The influence of emotions affecting school teachers and transformational leaders on the effectiveness of schools

By Kamil Trzebiatowski (2013)

for the University of the West of Scotland


In Index for Inclusion, Booth and Ainscow (2002) write that the establishment of inclusive values in schools ought to extend not only to students, but to staff as well. They insist that staff should feel valued, supported and free to acknowledge the feelings of hurt or anger on a particular day. This literature review aims to explore how the presence of emotions in both school teachers and school leaders can affect both themselves and the effectiveness of schools where they work. Evidence suggests that transformational leadership can positively affect teachers’ organizational commitment and classroom practice (Geijsel et al., 2003; Leithwood and Jantzi, 2006, in Menon, 2011), indirectly affecting student outcomes (Leithwood and Jantzi, 1999, in Hallinger, 2003). In fact, Leithwood et al. (2008) see the influence of leadership on student learning as only second to teaching. Leithwood and Jantzi (2005) describe the model of transformational leadership as independent of leader charisma, distributing its practices across various members of staff, focusing on building their capacity and motivation, providing them with opportunities for collaborative working and seeing the managerial and leadership duties as dependent on each other. Hartley and Benington (2010) distinguish between managers and leaders thus: managers, they suggest, are transactional and tend to exert control over their employees, whilst leaders transform and empower their staff.

My current post depends greatly on being attuned to the emotions of school staff. I am a teacher of English as an Additional Language (EAL) at a secondary school in London. This post requires me to advise and train teachers across the entire curriculum in effective strategies they can use for EAL learners in their own classrooms. Simultaneously, I work with the Senior Management Team on whole-school approaches intended to build the school capacity and help make the climate conducive to the successful inclusion of bilingual learners. Therefore, I find myself a liaison between the subject teachers and their leaders and, as such, I am acutely aware of the human emotions in both groups at this time of change at the school. My conversations with some of the teachers have quickly revealed that some of the moral inclusive changes imposed on the teachers do not necessarily agree with their own view of morality. Thus, I find it crucial to examine the research into how the morality and emotions of teachers and leaders affect them and how it has been found to influence school effectiveness.

In order to examine these issues in detail, this review examines published research in answer to the following three questions:

  1. What is understood by morality and how is it linked to human motivation?
  2. What emotional pressures are experienced by transformational leaders and how does it impact on school effectiveness?
  3. What emotional pressures are experienced by teachers in their everyday work and what implications does it carry for school leadership?

To be included in the review, the articles, books and papers needed to be either entirely about the concept or definition of morality and ethics (question 1) and the emotional side of the work of teachers (question 2) and leaders (question 3) or to have at least one large chapter or section devoted to these issues. Aware of how fast educational policies and innovations can change, I have only included research published in this century. The research chosen for the review has originated from various countries. Whilst generalizing between different countries may be seen as a limitation of the review, there is ample evidence that stress accompanies both teachers and principals internationally and is likely to affect their job satisfaction (Schwarzer and Hallum, 2008; Skaalvik and Skaalvik, 2010; Darmody and Smith, 2011; Kelchtermans et al., 2011). The review’s most serious limitation is probably the narrow scope of literature reviewed in regards to the nature of morality – unfortunately, the word limitations of this review did not allow for a deeper exploration of this issue. The review has been divided into three sections relating to the three questions above: first, various understandings of the concept of morality will be discussed since such understandings may cause tensions between leaders and teacher and prevent the successful implementation of inclusive practices at schools. Further, I will explore what emotional pressures are experienced by leaders and how it may affect school effectiveness and, subsequently, will discuss the emotional side of teachers’ work and how they might be affected by their leaders. In the conclusion, I will discuss the strengths and limitations of the evidence and suggest improvements for further practice.


What is understood by morality and how is it linked to human motivation?

Schulman (2002) describes the word moral as referring to actions meant to produce “kind and/or fair outcomes” (p.500). He recognizes the existence of three moral systems: the one of empathy (ability to relate to how others feel), moral affiliations (ability to identify with other people seen in positive light such as parents or teachers) and principles (personal standards of what is right and wrong and how we believe we should live). Schulman also contends that morality is linked to experiencing positive and negative emotions: guilt, shame and self-loathing being negative and positive strong motivators such as feelings of pride and worthiness. Prinz (2008) reminds us that finding universal moral norms is problematic as such rules vary across cultures. For example, the construct of moral transgression is different in western cultures and India as in the west “suffering and reciprocity” are seen as important whilst in India it is “hierarchy and purity” (p.11) which matter more. Lukes (2010) agrees with the contention that it is difficult to consider morality as universal and discusses whether or not morality can be seen as a social construct. On the one hand, moral entrepreneurs within institutions are known to dictate and influence moral standards and virtues, “shaping and sustaining moral codes” (p.558). Lukes states that the perception of morality as a social construct can help investigate the limits to their moral power. On the other hand, Lukes asserts that many individuals resist such socially-constructed influences and in doing so act according to their own (my emphasis) morality. Bowring-Carr (2005), in his discussion of the ethical dimensions of school leadership, warns that the ethics code of a school should not be externally imposed on staff. This discussion of what morality is and how it may be perceived is highly pertinent to schools.  The lack of universality of morality reminds us of the potential incongruity of the morality of inclusive education being imposed on teachers by their leaders.  Such a system often entails teachers’ own moral values being seen as making a negative impact on schools developing their effectiveness.

In addition, Lukes’s discussion appears to be linked to Prinz’s (2006) view that moral development is related to emotions. He states that parents spend a considerable amount of time training their children to conform to moral rules, motivating them through physical punishment, distressing them (making them aware of harm done to another person) and withdrawing love causing “social ostracism” (p.32) in them – all suggesting that emotions are linked to morality. Hardy and Carlo (2011) extend this discussion by claiming that moral identity can, in fact, predict moral action. Indeed, Aquino and Reed’s (2002) quantitative multi-phase study has found a link between moral identity and moral action. Skitka (2010) provides a reminder that moral conviction not only motivates a person to act; it also intrinsically justifies one’s actions to them. Bowring-Carr states that the moral code of the school can be “in stark contrast to the ethics of the surrounding people” (p.21) and calls for the establishment of common values for leaders and teachers regarding the school’s ethical code – linking his discussion to the one above, which seems to suggest that morality is emotional and motivation and morality are aligned.


What emotional pressures are experienced by transformational leaders and how does it impact on school effectiveness?

Ackerman and Maslin-Ostrowski (2004) warn that a leader not attending to the state of their emotional health might cause more harm than good to a school and state that the line between a wounded and wounding leader can be very fine. They interviewed 65 educational leaders who have coped with a serious crisis in their leadership career. The findings have uncovered the leaders’ vulnerability; especially when other staff often have high expectations and hopes as well as fears of them. A number of interviews have also revealed the leaders’ feelings of isolation: one of the study’s participants “never imagined he could feel so alone” (p.319) and felt that others were upset regardless of what he said. Ackerman and Maslin-Ostrowski claim that in the current time of tests and accountability, there is an epidemic of leadership loneliness and burnout. Many principals also deal with fear of losing their job, and the associated threat of losing their identity, or being told they are not good enough for the job may feel very overwhelming. The feelings of fear, isolation and vulnerabilities, the authors say, are not easy to talk about in workplaces and the authors are critical of a vast body of literature that does not focus on who leaders are as people. They advise head teachers to become aware of their own attitudes, to accept their feelings and to be authentic in their relationships with others. In Ackerman and Maslin-Ostrowski’s view, leaders’ frequent conviction that they need to be independent and strong tends to prevent them from attending to their own needs.

Crawford’s (2004) small-scale study with four primary headteachers in England also reveals what emotional states they need to deal with. Her participants reported strong emotions related to dealing with staff, parents, child protection, an interview with an angry parent and a particularly difficult discussion with governors. One of her participants admitted to having difficulties suppressing her own feelings and commented that sometimes it can be very tiring just to listen to others. Zembylas’s (2010) interview with one principal in Cyprus adds to the picture of what emotions are felt by those in leadership positions. Principal Jones in his study remarks that “leadership is an emotional process” (p.618), but allowing himself be consumed by emotions would be too overwhelming, hence he embraces such emotions. He dealt with the feelings of disappointment, frustration and helplessness, resulting from the feelings of personal inadequacy and resistance from his school staff. However, unlike in other studies considered here, this principal speaks of the pleasant emotions he experienced, for instance from developing caring relationships with a group of Turkish speaking students wishing to be included in the school community. Much like Ackerman and Maslin-Ostrowski, Zembylas points out that leaders need to be able to critically reflect on their own emotions so that they are more emotionally resistant and he sees the existence of such content as critical in leader preparation programmes. They also wish the teacher and leader education programmes to be altered so that both teachers and leaders are cognizant of social justice issues – teachers with similar viewpoints would allow for greater school effectiveness.

Beatty (2006) reports on her online discussions with 25 different school leaders from six different countries in a private forum. She remarks on how the leaders have to manage enormous complexities with very little time available to them and on the notion of “separateness” (p.23), namely being lonely and having very little support from others and masking their true feelings from others. Beatty also calls for leaders’ emotional self-awareness, but she goes further: she suggests that being aware of one’s own feelings is the first step, followed by being aware of the emotions of others. From here, it is only one step towards admitting their own vulnerabilities to others and creating safe spaces, respecting others’ feelings and truly connecting with staff across the school. In another article (Beatty, 2007), she argues that “emotions are not optional” (p.333) and thus should not be treated as unwanted and maintains that they enable us to revise where we are in the social process – as such, being able to work with emotions in educational contexts is a way, she suggests, to change schools for the better.

However, it needs to be mentioned that Leithwood et al. (2006) have reported very little evidence for the connection between “leaders’ affective characteristics” and successful school leadership (p.74).


What emotional pressures are experienced by teachers in their everyday work and what implications does it carry for school leadership?

Klassen and Anderson’s (2009) study of 210 secondary school teachers in England has found that teachers’ job satisfaction in 2007 was lower than in 1962. The main reasons cited by teachers for the state of matters are time constraints, pupils’ behaviour and pupil attitudes. When the same teachers were asked to suggest what would make their working lives better, they listed additional time during the school day for collaborating with other staff, more resources and more consistent support for student discipline.

There is a large body of studies into the stress experienced by teachers in the current era of educational change towards inclusion and accountability. Ling’s (2002) describes the initial reactions of teachers in Hong Kong to a major educational change as “scared” (p.36) and “intimidated” (p.41). Hargreaves (2004) notes that there might be only a handful of teachers who do not feel an emotional impact in some way because of a change of a principal, job or role. In the author’s study of 50 teachers in Ontario, Canada, for 60% of teachers educational change meant an “external, legislated, government-imposed” (p.291). Even so, if leaders could not help teachers cope with the changes, some of the teachers’ anger was directed at the leaders as they were held responsible for the implementation of the reforms. Hargreaves’s teachers’ main criticisms were centred on too much pressure, insufficient support, poor implementation of the reforms and weak leadership, leading to the feelings of frustration. Hargreaves found that what mattered to teachers was not necessarily whether the change was internal or external, but rather whether it was in touch with the reality of their everyday working lives. He suggests that leaders promote moral purpose and personal courage amongst teachers whilst recognizing what is possible for their staff. Rhodes et al. (2004) echo this, encouraging leaders to create the conditions in their school that improve teachers’ professional lives and increase their school commitment. In their survey of 368 teachers in England, teachers found the overall workload as most likely to impact on their job satisfaction or lack thereof, with increase in administration, poor balance between school and home life, little time for planning and preparation and not feeling valued by their managers and other staff at the school featuring as potential reasons for leaving the profession. The authors insist that leaders identify what factors are likely to impact on teachers’ school experience, promote positive staff interactions and provide more time for planning and administration.

Day et al. (2005) examined teachers’ identity and commitment, closely linked to emotions and moral values, in the context of reform and standards. They begin by simply stating that teachers are taken away from what they consider to be the central aspect of their work: teaching, in order to deal with managerial and accountability matters imposed on them. They argue that policy changes have confused many teachers about how much professional judgment they can exercise and how administratively capable they are. In their study of 20 teachers from Australia and England, the participants associated their job commitment with a set of values that informed their practice (care about their students). The study identified the factors that diminish teacher commitment to be: increasing administrative tasks and limiting their autonomy in their classrooms. Day et al. stress that only when teachers make connections between their own values and the values of the school, will they be truly emotionally and intellectually committed and argue that it is the school leaders’ responsibility to create contexts where such links can be made. Chang and Tang’s (2011) distinction between satisfied and dissatisfied commitment appears very useful in the current discussion: people enjoying successful commitment are happy, have a sense of achievement and voluntarily devote more time to their students. Those in dissatisfied commitment feel trapped, experience feelings of weariness, doubt and stress and do not identify with organizational goals.

Chang (2009) provides a useful discussion about teacher burnout and states that it involves emotional exhaustion (the draining of one’s emotional resources), depersonalisation (becoming emotionally neutral to people they work with) and reduced personal accomplishment (lower belief in their own capacity). The organisational sources of burnout include work demands, school culture, organizational rigidity, lack of teacher participation in school decision making and perceptions of organizational leadership style (p.199). Kahn et al. (2006) conducted a study with 339 high school teachers in the United States, examining the relationship between social support at school and the teachers’ burnout, and found that those teachers who received more positive affectivity and engaged in more positive conversations with other members of staff were in less risk of burnout than others. The authors suggest that leaders provide positive feedback to members of staff and encourage positive conversations amongst teachers.

Finally, Oplatka and Tako (2009) discuss teachers’ emotionality through the lens of their construct of desirable educational leadership. Their study of 30 Israeli teachers’ views reveals that they hope for a leader who is a strong person, with a clear vision for the school and strong authority. However, the teachers also desire emotional leadership (some form of personal attachment, respect and sensitivity), moral leadership (clear values and taking into account teachers’ distress) and leadership that is participative, open to shared decision making, ready to listen to teachers’ ideas and open minded. Oplatka and Tako also found that early career teachers hoped for a stronger, paternal type of figure who would provide new teachers with empathy, whilst mid-career teachers held a more holistic view of leaders: aware of other stakeholders and demanding the leader’s strength when confronting parents and teachers. The author’s recommendation is that school leaders are aware that teachers at different stages of their careers understand leadership differently and that opening debate between leaders and teachers from various career stages might help lessen stress experienced at schools.


Evaluation of the evidence and future recommendations

The emotions accompanying both leaders’ and teachers’ work at schools and how these affect them and may impact on school effectiveness is well documented in literature (e.g. Maslin-Ostrowski, 2004; Crawford, 2004; Beatty, 2006; Hargreaves, 2004; Rhodes et al., 2004; Day et al., 2005) and point to issues such as low teacher commitment and motivation and leaders feeling of isolation and vulnerability, all likely to influence the effectiveness of schools. What is troubling is the scarce evidence for leaders’ affective characteristics influencing school leadership (Leithwood et al., 2006). There have been very few methodical studies into the relationship and it is crucial that it is explored further. At present, it may appear common-sense that this relationship is positive, but there is a need for solid evidence either to inform further school practice in this matter.

Another gap in the literature, uncovered by this review, regards the understanding of how different moral norms brought into schools by staff (from different walks of life) affect the interaction of teachers and principals. Prinz (2008) and Lukes (2010) stress that morality is not to be seen as universal. In my review, only Bowring-Carr (2005) touches on the staff diversity as affecting the way the heads of schools are perceived. As Lukes and Prinz suggest, morality can be socially and emotionally constructed, yet the vast body of the research I have consulted appears to be treating teachers as one amalgamated mass, irrespective of their moral background. Therefore, there is an urgent need for research into the effects of the interaction of the staff’s morality systems and transformational (and other) leadership styles – only then will leaders be fully informed about how their staff values affect the relationship with themselves and only then will they be able to ascertain the effective steps to recreate the existing school cultures.

The review has uncovered a particular one-sidedness to the way the relationship between leaders and teachers is treated. Literature seems be full of suggestions regarding what leaders should do whilst their human aspects tends to be lost (Ackerman and Maslin-Ostrowski, 2004). However, even Beatty (2006), whilst saying that leaders are entitled to their own emotionality and vulnerabilities, still insists that they are the ones to take the next step towards the creation of safe spaces. If transformational leadership is truly independent of leader charisma and distributes practices across the school, does it not mean that the creation of safe spaces is as much the responsibility of teachers as it is of leaders? Descending all the emotional responsibility onto leaders in what is to be a climate of collaboration could be seen as a transactional, hierarchical approach whilst trying to create transformational schools, violating the very principles that transformational leadership stands for.

Therefore, whilst acknowledging the strain teachers find themselves under every day, I call for the creation of a school climate where everyone is equally responsible for the emotional well-being of other staff and where staff understand that emotions are the cornerstone of school effectiveness, and crucial to student achievement.



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