Notes on: Lahtinen, A-M. (2008) University Teachers’ Views on the Distressing Elements of Pedagogical Interaction. Scandinavian Journal of Educational Research Vol. 52, No. 5, October 2008, pp. 481–493

Dave Harris

Negative emotions arose from dealing with 'the emotional load placed on them by students, making pedagogical decisions under uncertain conditions and facing conflict in expectations and beliefs concerning the teaching - learning process' (481).  University teachers need to be better informed about complexity. 

Problems include increasing numbers of heterogeneous students and lack of preparation for the for for teaching role.  The problem is that teaching is always a matter of power and authority, 'interaction is never symmetrical', but the relations can be as democratic as possible (482).  Learning is also complex, 'simultaneously a cognitive, emotional and psychodynamic' process' with 'a societal dimension'.  No forward planning can deal with the complexity and detail.  Teachers thinking is 'largely intuitive, instinctive, creative, improvised, spontaneous and impulsive in nature'.  There are connections with the external world.  Judgments and perceptions are both intuitive and derive from past experience. Teaching has a symbolic meaning for students [says Brookfield].  There have to be mutually accepted boundaries between students and teachers.

This study is a phenomenological one examining potential sources of distress in teachers experience, and aiming at 'the structural understanding of individual, typical and universal features' (483).  Teachers were asked to specify typical interactions, then to describe positive and negative kinds of interaction and analyze their feelings.  These descriptions were then analyzed, and findings were linked to other studies.

Two main categories of experience were noted:(1) those related to students emotional states and feelings; (2) 'experiences in which negative feelings are related to teachers themselves, their own thoughts and actions' (485).  Negative feelings were invoked when students expressed resentment, 'directly and in a hostile and aggressive way', reflecting disappointment about assessment, grading or learning problems.  Sometimes they blamed teacher incompetence and this produced 'an "existential" threat to teachers' professional identity'.  When first meeting with students, sometimes they displayed 'suspicion and reserve' (486).  Student passivity and their '"sounding out" attitude' could produce discomfort especially if teachers saw their responsibility as bringing about active participation.  Things could change with time, but generally managing interpersonal relations 'and atmosphere' is a demanding task 'and includes a lot of emotional load'.  Collaborative learning also set challenges because teachers feel more responsible for creating the atmosphere and controlling interaction: they also have to relate to students emotional reactions.  This can be strenuous.  Overall 'emotionality is embedded in very ordinary teaching situations in which students express their feelings', and 'teaching small groups easily evokes emotional load in teachers'.

Misreading a situation can produce negative feelings, especially when planning is done 'on the basis of incorrect beliefs about students' conception of learning and their expectations about the teacher's role' (487).  Becoming aware of different expectations can be frustrating, especially if changes cannot be made.  Questions that students ask 'may be regarded as threatening', especially if teachers are not particularly confident about their content knowledge, while being expected to be an expert.  Since content knowledge is always incomplete, it requires 'a strong professional face students' unrealistic expectations of expertise'. Supervising doctoral studies can be full of uncertainty, because even experienced students cannot always say what sort of support and guidance they require.  Their own increasing expertise is also a challenge, although the formal position of the supervisor needs to be maintained.  At all levels, 'Making pedagogical decisions without sufficient information is typical to teaching.  There is always a risk of misreading the cues' (488).

Students can dump anger on to the teacher as a form of 'projective identification' (489) or transference - 'an unconscious displacement of thoughts, feelings and ideas from a previous significant relationship on to a current relationship'.  This can be implied in developing a relationship between teachers and students.  Developing trust is a 'fragile' process, but teachers are often expected to actively involve students in building this relationship.

Teaching is always uncertain and interactions unpredictable.  Teaching interactions can produce job satisfaction, but teachers also 'used words like frustration, discouragement and exasperation when talking about this interaction' [says another study] (490).  Uncertainty seems to be the problem.  However, any 'significant learning causes an ambivalent mix of feelings and emotions, in which anger and confusion are as prominent as pleasure and clarity'.  Challenging existing beliefs can cause anxiety, and this can be 'channeled back' to teachers.  Teachers are often important 'in the mental life of their students' Some students, even adult ones, expect teachers to be full experts, with 'an "encyclopaedic mind" consisting of facts and information'.  There can be an inherent conflict 'between playing the role of learning facilitator and the role of learning evaluator'[we do have to pretend to be encyclopedic experts when assessing people].

Personal inadequacy can lead to a disturbance and embarrassment.  Satisfactory social interaction requires people being able to competently play roles, and they can become 'distressed and uncomfortable when they find themselves unable to do so' (491).  However, awareness of these emotional factors 'may decrease teachers' tendency to blame themselves'.  There needs to be more attention on the stances that should be taken towards uncertainty, and more focus on the emotional aspects of the teacher's work.  University knowledge is 'too often too rational', and the whole business of teaching is usually taken to be wholly rational.  Pedagogical theories are useful, but so is the development of the teachers identity and wellbeing: these require 'time for reflection and for the sharing of the personal experiences of teaching'.

back to education studies page