Jacynth Bennett, Associate Dean at the Institute for Teaching

Through our work we are trying to understand the complexities of teacher wellbeing. We know teachers choose to teach for a reason. They’re driven by a desire to improve the life chances of young people. Most feel their job is a big part of their identity and something that’s incredibly important to them as a person. In the field of occupational psychology, this would be considered a passion and should surely be viewed as a good thing, right?

Not always. Passion for work can manifest itself in two very different ways, both of which are captured in the work of Vallerand, a psychologist who developed a theory called the Dualistic Model of Passion.

This model is used when investigating the causes of work engagement and likewise its opposite, burnout, and might be helpful for teachers who work in a purpose driven but hugely challenging profession.

Passion takes two forms: harmonious or obsessive.

What do we know about harmonious passion?

It’s a good thing. Research shows those who experience harmonious passion display high levels of work engagement and are protected against burnout. They enjoy challenges and whilst they can feel tired by them, crucially, they are able to ‘switch off’. They feel in control of their work, rather than controlled by it and are therefore able to enjoy external activities without it interfering with that all-important recovery time. A teacher experiencing harmonious passion would, for example, be able to say no to supervising a lunchtime activity or put aside an extra load of marking in order to ‘switch off’ for the day.

What about obsessive passion?

Those experiencing obsessive passion still feel a sense of purpose and would be likely to express a love for their work, however, they struggle to ‘switch off’. They find engaging with activities outside difficult, and would find fully immersing themselves hard, instead being distracted by thoughts or ‘rumination’ about work. A teacher might for example, find themselves saying yes to additional work as a result of a sense of duty or obligation. Psychologists have found this obsessive passion to be a predictor of burnout.

What can we do about it?

Psychologists have few practical suggestions of how to combat obsessive passion, but the simple act of identifying and understanding the theory and reflecting on it can have significant impact. It’s a concrete way for a teacher to reflect on their role, their love of it, and the boundaries they might want to develop in order to be the best teacher they can possibly be for their students in the long term.

Through our wellbeing programme, we hope to better understand the complexities of wellbeing and begin to develop a tool kit that will support teachers addressing any barriers that stand between them and a sense of harmonious passion for their work.

We’re working with Big Change to make sure that our programmes address not just technical teaching skills, but psychological elements of teaching as well for all round personal and professional development.

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To find out more about the research behind this blog have a look at Robert Vallerand’s 2007 article, On the Psychology of Passion: In Search of What Makes People’s Lives Most Worth Living.