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Dealing with feelings : perspectives on the emotional labor of school leadership

Downes, Patricia Hofmann


Patricia Hofmann Downes


Derek Colquhoun


People are central to the institution of schools. Where there are people, there are emotions. Managing these emotions for wage is the work of school leaders. Recognizing the emotional demand involved in monitoring, managing and understanding this demand is known as emotional labor. The purpose of this qualitative research was to gain an understanding of the essence of emotional labor as experienced by a public school leadership team. Over a period of several months, ten members of a Connecticut, USA, public school, district-wide administrative team, to which this researcher has been an affiliate for thirteen years, acted as co-researchers by participating in semi-structured interviews; team meeting discussions; and written reflections on key notions identified as emotions involved in their leadership roles. Data analysis indicated a significant effort by team members to manage their own feelings as they managed the feelings of others within their school communities, and in an effort to be better leaders. The data illuminated the labor involved in displaying appropriate positive emotions, which participants perceived to be aligned with their school district’s brand of leadership and professionalism. These school leaders admitted to acting, intentionally, at feeling and displaying emotions to foster strong relationships with their constituents to promote a positive school climate. Additionally, the data revealed widespread masking of negative emotions, including: hurt, disappointment, fear, but most notably, anger and frustration. Negative emotions were reported to be directed toward adults, both parents and staff, and participants revealed a toll associated with the suppression of negative feelings. Among the findings, team members reported stress, fatigue and a loss of sense of self as they buried authentic feelings and feigned others in playing the role of school leader. As managers, in almost every sense of the word, team members identified the existence of an us and them mentality pervading their work, leaving them feeling isolated from others in their schools. The strain of their emotional labor appeared to be ameliorated by strong relationships among administrative team members, family members, and other trusted personnel in their buildings who seemed to understand the affective nature of school leadership and were able to acknowledge the conscious effort entailed in being all things to all people. The findings support the position that a significant amount of the work we do, as school leaders, entails managing our emotions and the emotions of others. Intellectualizing emotional labor as the work administrators do with the emotional-self and the emotional-other may enhance relational skills with others and diminish the strain on self. A fundamental understanding of emotional labor in school leadership may have implications for further research and development of curriculum for educational leadership programs in pursuit of emotionally competent school leaders.


Downes, P. H. (2013). Dealing with feelings : perspectives on the emotional labor of school leadership. (Thesis). University of Hull. Retrieved from

Thesis Type Thesis
Deposit Date Jul 22, 2014
Publicly Available Date Feb 23, 2023
Keywords Education
Public URL
Additional Information Centre for Educational Studies, The University of Hull
Award Date Sep 1, 2013


Thesis (1.4 Mb)

Copyright Statement
© 2013 Downes, Patricia Hofmann. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced without the written permission of the copyright holder.

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