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Bearing the Motivational Burden: Emotion Labor of U.S. Foreign Language Teachers

Executive summary

Headed by Dr. Kris Acheson-Clair, an Intercultural Learning Specialist at Purdue University, this study sheds light on the relationship between student attitudes and the effectiveness of US foreign language curriculum through the scope of emotion labor. The theoretical construct has recently spread from communication and psychology to education literature as researchers acknowledged that the issue affects teachers as well. Although student emotions in SLA have been examined, the field of applied linguistics has not yet tapped the explanatory potential of teacher emotions. In this qualitative study, the emotion work of teachers in U.S. foreign language classrooms is explored by interviewing Spanish high school teachers.
 

Project Description

In terms of producing competent speakers, US foreign language (FL) education has not proven terribly successful. Dr. Acheson-Clair has argued that negative student attitudes towards languages other than English contribute to this general failure of FL classes in the US by decreasing student motivation (Acheson, 2004). These negative attitudes stem from a variety of causes, including relative geographic isolation and a sense of economic and/or linguistic superiority; they impact student learning in foreign language classrooms by making students feel either that other languages are not “worth” spending the effort to learn, or that it is the responsibility of others to learn languages but not their own. One new area of research that may shed light on the relationship between student attitudes and the effectiveness of US FL curriculum is emotion labor on the part of teachers. Emotion labor is a hot topic in the fields of communication and psychology, with myriad studies on service professionals such as nurses, flight attendants, and 911 operators. The theoretical construct also recently spread to education literature as researchers acknowledged that the issue affects teachers as well (Näring, Vlerick, & Van de Ven, 2012). Isenbarger and Zembylas (2006) have noted the role that emotion labor plays in teacher job performance, for example. Although student emotions in SLA have been examined (Imai, 2010), the field of applied linguistics has not yet tapped the explanatory potential of teacher emotions. Since the relationship between emotion labor and teacher burnout has been studied in other teaching contexts (see Kinman, Wray, & Strange, 2011), the time has come for applying this theoretical construct to foreign language classrooms. In this qualitative study, Dr. Acheson-Clair explores the emotion work of teachers in US FL classrooms by interviewing Spanish high school teachers and analyzing interview data. This research seeks to answer questions surrounding emotion labor of US FL teachers, such as the following: Do FL teachers in the US feel a burden for generating student motivation, and do they perform excessive emotion labor to meet that burden? How might emotion labor contribute to teacher burnout? What effects does emotion labor have on perceived (lack of) teacher efficacy? What are possible solutions (prevention and treatments) for excessive emotion labor of US FL teachers?

 

Relevance to NFLRC Mission

This project is related to the first aspect of the mission of NFLRC: Research, development and dissemination of new and improved teaching methods. If teachers can develop strategies to maximize their students’ motivation while minimizing their own emotion labor, the combined benefit will be improved student learning outcomes and lower teacher attrition.

 

Relevance to the Research Areas of CULTR

So far this project has included participants from rural, low-income public secondary schools, with high percentages of African Americans and other ethnic minorities. These are the very schools where student achievement is lowest and teacher attrition highest. The study is therefore directly related to the focus area of the GSU LRC: Expanding opportunities for language learning in K-12 schools serving underrepresented populations.

 

Post-Project Evaluation Plan and Criteria

This project received IRB approval, and data collection and analysis are underway for follow-up to this project. The study has already yielded a conference presentation (annual convention of the American Association of Applied Linguists), and should produce at least two peer-reviewed journal articles upon completion. For maximum impact and exposure, the manuscripts will be sent to for review to top-tier journals such as the Modern Language Journal and the Foreign Language Annals.

The publication that came out of this project is available online at http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/modl.12333/full

ACHESON, K., TAYLOR, J. and LUNA, K. (2016). The Burnout Spiral: The Emotion Labor of Five Rural U.S. Foreign Language Teachers. The Modern Language Journal, 100: 522–537. doi:10.1111/modl.12333

 
Abstract: An area of research that may shed light on the pressing problem of FL teacher attrition is emotion labor. Emotion labor (or emotional labour), a construct stemming from research in the fields of communication and psychology and focusing mainly on service professionals, has recently been taken up in education literature. Although student emotions in language acquisition have been examined, the field of applied linguistics has not yet tapped the explanatory potential of teacher emotions. The current project explores the emotion work of 5 teachers in rural U.S. high school FL classrooms. Thematic analysis of interviews with teachers of Spanish, French, and Latin yielded 5 key insights: perceived lack of community and institutional support for FL teachers, an excessive burden for motivation felt by these teachers, the use of teacher emotion labor to motivate their students, emotional burnout of the teachers, and perceived lack of teacher efficacy. The last two, while not inevitable, seem to be mutually influencing, forming a downward spiral that can eventually impact the willingness or ability of some teachers to continue in their careers. Implications of this study include recognition of the significance of teacher emotion labor in FL pedagogy and its potential role in teacher attrition.