The Nation’s Report Card of US students’ academic achievement highlights the need for research into factors that contribute to elementary students’ achievement and persistence. Teachers are responsible for setting the emotional tone, providing emotional support, and serving as a key point of social reference for students, and research should consider affective elements such as teachers’ and students’ emotions and beliefs.
A new study, published in the Journal of Educational Psychology, found that teachers’ anxiety in maths and science was associated with the maths and science anxiety of their low-socioeconomic status (SES) students, highlighting STEM content areas as contexts in which transmission of negative emotions between teachers and students may take place.
This highlights the need for rigorous research into factors that contribute to elementary students’ achievement and persistence in maths, science, and literacy, including investigations into how teaching and learning processes might operate differently for students from traditionally underserved and underrepresented groups.
The study explored associations between teachers’ maths, science, and ELA anxiety and their students’ own anxiety in each content area, and how these relationships varied depending on student sex and SES. The goal was to extend the current knowledge of direct emotional transmission between teachers and their students, to describe how this transmission might operate differently across content areas, and to inform how students from traditionally underrepresented (females in STEM) and underserved (low SES) groups might experience this transmission differently. This information could inform novel approaches to teacher preparation and professional learning that explicitly centre training on managing negative, and leveraging positive, emotions in teaching.
The research sought to address the questions of how teachers’ anxiety about teaching maths, science, and ELA directly relates to their students’ anxiety about learning in each content area. It found that teachers’ years of experience were strongly, and negatively correlated with their maths and ELA anxiety, but there was no significant correlation between their science anxiety. This suggests that teachers who are the most uncomfortable with mathematics and science may have had more time to build and adapt their skills, and knowledge, to name a few in these content areas. Future research is needed to understand how teachers’ emotions and how to develop across the career. This study found no direct associations between teacher anxiety and student anxiety in any content area, nor did it detect any interaction effects based on student sex.
But it did detect interaction effects whereby teachers’ mathematics and science anxiety were most strongly related to the anxiety of their low-SES students. This suggests that processes of emotional transmission do occur in elementary classrooms. This study builds on past work that has described how individuals notice and internalise the affective cues of those around them. The timing of variables (teacher emotions collected before teachers spent significant amounts of time with their students) and analytic approach provide preliminary insights into how teachers’ emotions might impact students. The teacher is the main point of social reference for students and is the initiator of many of the social antecedents that influence students’ learning-related emotions.
Future research in this area could extend these findings further by substantiating the directionality of effects and identifying additional factors that might play indirect roles in how teacher and student emotions relate to each other. Low-SES children may respond more strongly to the affective cues of their teachers as they develop their feelings and beliefs about STEM, and teacher STEM anxiety may be heightened when teaching low-SES students due to the US’ disparate emphasis on student STEM achievement. This pressure to produce STEM-succeeding students may result in teachers feeling disproportionately intimidated by the tasks of providing adequate STEM education to their students.
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