Why we should be concerned that emotional labour is wearing our teachers down

Why we should be concerned that emotional labour is wearing our teachers down

Last year was a challenging year for all of us, especially the nation's teachers. And 2021 has proven to be almost as rocky, with snap COVID-19 lockdowns in several states.

Many teachers have faced these uncertain conditions while dealing with ongoing emotional challenges, including working with communities that have increasingly complex needs.

Studies have shown that many teachers have significant mental health issues, such as suffering from persistent anxiety and depression.

Up to 50 per cent burn out or simply leave in the first five years of their career.

Because teaching is emotionally demanding, teachers experience what is known as "emotional labour".

This is when teachers expend deliberate effort to manage their emotions as part of the work.

Teachers are expected to show care, passion and empathy while also controlling their frustration, fear, and anxiety.

Like other forms of labour, doing so can become exhausting.

Emotional labour in the teaching profession is the result of teachers following what might be thought of as an invisible professional rule book that defines what they can and cannot do with their emotions. Such as:

  • Don't ever cry in front of students, because if you do, they will see you as weak and eat you alive.
  • Don't lose your temper, shout or get angry, because if you do, students will lose respect for you.
  • Don't show your emotional vulnerability, especially not to other teachers, because if you do, they might think you are not right for the job.

Many teachers work at hiding or suppressing their emotions from students and other teachers.

Some feel they must put on an emotional mask to show others that they are professional and can control their emotions, because if they don't, they will be perceived as inappropriate, incompetent and unprofessional.

Such labour in teaching can have personal costs and lead to emotional exhaustion, depression and anxiety.

If we are to help our nation's teachers to thrive in their careers, we must make visible the emotional rules of the profession.

We also need to recognise how complex and demanding teaching has become.

Policy makers must allow teachers time and space to talk about the emotional challenges and vulnerabilities they face.

As a community, we can let our teachers know that we care for them, that we recognise their work is emotionally difficult, and it is OK to talk about it.

Dr Saul Karnovsky, Curtin University

This story Why we should be concerned that emotional labour is wearing our teachers down first appeared on The Canberra Times.