2009), a 33-item self-report inventory focusing on typical traits indicative of emotional intelligence after the work of Salovey and Mayer (1990). One of the main implications from the questionnaire results is the suggestion that perhaps higher levels of emotional intelligence and positive emotions were related to higher levels of subjective wellbeing among this group of participants.
Implications for Tertiary Teachers and Tertiary Teaching
This study has opened a brief window into the emotional experiences of a small number of tertiary teachers across public and private providers in Aotearoa New Zealand. The teachers have shared their experiences and understandings of emotion in tertiary teaching. The outcomes and implications from this project are listed below. Whereas these findings cannot be generalized because of the limited number of participants, the similarities established with previous research about teachers generally, suggest that we need to pay attention to the emotions of teachers in tertiary education.
There are also several implications for tertiary teachers in their current practice:
- Overall, the tertiary teachers’ experiences of, and their stated beliefs and understandings about, emotions in teaching and learning demonstrate their professionalism and commitment to quality learning experiences for their students. They reveal that these tertiary teachers expect a high level of emotional engagement from themselves.
- The emotional intelligence (EI) of tertiary teachers is a potentially significant characteristic. The tertiary teachers’ EI scores were related to higher levels of subjective wellbeing. Higher emotional regulation skills, which form part of EI, are related to job satisfaction in other teacher groups. This positive correlation needs to be considered for tertiary teachers in Aotearoa New Zealand.
- Tertiary teachers need to be able to regulate their own emotions in order to prevent emotional exhaustion, which is a predictor of burnout. Previous research has shown that teachers who have higher emotional regulation skills report fewer instances of burnout. Tertiary teachers might benefit from empirically proven emotional intelligence training workshops.
- A number of tertiary teachers stated that they think it is good for student outcomes if teachers are aware of their own emotions. Reasons given included its usefulness in self-reflection and the importance of not bringing their own negative emotions into class. Modelling how to handle their emotions in classroom situations was also seen to be beneficial for positive student learning,
- Most of the tertiary teachers expressed their belief that positive emotions did not have to be regulated because of the positive effects such emotions had on students and their learning. Of the few who thought that positive emotions should be regulated, their reasons included not having students “too silly-happy” and the tertiary teacher needing to keep on track in a humorous situation. The significant effect of happiness and other positive emotions as researched within the domain of Positive Psychology is an area that has been generally under-researched in education.
Given the findings of this pilot study, in conjunction with the recent New Zealand research from the perspective of student success in tertiary education, it can be argued that future research needs to focus on the ways in which tertiary teachers may enhance their emotional experience of teaching, for the best outcomes for students and for their individual wellbeing.
- Greenwood, J., & Te Aika, L-H. (2009). Hei Tauira: Teaching and learning for success for Māori in tertiary settings. Wellington: Ako Aotearoa.
- Leach, L., Zepke, N., & Prebble, T. (2006). Now you have got them, how do you keep them? Relationships and the retention puzzle. New Zealand Journal of Education Studies, 41(1) 113–132.
- Oatley, K., & Duncan, E. (1992). Incidents of emotions in daily life. In K. Strongman Ed.), International review of studies on emotion (Vol. 2, pp 249–293). Chichester: Wiley & Sons
- Salovey, P., & Mayer, J. D. (1990). Emotional intelligence. Imagination, Cognition and Personality, 9, 185-211.
- Schutte, N. S., Malouff, J. M., & Bhullar, N. (2009). The Assessing Emotions Scale. In C. Stough, D. Saklofske & J. Parker (Eds.), The assessment of emotional intelligence (119-135). New York: Springer.
- Sutton, R. (2004). Emotional regulation goals and strategies of teachers. Social Psychology of Education, 7, 379-398.
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We wish to acknowledge and thank Ako Aotearoa for funding this research. We thank Bridget O’Regan and Pat Roberston from Ako Aotearoa for their assistance. Veronica O’Toole acknowledges and expresses grateful thanks to Dr. Marion Bowl for her role as mentor at the commencement of this project. We thank Josephine Clark for her transcribing and preliminary data analysis. We are indebted to the participants who gave generously of their time over this lengthy project, and their willingness to share their emotional experiences and stories with us in the interests of research. This project would not have been possible without them. Finally we thank Dr. Deb Hill for editing and feedback.