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Feeling and Acting Like a Teacher: Reconceptualizing Teachers’ Emotional Labor

by Christy Galletta Horner, Elizabeth Brown, Swati Mehta & Christina L. Scanlon - 2020

Background/Context: Empirical research indicates that teachers across ages and academic contexts regularly engage in emotional labor, and this emotional labor contributes to their job satisfaction, teaching effectiveness, burnout, and emotional well-being both within and outside the classroom. However, because the initial research on emotional labor was situated in the service industries (e.g., restaurants, call centers, airlines), researchers have suggested that the emotional labor framework as it applies to teaching only provides a partial picture of teachers’ deeper and more complex emotional practice.

Purpose/Objective/Research Question/Focus of Study: This study aims to determine whether and how teachers’ descriptions of their own emotional practice map onto existing emotional labor constructs (emotional display rules, and deep and surface acting) and how the framework may be adapted to better support teachers’ implementation of emotional labor.

Setting: Participants worked in five charter schools within the same school district but in different areas of a mid-Atlantic metropolitan city. This district identifies itself as serving 4,000 students from “underserved communities” across 13 locations.

Population/Participants/Subjects: Full-time K–12 educators (N = 68) who worked across academic subjects (e.g., math, science, language arts) or special subjects (e.g., music, art) participated.

Research Design: The current study is qualitative; we employed adapted grounded theory.

Data Collection and Analysis: We conducted individual face-to-face semistructured interviews with participants; audio recordings were transcribed verbatim. We developed a codebook through a collaborative and iterative process, and we achieved high interrater reliability before using Dedoose to code the full corpus of data.

Findings/Results: There were two key findings: (1) teachers perceived feeling rules in addition to display rules, and (2) teachers described an emotional acting strategy in which they modulated the expressions of their authentic emotions, which we call modulated acting, in addition to surface and deep acting.

Conclusions/Recommendations: Including teachers’ perceptions of feeling rules and use of modulated acting in emotional labor research has the potential to enhance our understanding of how emotional labor relates to outcomes that are important for both teachers and their students. In addition, we urge teacher educators to include emotional labor in their curricula. Though further research is needed to build a strong literature base on ways in which teachers’ emotional labor may connect to their own and their students’ outcomes, the emotional labor constructs already have the potential to be useful for both preservice and practicing teachers.

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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 122 Number 5, 2020, p. -
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 23190, Date Accessed: 8/6/2020 6:46:04 PM

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About the Author
  • Christy Galletta Horner
    Bowling Green State University
    E-mail Author
    CHRISTY GALLETTA HORNER is an assistant professor in the College of Education and Human Development at Bowling Green State University. Her research focuses on the role of emotional culture in the promotion of healthy individual and social functioning. Her aim is to find ways that emotional transactions in settings such as schools, after-school programs, and social media sites can help youth thrive in their environments. One of her recent publications is an article in the Journal of Research on Adolescence called “‘You Never Know Who’s Looking at Your Page!’: African American Male Adolescents’ Perceptions of Emotional Display Rules Online.”
  • Elizabeth Brown
    George Mason University
    E-mail Author
    ELIZABETH LEVINE BROWN is an associate professor in the College of Education and Human Development (CEHD) at George Mason University. Brown’s research focuses on developmental (i.e., social and emotional) and psychosocial influences on learning for marginalized children across PreK–12 schooling. Specifically, her agenda investigates the developmental and psychosocial competencies (e.g., socioemotional, school mental health) of teachers and students that shape children and youth’s developmental and academic outcomes over time. One of her recent publications, appearing in Teaching and Teacher Education, is an article called “United States and Canada Pre-Service Teacher Certification Standards for Student Mental Health: A Comparative Case Study.”
  • Swati Mehta
    George Mason University
    E-mail Author
    SWATI MEHTA has a PhD in educational psychology from George Mason University in the College of Education and Human Development. Her research focuses on using a modified grounded theory approach to explore the negotiation of motherhood with self, family, and cultural communities. Her research interests include cultural humility among early childhood teacher candidates, early childhood teachers’ psychological and financial well-being, Latino immigrant mothers’ mental health, and student engagement. She recently published an article called “Developing Cultural Humility Through Experiential Learning: How Home Visits Transform Early Childhood Pre-Service Educators’ Attitudes for Engaging Families” in the Journal of Early Childhood Teacher Education.
  • Christina Scanlon
    University of Pittsburgh
    E-mail Author
    CHRISTINA L. SCANLON is a doctoral candidate at the University of Pittsburgh, where she studies applied developmental psychology and research methods in the School of Education. Her research focuses on the role of emotion regulation practices in the professional quality of life for those working with children and youth, especially in mental health settings. Her aim is to gain a better understanding of the emotional practices that contribute to a positive professional quality of life, thereby contributing to the efficacy, strength, and valence of therapeutic alliances between direct care workers and youth in a wide variety of mental health settings.
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