Friday Letter, 11-18-16

Guest Writer – Rosemary Sutton

I’ve been thinking a lot about anger.

I spent 10 years studying teachers’ emotions – especially anger and frustration and the way teachers report managing or self-regulating their emotions.  The impetus for this research was personal.  A chapter I wrote in 2007 began:

A first year teacher with a class of 13- to 14-year old students sternly says, “Jessica, a reminder I want to see you after school.” Violet (Jessica’s best friend), then says, “Miss you shouldn’t punish Jessica, you both just lost your tempers.”

This incident from my first year teaching is still vivid and contains elements of a line of research it took me more than 20 years to begin. As a beginning teacher from a family that stressed the importance of managing intense negative emotions, I was embarrassed that a 14-year-old girl believed I had “lost my temper,” even though I had decided not to punish Jessica before hearing Violet’s advice.  For many years I believed my experiences with anger and frustration in the classroom were idiosyncratic and that other teachers did not experience them.[i]

However, after 20 years of talking to K-16 teachers and reading the research literature it became clear that the vast majority of American adults often experience anger and struggle with “managing” their emotions especially their anger.

I learned a lot from my research about anger.

For example, emotions, from a social psychology perspective are complex processes comprised of multiple components including judgements, subjective experience, physiological change, emotional expression, and action tendencies.

The judgements may be instantaneous and unconscious, and/or slower and conscious.  Anger typically includes a judgement that someone is to blame for a blocked goal, or an arrogant entitlement of unfairness.  I find it so much easier to understand the anger of people with goals similar to mine or those who view an “arrogant entitlement or unfairness” in the same way.  The recent election highlighted how hard it can be to understand the anger of others – especially others we have little contact with.  For example, I grew up on an isolated farm and, as a young adult lived in small towns in New Zealand and Missouri.  However, since then I have lived in college towns or urban areas so understanding the contemporary lives of rural Americans is difficult.  I’m trying to learn, and a helpful recent book is Strangers in Their Own Land, Anger and Mourning on the American Right, by sociologist Arlie Russell Hochshild. Read an excerpt here.

The subjective experience of anger refers to the private experience of an emotion. Anger does not feel like sadness, guilt or joy.  We often use metaphors to help us understand this private experience and in the Western World the metaphors for anger often involve heat, fire, or blowing off steam.  Anger can feel comfortable or uncomfortable – some people enjoy anger and seek to prolong it whereas others do not.  I sometimes think about prolonged intense anger (especially about some “arrogant entitlement”) as the center of a whirlpool – when I get to close it seems impossible not to get sucked down into the vortex.

Physiological changes associated with emotions involve body temperature, heart rate, and blood pressure.  Emotional expressions include changes in facial expressions and the angry face typically involves narrowed brow, thin lip and flared nostrils (examples of emotional faces). There is some evidence that the angry face is similar across various cultures even though the triggers and subjective experiences of anger, as well as the norms of the appropriateness of expressing anger vary among cultures.

Anger frequently invokes action tendencies that motivate a person to action – moving against the situation or person, hurting the target, or changing the situation.  This is in contrast to an emotion such as sadness which typically has an action tendency of withdrawal.  Anger can be a powerful motivator for efforts associated with social justice and is integral in my long efforts to fight various forms of sexism (see the photo below at a Take Back the Night March in 1980-1. It really is me).

Emotions also influence how we process information. When angry, we tend to blame and seek to punish other people, we are slower to associate positive traits to a member of the out group, we are less trusting of others, we take more risks, and we remember more of our own angry incidents.[ii]   According to reports in the media, some Democrats, especially those who actively worked in the Clinton campaign, are blaming others and taking risks going on the record with their complaints.  Clearly, they are angry.

A lot of Americans are angry now.  The teachers I studied reported using a lot of strategies to “manage” their anger in the classroom.  These included reframing the problem or incident that triggered the anger, working on preventing the incident or problem in the future, exercising, or doing something else enjoyable.  Some teachers found talking to each other about their anger or the incident helpful – others said that talking could intensify their anger unless it involved reframing the problem or a lot of humor.

I don’t have any special insight into what happens in the US in the future.  I am glad that I work at Cascadia where we try hard to live our values of caring and pluralism and our day to day work remains transforming lives.


Rosemary Sutton, circa [don’t ask] Click to enlarge photo.


[i] Sutton, R. (2007). Teachers’ anger, frustration, and self-regulation. In P. A. Schutz, & R. Pekrun (Eds.), Emotion in education (pp. 259-274). San Diego, CA: Academic Press.





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