The teachers’ managed heart and emotional labor in international school settings.

Hochschild (1983) conducted extensive research on Delta Airlines staff who flew long hours in the trans-Atlantic flights and coined the notion of ‘managed heart’ and ‘emotional labor’. Regardless of the stressful and demanding nature of the job, the minute a passenger rings the bell for attention, the stewardesses need manage their emotions and physical fatigue, and sporting a broad smile and bright red lipstick be present with the tray to be ‘at your service’. Hochschild argues that this kind of ‘emotional’ labor calls for an artificial coordination of mind and feeling, that often draws on a contradictory source of self that we honor as deep and integral to our individuality. Findings from such studies can also be applied to profit-making international school settings where the ‘customer is king’ policy is often quite prevalent.

While as teachers we deeply honor the value of education, we also seek to value the aspirations and choices of our students. Agreed: the decisions youngsters need to make in a highly fluid, complex and dynamic world is not easy, and meaningful guidance can certainly be helpful. However, when parental influence results in a strong disconnect between a child’s ability supported by assessment evidence and what the student was required to choose based on parental decisions, it also contradicts our professional integrity that we deeply value as teachers. As one teacher noted, “I am amazed at the extent of parental influence in international schools. Never have I experienced such a threatening tone in parental voice … “you will…” in order to achieve social standing for the family. Parents here want the child to do this and that…keeping away from what the student actually aspires to do or become.”

Teaching is challenging – emotionally and physically – besides teaching, one has do exam marking, attend innumerable meetings (to make sense of the avalanche of education policy initiatives), do lunch duty at the soccer pitch, answer an angry parent’s query on a failing student (and thereby once again justify one’s professional standing)…  And then show up for class, enthusiastic about how learning Calculus or Newton’s third law of motion in the next one hour is going to be so exciting and crucial to a bunch of teenagers who have been busy on a WhatsApp group discussing about the weekend party! Nevertheless, this part of our jobs, we can still handle.

However, when assessment data and student ability indicate student potential in areas other than what a student has been forced to opt for, it puts undue pressure on both the teacher and the taught to ‘perform’ merely to satisfy the wish of the parents. This task of meeting such contradictory demands of various stakeholders is possibly what demands ‘emotional labor’ that makes teaching in international schools challenging and draining. Regardless of what the student aspires, regardless of what the teacher an expert believes… but as aspired and dictated by the wealth and wish of the parents. Not very different from the hostess on any airlines – broad smile and red lipstick – be available when beckoned, holding the education degree for the student that has been ‘paid for’ – emotional labor at its extreme!


Hochschild, A (1983). The Managed Heart. The Commercialization of human feelings. University of California Press. London.

A complete version of this article is available in the International Schools Journal Vol XXXIII No.1 November 2013

Dr. Sudha Govindswamy (Sunder)

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