Is Frozen's `conceal, don't feel' mantra making you ill?

22nd May 2015 at 01:00
Teachers who bury emotions risk their well-being, study finds

"Conceal, don't feel" has become famous as the motto of the character Elsa in the Disney film Frozen. But classroom teachers who follow Elsa's pent-up example may be endangering their physical health, according to a new study.

Staff who bury their emotions in the classroom risk making themselves ill and becoming emotionally exhausted, according to Jamie Taxer, a psychology of learning academic at Ludwig-Maximilians-University in Germany.

With a nod to Frozen, Dr Taxer's paper, Conceal Don't Feel: teachers' hidden negative emotions, looks at what happens when teachers do not express feelings such as anger or boredom in the classroom.

The study finds that those who experience a feeling of dislike in the classroom suffer a range of negative effects to their wellbeing. This is equally true whether the object of their dislike is their headteacher, subject or pupils.

"They don't feel confident in their teaching," Dr Taxer said. "They don't feel very related to their students. They're emotionally exhausted and they're also in poor physical health."

Helplessness is unhealthy

The results of Dr Taxer's research were presented at the recent American Educational Research Association conference, held in Chicago. They reveal that many teachers experience helplessness in the classroom, either about the conditions of pupils' home lives or in the face of standardised tests. However, burying this feeling is linked to poor mental health.

Meanwhile, teachers who conceal boredom in the classroom tend to be emotionally exhausted and dissatisfied in their jobs. Those who swallow their classroom anger also become emotionally exhausted and experience poor physical health.

Hiding emotions generally - regardless of which specific emotion - is further linked with poor physical health. This includes low-level problems such as stomach aches, headaches and fatigue.

"The overall message is that it's not good to hide your negative emotions," Dr Taxer said. "But it's also not great to scream at your students. We tell teachers not to yell at their students, but we also don't tell them what to do with that anger they feel for their students."

Instead, she suggested that it could be useful for teachers to express anger in a low-decibel manner. "It's good to say, `This behaviour angers me', so students know and can change their behaviour," Dr Taxer said.

"If a teacher can create a warm, caring environment where everybody feels accepted, then most students will try not to make the teacher angry."

Anger needs management

Teachers should also take a step back and question the source of their anger, Dr Taxer recommended.

"Are you mainly angry because you've had a bad morning at home, and are taking that out on the students?" she asked. "Is there something in the student's home life that's causing them to behave like that?"

Her warnings about the perils of bottling up emotions were echoed by Julian Stanley, chief executive of the Teacher Support Network. He believes that teachers would benefit from the opportunity to come together to express any concerns and fears.

"Teachers can get together and just take a couple of students or issues that they're facing, and explore what's going on," he said.

Not every teacher can get on with every pupil, he added, so it could be helpful for teachers to discuss with one another those children that they find particularly challenging, and to see how others perceive the situation.

"It could sometimes be that one child mirrors things that echo with you, from another part of your life," Mr Stanley said. "But it's very hard to deal with that without support.

"Whatever it may be, the more you're able to process for yourself and with others, the more likely you are to stay physically and emotionally healthy.

"The sad thing is that, in the current system, there's very little space for that in the busy life of a teacher."

`It's about a culture that's built on trust'

David Hall, associate headteacher at Bay House School in Hampshire, believes it is a school's responsibility to provide a safe environment for staff to express any negative emotions they may be feeling.

"It's about having a school culture that's built on trust," he says, "where people feel they can talk openly and honestly about how they're feeling, rather than keeping it bottled up.

"We try to develop in our middle leaders an understanding of what's happening in their teams. If there's something happening in someone's personal life, or if someone feels stuck in a rut, we would hope that there's somebody who they would be able to have a conversation with about that.

"I guess it's that whole thing of trying to develop people's emotional intelligence - being self-aware - and having a system and culture in school where people can talk things through and feel supported."

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