Why is it so difficult for schools to retain high quality secondary school teachers? A possible solution.

In this blog post, Associate Professor Alberto Bellocchi discusses recent research that investigated an early career teacher’s classroom experiences of emotion management, using innovative research methodologies.


Australian secondary schools have great difficulty finding and retaining high quality specialist teachers. Why? Firstly, there is a low supply of specialist subject teachers and secondly there is a high burnout rate of existing teachers. Education systems, school leaders, and teaching colleagues are well positioned to retain existing teachers by helping to reduce feelings of burnout, which is mainly caused by emotional exhaustion.

Feelings of burnout can be reduced through effective emotion management, which is typically depicted as self-regulation of a teacher’s individual emotions. A downside of this individual perspective on emotion management is that it leads to pathologising teachers and blaming the individual. This misses the important role of dynamic classroom interactions, a social phenomenon, that forms the reality of teachers’ day to day work.

A social perspective of teachers’ experiences

In my research, I investigated an early career teacher’s classroom experiences of emotion management from a social rather than individual perspective. The study revealed new insights that move beyond the individual view of emotion and emotion management to open the possibility for considering emotions and emotion management as collectively produced by students and the teacher during interactions. This new collective perspective opens the way for novel approaches to student and teacher emotion management.

The teacher in my study expressed anger and frustration during one of his lessons. He reported that similar experiences during the first years of teaching had made him consider leaving the profession. His experiences provided an opportunity to study emotion management and its impact on classroom social bonds (social and emotional connections between teachers and students) based on observed interactions. The observational nature of the study is different from the majority of research approaches that have relied heavily on self-report methods such as interviews and surveys alone to understand emotion management.

In the lesson that I was observing, the class were reviewing their latest diagnostic quiz results. As the teacher discussed the results, an emotional interaction erupted between one of the boys and the teacher. A comment by the boy, which he claimed was intended as a joke, was misconstrued as an insult directed at the teacher by a nearby female student. This misunderstanding diverted classroom interactions away from discussion of the quiz as the boy worked to explain his intended joke. Although the teacher did not take offence to the comment, as interpreted by the female student, the boy’s repeated pleas about his jovial intentions soon escalated the situation. Considerable time expired before the teacher could re-focus the class on the quiz discussion. The social bond that existed between the teacher and the boy, as evident earlier in the lesson, was disrupted as a result of the situation that had unfolded. After the lesson, the teacher said that he had to use emotion management strategies to contain his anger and frustration.

Forms of collective emotion management

In contrast to previous research, in this study, I applied novel methods to study classroom interactions associated with this emotional event. By analysing the way in which the boy, girl, and teacher’s actions evolved dynamically, emotions and emotion management were understood as phenomena constructed through the actions of each person involved in the interaction, rather than the action of the teacher alone. In combination with analyses involving other interactions in the class, three different forms of collective emotion management were identified:

  1. Class-level emotion management involving changes to classroom emotional climate (group level changes in emotion)
  2. Teacher and student actions for managing individual/whole-class anxiety (managing emotion in others)
  3. Teacher actions to change individual student emotions (managing emotion in others)

Although the teacher had explained this event as his self-regulation of anger and frustration, it became clear that such self-reports and individual explanations did not account for the complex way in which interactions take place. The study calls into question strategies and advice provided to teachers that is based on individual theories of emotion and emotion management. If used alone, such individual approaches are unlikely to address the full extent of what transpires during classroom interactions. I provided suggestions for collective practices of emotion management that can complement the individual theories and practices of emotion management.

The detailed report on the interactions between emotion management and social bonds in this study provided support for teachers to develop better understandings about cultivating positive social bonds to achieve better learning outcomes. The outcomes of the study are likely to support teachers who are interested in changing their science pedagogy to foster positive classroom relationships that are known to support academic achievement and learning. At the end of the study, the teacher acknowledged the benefit he had gained from participating in this research.

Thanks for sharing the findings and this opportunity [to reflect on the outcomes]. It’s been a valuable reflection and experience…I’ve learnt heaps, and have become a better teacher because of it.

In addition, the teacher recognised that the social perspective on emotion management presented through my analysis wasn’t something he had learnt through his teacher education course.

A possible way forward

An important implication of this study is the inclusion of emotional literacy and emotion management into teacher education programs. Considering the high burnout rates and shortage of high-quality specialist teachers in Australia and internationally, preventing attrition due to high levels of emotional exhaustion is worthy of attention and something that policy makers and educational institutions should look into closely.

Having pre-service and early career science teachers reflect on experiences with a more sophisticated emotional vocabulary could support different experiences in the classroom and different future actions in response to situations that have the potential to be emotionally stressful. When a different appraisal of a situation is achieved due to adoption of different emotional labels, perhaps social bonds will remain intact rather than becoming disrupted. (Bellocchi, 2019, p. 23)


This blog was authored by:

Alberto Bellocchi is an Associate Professor of Education within the Centre for Inclusive Education, in the School of Teacher Education and Leadership at the Queensland University of Technology. Alberto’s research focuses on understanding the complexities of classroom interactions that support learning and student engagement. His most recent work has uncovered the role of emotions and social bonds in engagement and learning in middle school classes and university pre-service teacher education. Alberto is a former high school teacher. He tweets from @A_Bellocchi.



Maryam Sandhu is a research assistant at the Queensland University of Technology. Her main focus is analysing classroom data by applying different research methodologies and utilising various softwares. She has worked on several research projects related to emotions, emotional climate in classrooms, mindfulness and STEM.

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