Team members’ and teachers’ understanding of their own unpleasant emotions in the process of teamwork or teaching

Thursday 23 July 2015, by Tina Rutar Leban

The Circular Emotional Reaction (CER) model helps teachers and other professionals working in schools understand their own unpleasant emotions they experience during teaching and teamwork. The knowledge about emotions helps them regulate their emotional reactions and establish better relationships with other professionals or students so as to prevent ESL.

Teachers’ close work with students and team colleagues sometimes also generates stressful situations that may trigger unpleasant emotions. It is thus important for teachers to be able to understand and regulate their own emotions efficiently. Emotional intelligence was shown in some studies to be a relevant predictor of teamwork effectiveness (e.g. Jordan, Ashkanasy, Hartel, & Hooper, 2002). Emotionally intelligent individuals can better sense, understand and respond appropriately to emotional reactions shown by other team members. Moreover, different studies and theories show empirical and theoretical evidence that teachers’ emotions play an important role in teaching and teacher-student relationships (e.g. Cornelius-White, 2007; Roorda et al., 2011). Teachers who are socially and emotionally competent develop supportive relationships with students, create activities that build on students’ strengths and help students develop the basic social and emotional skills necessary to participate in classrooms (Jennings & Greenberg, 2009). Teachers’ focusing on building students’ emotional and social competencies was shown to increase school attendance and reduced the likelihood of ESL (Wilson, Gottfredson, & Najaka, 2001).

Different theorists conceptualise emotions as multicomponential processes (e.g. Frijda, 1986, 2001; Lazarus, 1991; Planalp, 1999). The model of Circular Emotional Reaction – the CER model (Milivojević, 2008) describes seven steps which explain different phases in the processes of the emotion arising and forming the emotional reaction. The model has been found to be well accepted and helpful for teachers and other professionals to better understand their own emotions (MIZŠ, 2010; MIZŠ, 2011; MIZŠ, 2012; MIZŠ, 2013) and thus improve their relationship with one another and with students.

School professionals’ familiarity with the CER model can have a positive effect on ESL as it can help improve cooperation between professionals in multi-professional teams, as well teacher-student relationships. Effective multi-professional teams and the establishment of quality relationships between students and teachers are both recognised as important protective factors against ESL.


Emotions are an integral part of teachers’ professional lives. Close work with students and team colleagues every day generates new stressful situations that trigger pleasant or unpleasant emotions. Research into emotions in education encompasses different areas, such as: (a) the role of students’ emotions in learning; (b) the development of emotions in children and students; and © emotions and the power of relationships in the classroom. Only recently has there been growing interest in researching teachers’ emotions and their impact on the quality of instruction (Frenzel, 2014; Pekrun, Frenzel, Goetz, & Perry, 2007). Meta-analyses of the research on teachers’ emotions in the classroom show a considerable degree of correlations between teachers’ emotional skills in the teacher-student relationship and some academic (e.g. academic achievements), behavioural (e.g. cooperation with the teacher) and emotional (e.g. emotions students experience in school) outcomes of students (Cornelius-White 2007; Roorda et al., 2011). Research results show that teachers themselves need the social and emotional skills required to communicate effectively with students and other professionals and to handle stressful situations that can occur in and outside of classrooms (Brackett et al., 2009).

The aim of the present article is to review literature on the role of emotions for team effectiveness, teachers’ emotions and their potential role in tackling ESL and to present the theory of circular emotional reaction (CER) (Milivojević, 2008). This theory helps teachers and other professionals working in schools understand the origins of emotional reactions and thus improve their relationships with other professionals and students (MIZŠ, 2010; MIZŠ, 2011; MIZŠ, 2012; MIZŠ, 2013).


The article is based on a literature review that entailed searching in the PsycINFO, ERIC, Proquest, Science Direct and Google scholar search databases. Keywords used in the literature search were teachers’ unpleasant emotions, negative emotions, student-teacher relationship, self-reflection, emotional competencies, teamwork, early school leaving etc. For the purposes of this article, we mainly took scientific papers and some online scientific books into consideration.

Emotional competencies and teamwork effectiveness

The idea that emotional competencies can positively impact workplace outcomes has seen emotional intelligence (EI) increase as an important issue among management practitioners and researchers (Goleman, 1995; Joseph & Newman, 2010). EI is defined as the ‘ability to monitor one’s own and others’ feelings and emotions, to discriminate among them, and to use this information to guide one’s thinking and actions’ (Salovey & Mayer, 1990, p. 189). High-emotional intelligent individuals treat their own and others’ emotions as valuable data in navigating workplace situations (Barsade & Gibson, 2007), thus helping them to maintain good interpersonal relationships at work and enhance their job performance. Different studies have demonstrated a positive relationship between emotional abilities and job performance (e.g., Elfenbein, Der Foo, White, & Tan, 2007; Matsumoto, LeReoux, Bernhard, & Gray, 2004; Elfenbein & Ambady, 2002; Lopes et al., 2006).
One indicator of a person’s effective interpersonal functioning at work is teamwork effectiveness, or the extent to which a person can work well with other team members and effectively attend to their needs (Welbourne, Johnson, & Erez, 1998). Teamwork effectiveness is greater when team members effectively exchange information and resources. Moreover, the team is more effective when its members actively collaborate with one another and respond to other team members’ needs and requests.

EI was shown in some studies to be a relevant predictor of teamwork effectiveness (e.g. Jordan, Ashkanasy, Hartel, & Hooper, 2002). Emotionally intelligent individuals can better sense, understand and respond appropriately to emotional reactions shown by other team members. To illustrate, a high emotional intelligent individual who sees that conflicting task opinions among team members have caused too much anger and frustration among team members may suggest ways to stop these counterproductive behaviour and unpleasant emotions. Another example would be a high EI member perceiving that team morale is low, and suggesting a break to regain the right and productive work atmosphere. Similarly to these illustrations, Wolff, Pescosolido and Druskat (2002) found that emotional perceptiveness (operationalised as self-reported empathy) was associated with behaviours that facilitated group task coordination. Other studies found that teams of individuals with higher EI reported lower levels of conflict intensity due to the formation of emotionally intelligent team climates and the use of more collaborative and integrative conflict resolution methods, which led to better team functioning (Ayoko, Callan, & Hartel, 2008; Jordan & Troth, 2004). These findings suggest that EI relates positively to teamwork effectiveness.

The CER theory presented in this article can be a way to improve the EI of team members. It can help them better understand the emotional reactions that occur in teamwork. For example, when presented to teams of preschool teachers who work together every day they reported gaining a different perspective on their co-worker’ emotional reactions. They felt they had become more tolerant and understanding when a co-worker had an angry reaction, they tried to accept the reaction and help the co-worker through understanding and giving time and space to calm down (MIZŠ, 2010; MIZŠ, 2011; MIZŠ, 2012; MIZŠ, 2013).

The role of teachers’ emotions in teaching, the teacher-student relationship and preventing ESL

Different studies and theories provide empirical and theoretical evidence that teachers’ emotions play an important role in teaching and teacher-student relationships (e.g. Cornelius-White, 2007; Roorda et al. 2011). Teachers who are socially and emotionally competent develop supportive relationships with students, create activities that build on the students’ strengths and help students develop the basic social and emotional skills necessary to participate in classrooms (Jennings & Greenberg, 2009). A meta-analysis (Wilson, Gottfredson, & Najaka, 2001) of 165 studies comparing the effectiveness of different school programmes (focused on teachers building students’ emotional and social competencies) pointed to increased school attendance and a reduced likelihood of ESL. Moreover, the quality of the teacher-student relationship has been shown in many studies to be an important predictor of ESL (e.g. Battin-Pearson et al., 2000).

The power of emotions in the teaching process and the difficulties teachers have in regulating their own emotions, especially negative/unpleasant ones, is an important issue to be considered.

Negative emotions focus attention on the particular stimulus that triggered them (Derryberry & Tucker, 1994). They lead to mobilisation and synchronisation of the brain’s activities, intruding and flooding the consciousness (LeDoux, 1996). Students’ misbehaviour usually triggers a teacher’s negative/unpleasant emotions that distract and divert the teacher’s attention from the instructional goals so as to solve their own internal emotional reaction. Teachers’ emotions can also influence their categorising, thinking and problem-solving (Isen, 1993). Studies show that high anxiety can reduce the limited resources of working memory (Eysenck & Calco, 1992) due to intrusive thoughts and worry. The loss of working memory resources obstructs task-relevant processing (Ashcraft & Kirk, 2001). Accordingly, a teacher at the beginning of their teaching career who is highly anxious about their lesson plans and misbehaving students is less likely to successfully cope with the challenges that occur every day in the classroom. Teachers’ emotions impact their approaches to teaching (student-focused vs. content-focused approaches) (Trigwell, 2012) and their students’ approaches to learning, which is shown in students’ achievements, attitudes to school, school attendance and ESL (Battin-Pearson et al., 2000).

Further, students are often aware of and influenced by teachers’ negative emotions. Although teachers may often try to hide their feelings, students are mostly aware of their teachers’ emotions. There are many ways that emotions can be communicated involuntarily and voluntarily. For example, when kindergarten teachers felt and expressed anger or exasperation, the children in their group showed signs of emotional upset and were less prone to conforming to teachers’ demands (Kounin, 1977). There were significant positive correlations between elementary and secondary students’ reports of teachers’ use of aggressive techniques (e.g. yelling at students who misbehave) and subsequent student disruption and level of misbehaviour (Lewis, 2001).

Although teacher anger can be problematic, it may also have positive consequences in the classroom. Averill, for example (1982), argued that anger serves to communicate and enforce accepted standards of classroom conduct. Teachers express anger over student failures attributed to a lack of effort (Clark, 1997; Clark & Artiles, 2000; Graham, 1984, 1990) and express sympathy or pity for failures attributed to a lack of ability. These expressions of teachers’ emotion then influence students’ attributions regarding the causes of their successes and failures (Graham, 1984; Weiner, 2000). This is important because failure attribution influences achievements and engagement in school work (Wagner, Spratt, Gal, & Paris, 1989; Willig, Harnisch, Hill, & Maehr, 1983) which may result in other school-related problems such as school attendance and ESL (e.g. Lan & Lanthier, 2003). Attributing one’s failures to a controllable cause such as low effort is more motivationally adaptive than attributing one’s failures to an uncontrollable cause such as low ability (e.g. Graham, 1984, 1990). A study revealed that many elementary school students believe their errors made their teachers unhappy. An intervention designed to help teachers understand this phenomenon and promote students’ self-regulated learning reduced the share of students believing that errors made their teachers unhappy from 47% to 33% and reduced the share reporting that their errors made themselves unhappy from 64% to 37%. In addition, the share of students choosing easy tasks dropped from 50% to 26% (Perry et al., 2002).

It is not only negative/unpleasant emotions but also teachers’ expression of positive emotions, especially caring, that affect students of various ages. Middle school students who believed that teachers cared about them were more motivated, less likely to be involved in delinquency and more likely to be helpful, cooperative and to follow classroom rules and norms (Wentzel, 1996). Third-, fourth-, and fifth-grade students’ interactions with their teachers were influenced by how much the students thought their teachers liked them (Skinner & Belmont, 1993). As noted above, we may conclude that understanding one’s own emotions as well as understanding students’ emotions is an important element of the teaching and learning process and an important part of teachers’ professional development.

As we can see, emotional competencies, emotional regulation and understanding of how emotions arise can have a considerable important impact on relationships in work teams and in teacher-student relationships. Below we present an emotional theory or a model that helps adults understand the physiological and psychological processes that occur during an emotional reaction.

The Circular Emotional Reaction (CER) Model

Although social and personality psychologists do not agree on what emotions are, many theorists conceptualise emotions as multicomponential processes (e.g. Frijda, 1986, 2001; Lazarus, 1991; Planalp, 1999). The emotional process consists of a number of changes in a variety of subsystems (or components) of the organism. These components typically include appraisal, subjective experience, physiological change, emotional expression, and action tendencies.

One of the theories/models of emotions that consider all these components is the model of Circular Emotional Reaction (the CER model) (Milivojević, 2008). It explains why different people can react with different emotions in the same situation and helps comprehend that they themselves can regulate their own emotions. Based on many workshops and supervision work conducted over the past decade, the model has proven to have great applied value for teachers and other educational staff (MIZŠ, 2010; MIZŠ, 2011; MIZŠ, 2012; MIZŠ, 2013). When self-reflecting on the teaching process or teamwork on the basis of the CER model, teachers easily realise it is not the students’ or their colleagues’ (inappropriate) behaviour that triggers their unpleasant emotions. They can better understand that these emotions are triggered on the basis of their own evaluation of the situation and thus they are the only ones who can control this process and their own reactions.

The model is based on the cognitive therapy approach and transactional analyses approach to understanding and regulating emotions. It also shows similarities to the Process Model of Emotion Regulation (Gross, 1998; Quoidbach, Gross, & Mikolajczak, 2015). The CER model and its application to practice in an educational setting are described below.

Milivojević (2008) defines emotions as human expressions that arise in situations which people evaluate as significant. Every emotion has its purpose and therefore there are no good or bad (positive or negative) emotions, only pleasant and unpleasant emotions. Emotions tell us that something important (obviously subjective for each one of us) is going on and we should act on it. This is also the source from which this concept of emotions has evolved, since the Latin word emotion can be literally translated as ‘beginner’, ‘the one who moves something’ (ei movere, to move). If experiencing and expressing emotions is placed in a social context, in a context of communication with another person or a group of people, then expressing emotions becomes a message which is transferred from the person that experiences and feels to another person. The main message carried by the expressed emotion is that the given content is very important to the person who experiences the emotion.

The CER model in Figure 1 explains the cognitive, physiological and behavioural processes that occur in the course of a person’s pleasant and unpleasant emotion. Moreover, it explains the processes that lead to the emotion and the processes that happen subsequently and presents them in a circular sequence.

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Figure 1. The circular emotional reaction (CER) model (Milivojević, 2008)

Stimulus situation

A stimulus situation is defined as a change in a person’s environment (e.g. a student raises his/her hand during instruction in the classroom). It can be also defined as a current imbalance in the person’s harmony with his/her environment. A stimulus situation can also be generated by a person’s memory of a situation or his/her imagination of a situation in the future.


The author defines perception as the creation of a mental representation of a stimulus situation. The mental representation of a stimulus situation is produced through the senses and can be created consciously or subconsciously. This is a very physiological process of merely perceptual processes take place at the level of senses (seeing, hearing, smelling…) (e.g. the teacher sees the image of the student with his/her hand raised).


The mental representation per se does not yet mean anything to the person that creates it, it has a neutral connotation. It needs to be decoded in the context of the person’s knowledge, experiences, representations, attitudes, beliefs, values (e.g. the teacher recognises who is the student with the raised hand) etc. to be analysed and obtain a meaning for the designated person. This happens in the process of apperception. The author defines this decoding structure as the person’s frame of reference. The decoding of the stimulus situation happens almost instantly, automatically, so it is difficult for a person to distinguish between the mere perception of the stimulus and its decoded meaning (apperception) for them.


The decoding/interpretation of the stimulus situation (apperception) is followed by valorisation of the situation. If a person estimates the situation as important for his/her life, an emotion will arise (e.g. based on the teacher’s previous experiences with the student with the raised hand (usually he/she only speaks in the classroom to contradict the teacher and disturb the instruction), the teacher estimates that the situation is important for him/her because the student will disturb the lecture, he/she will have to stop the instruction and deal with the student’s comment; he/she starts to feel upset and tensed and oriented towards his/her own feeling). Accordingly, if he/she estimate the situation as unimportant, there will be no emotional reaction (e.g. the teacher estimates the situation is unimportant for him/her personally because he/she encourages students to express all their opinions and understand that this student’s arguing with him/her is a way of expressing some other issues, which the teacher is trying to understand; he/she remains calm and oriented towards the student).

The significance of the situation is also valorised according to whether the stimulus situation threatens or endorses someone’s personal values. If the situation endorses an individual’s values, he/she will react with pleasant emotions. However, if the situation threatens his/her values, the individual will react with unpleasant emotions. Hence, the arising of emotions depends on the individual’s value system. That is why different people may react in different ways to the same stimulus situation.

Like the process of apperception, valorisation also happens very quickly, automatically. It seems that the emotion arises by itself, that it is automatically triggered by the situation. That is why it is difficult to understand that we create our emotions ourselves, that it is we who decide that the situation is important enough for us to feel a certain emotion.

Physiological emotional reaction

A physiological emotional reaction is the biological reaction to what we perceive as important for us (e.g. the teacher’s heart starts pounding, their breathing becomes deeper, their muscles tense – the physical reactions for anger). It includes different bodily sensations, arousals, stimulations, visceral and motor reactions. The function of these processes is to prepare the body to react quickly to the stimulus situation. In other words, these processes mobilise our bodily energy for possible quick action.

Action tendency

The physiological emotional reactions in the body activate one or more specific behavioural programmes. The person feeling the emotion is now motivated for a specific type of behaviour (e.g. the teacher feels like he/she needs to angrily shout at the student, saying that he/she is only allowed to speak if he/she will talk about a topic related to the lesson). The author defines this motivation as the action tendency or action potential, action disposition. Subjectively, this feels like the inner impulse for action, while objectively it can be seen as a specific body position (emotional habitus) and as a particular facial expression. In specific urgent or dangerous situations, this action tendency is directly followed by the actual action of the person (e.g. the teacher actually shouts at the student). However, in most situations this phase is followed by mental operations including reasoning about which action can lead to a wanted result.


The emotional reaction in the body transmits to the mind the information that there is something very important going on. This results in setting the solving of the situation as the top priority of all mental processes. The author names this function of the emotions as prothymia or the prothymic effect of the emotion (from the Greek pro – before, and thymos – mind, meaning mental alertness, preference, preparedness). The emotion selectively stimulates and activates only those mental perceptions and processes that are strictly relevant for the present stimulus situation that triggered the emotion (e.g. all the teacher can think about in this moment (while experiencing anger) is how to stop this inner tension that the emotional reaction creates; he/she is unable to focus on the lesson in the way he/she had focused before the emotional reaction; his/her brain is only focused on the anger he/she feels). The sole goal is to find the best action to achieve the wanted result, which is to end the emotional reaction.


Action or adaptive behaviour is the final phase of the CER model. When experiencing an unpleasant emotion, the goal of the action is to stop the emotional reaction. On the other hand, when experiencing pleasant emotions the adaptive behaviour is directed to stabilising, reinforcing or seeking the environmental change that triggered the pleasant emotion.

If the stimulus situation that spurred the unpleasant emotion can be changed, the adaptive behaviour is directed to changing the situation and regaining the equilibrium with the environment (such as in the case of anger; e.g. the teacher sends the student out of the classroom to prevent him/her from disturbing the lesson) or it may also be directed towards avoiding or escaping the situation (e.g. in the case of fear). When the stimulus situation cannot be changed or avoided (e.g. with sadness when losing a loved one), the adaptive behaviour is directed to changing the person’s valorisation of the situation or, in other words, towards changing their frame of reference.

Unlike unpleasant emotions which are triggered by an imbalance between a person and their environment, pleasant emotions are a person’s reaction to the establishment of a new kind of balance between the two. They reflect better environmental conditions for the person. Pleasant emotions are thus defined as a sign that the environment has changed according to the person’s values or wishes and direct the person’s actions to seeking the environmental change that triggered the pleasant emotion.

Application of the model to pedagogical practice

When teachers and other school workers are presented with the model, the most important thing they realise is that they are completely in charge of their emotions. For example, when a student misbehaves during instruction, the teacher now understands that they are the only one who decides whether to be angry at the student or not. The student has no control over the teachers’ emotions. This realisation brings great comfort to teachers and motivates them to try to change their perspective about class management and own emotions. The teacher feeling less unpleasant emotions during instruction impacts his/her teaching approaches and relationships with students. Better teacher-student relationships correlate positively with higher achievement, higher school attendance and lower ESL rates (Ragozzino et al., 2003; Roorda et al., 2011).

A similar example can be described for teamwork. When a team member, for instance, impolitely argues with others in the team about an issue, by knowing the CER model the other team members understand they do not need to respond with anger. They can decide to stay calm and also help the angry team member to calm down and discuss the issue peacefully. This kind of EI in teamwork increases teamwork effectiveness (e.g. Jordan, Ashkanasy, Hartel, & Hooper, 2002) and more collaborative and integrative conflict resolution methods that lead to better team functioning (Ayoko, Callan, & Hartel, 2008; Jordan & Troth, 2004).


Emotions play an important role in regulating a person’s relationship with their environment. Teamwork or the class, school environment present even more challenges and stimulus situations that may trigger emotions. Being able to understand the nature of one’s own emotions and trying to adequately regulate them is considered emotionally intelligent and socially desirable. Moreover, different studies show that emotionally more competent team members contribute to team effectiveness (e.g. Jordan, Ashkanasy, Hartel, & Hooper, 2002), whereas emotionally more competent teachers develop better relationships with their students (Ragozzino et al., 2003; Roorda et al., 2011), which also affects students’ general attitude to the school. As we already established, better relationships between teachers and students correlate positively with higher student achievements, higher school attendance and lower ESL rates (Ragozzino et al., 2003; Roorda et al., 2011). All things considered, the issue of developing emotional competencies should be a priority for all school professionals.

The CER model presented in this article represents an option for understanding human emotions. The model has proven to be very effective, especially in the school environment. Teachers and other school professionals reported finding it particularly useful in dealing with anger and frustration in relationship with students or colleagues (MIZŠ, 2010; MIZŠ, 2011; MIZŠ, 2012; MIZŠ, 2013). Teachers understanding that it is their own valorisation of the situation that triggers their anger or frustration in the relationship with a student made them feel in control of their own emotions and less hopeless and dependent on students’ behaviour. They also started to analyse their beliefs and values related to teaching and the teacher-student relationship to become aware of potential dysfunctional beliefs that may unnecessarily trigger their anger or frustration. Hence presenting teachers and other school professionals with the CER model could help them better regulate their emotions and establish better relationships with one another and with their students. As the quality of teacher-student relationships has been proven to be an important predictor of ESL (Ragozzino et al., 2003; Roorda et al., 2011), this should also have an impact on preventing ESL.

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