Fundamental Dilemma Facing Teachers: Performing Both the Academic and Emotional Roles in Classrooms

Over four years ago I wrote a post on a new teacher’s dilemma. In that post I defined what a dilemma was and distinguished it from a problem. Then I presented an instance of a dilemma in a novice’s classroom and asked readers what they thought. Since then, I have written about dilemmas often in this blog (see here, here, and here). Because “dilemma” is so  often used as a synonym for “problem” and because these tensions over choices are constant in our personal and professional lives, I want to dig deeper into one facing all teachers be they teaching kindergarten or Advanced Placement courses. Whether they are new or experienced, whether they are white, African American, Latino, or a first generation college graduate in their family they inevitably face a core dilemma built into teaching when they have to perform both an academic and emotional role in teaching five-year olds or fifteen year-olds.

Let me unpack first what I mean by  dilemmas. I mean situations where a teacher, principal, superintendent, school board member has to choose between two or more competing and prized values. The choice is often hard because in choosing one ends up sacrificing something of value to gain a bit of satisfaction on another value. One learns to compromise in negotiating between two things they want very much.

An example of a common dilemma might help. One that each of us faces is the personal/professional dilemma. You value highly your work and you value highly your family and friends. Those are the competing values. But your time and energy are limited. So you have to calculate the trade-offs between doing more of one and less of the other. You have to make choices.

You map out options: Put in fewer hours at work and more time at home. Or the reverse. Take more vacations and give up thoughts of career advancement. These and other options, each with its particular trade-offs, become candidates for a compromise that includes both satisfaction and sacrifice. If you do nothing–another option–you risk losing out with your family and friends or with your job.

This is not a problem that one neatly solves and moves on to the next one. It is a dilemma that won’t go away. It is literally built into your daily routine. There is no tidy solution; it has to be managed because the compromise you work out may unravel and there you are again, facing those unattractive choices.

Within U.S. age-graded schools, whether they are high schools or elementary schools, whether schools are in neighborhoods where wealthy, middle class, or poor families send their children, two imperatives face all U.S. teachers: know your subject (the academic role) and know your students (the emotional role). Teachers value both roles. Yet these two roles, valued highly by teachers, place huge demands upon them. The academic role requires teachers to maintain a certain social distance from students while the emotional role requires teachers to get close to students. And here is the dilemma.

In the academic role, teachers teach first graders to read while upper-grade teachers teach Algebra or Biology. They convey knowledge and cultivate cognitive skills of students. Then these teachers have to judge the degree to which students achieve mastery of each. Evaluating achievement requires evidence of performance and social distance in treating all students the same in applying criteria –even if a teacher admires a hard-working, serious student who keeps failing key tests. Emotion is not supposed to sway a teacher’s judgment of students’ academic performance.

But U.S. teachers are also expected to get close to students. Professors, mentors, and principals urge teachers to know their students as individuals, their background, interests, shortcomings and strengths. Why? Because that personal knowledge will help the teacher draw students into learning what the teacher teaches. In displaying sincere interest in students, bonds of affection grow.  The relationship, the emotional ties between a teacher and her students, then, becomes the foundation for learning.

Balancing these competing roles and the values they represent, however, is hard to do. Many teachers only embrace the academic role: “My job is to teach science; my job is not to befriend my students.” Other teachers clasp the emotional role to their heart wanting so much to be closer to their students that they whisper to themselves: “Like me and you will like what I teach.” Finding the right mix is very difficult.

There are, of course, teachers who figure out how to balance these competing roles artfully by developing a classroom persona that is a distinct mix of both values. Their voices, gestures, clothes, verbal tics–all are part of the daily performance. They blend the academic and emotional roles into a mix that appeals to and prods students at the same time. They give genuine, heartfelt performances. Students, who can easily smell a fake, come to appreciate such teachers’ performances.




Filed under dilemmas of teaching

8 responses to “Fundamental Dilemma Facing Teachers: Performing Both the Academic and Emotional Roles in Classrooms

  1. Excited to see you discussing an issue that has been on my mind for as long as I’ve been in the classroom. In my head I voice the dichotomy slightly differently. There are the intellectual skills, pedagogy and knowledge of my field. I feel like I’m OK there, not brilliant but good enough. Then there are the emotional skills, the ability to be a real person who can relate to kids as a calm, considerate adult. That’s where I repeatedly fail, undermining the other part. For me it’s not a dilemma, more a division, a split; every day the roller coaster, hoping in the final analysis that the strengths outweigh the weaknesses.

    • larrycuban

      That’s the tension, Jerry, that anyone teaching little children, youth, or adults feel. The language of dilemmas, for me, erases the guilt I used to feel that somehow, the division, as you call it, was my fault. The tension is part if the DNA of teaching. And performing both roles is what we do, sometimes better, sometimes, not so good. Not our fault.

  2. Laura H. Chapman

    I suspect that teachers in the arts may have less difficulty. Art education is not merely academic, or if so is likely to be dead on arrival.

    I think tthe idea of teachers being faced with a dilemma (as you define it) has been heighteded by the unrelenting focus on academic learning, narrowly defined as scoring high on tests, rather than academic learning as potentially intriguing, driven by curiosity, filled with speculation and so on.

    The current focus on measuring SEL, often merged with indicators for a positive “school climate” is rapidly becoming a growth industry for producers of surveys. See for example or USDE’s surveys and plans at

    • larrycuban

      I do agree, Laura, with your comment on teachers in the arts. The connection you make between social-emotional learning and its measurement is something I had not thought about. Thanks for the links.

  3. One of the most wisest and most valuable observations about the profession I have ever read Larry. One way John Hattie distinguished expert teachers from experienced teachers in a 2003 paper was this:
    “The picture drawn of experts is one of involvement and caring for the students, a willingness to be receptive to what the students need, not attempting to dominate the situation. Too often experienced teachers tended to create more physical and psychological distance between themselves and their students than do experts.”

  4. Reblogged this on From experience to meaning… and commented:
    Great post! I hope one of my papers will be published soon as it has a lot to add to this…

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