A study performed in “a large western university” focused on how students react and explain instructor displays of anger. The study revealed that student response aligned with the Fundamental Attribution Error in that students overestimate the internal causes for anger from a teacher even if they recognize external, student causes for such an emotion. For example, if a teacher yelled at a class for not listening to a lecture, a student was likely to say something in the vein of the teacher was “having a bad day.” The article that examines the study is called “What Students When Teachers Get Upset: Fundemental Attribution Error and Student-Generated Reasons For Teacher Anger,” it was written by Mary B. McPherson and Stacy L. Young, and published in Communications Quarterely of Fall 2004, Volume 52, Issue 4. It can be found through Pratt Library’s “Social Science Full-Text” database. You can log on with your one-key to get to the article using this link: http://web.ebscohost.com.ezproxy.pratt.edu:2048/ehost/detail?vid=6&sid=66dbebde-7b8a-4bc2-a563-8f37b650e06c%40sessionmgr15&hid=10&bdata=JnNpdGU9ZWhvc3QtbGl2ZQ%3d%3d#db=ssf&AN=507940367
What I found most interesting was how the Fundamental Attribution Error (FAE) was present in different expressions of anger. Though students attributed the cause for the teacher’s anger as being most internal when the teacher expressed anger aggressively (yelling or threatening), the FAE was still present when the teacher was assertive in expressing anger (calmly discussing the issue). As the study pointed out, it did not matter how the teacher expressed their anger; any expression of anger was going to line up with the FAE and be linked by a student as having internal cause. In other words, a teacher’s anger will always be partially their own fault.
The researchers set different categories that grouped causes for a teacher to be angry, including Teacher’s Personality, Lack of Teacher Skill or Preparedness, Life Circumstance, Student Misbehavior, Lack of Student Effort, and Poor Student Performance. These groups or classifications of reasons showed some interesting correlations. For example, students were more likely to link Poor Student Performance to internal causes than Lack of Student Effort. Teachers were viewed by students as most commonly being angry because of Student Misbehavior and least likely because of Lack of Teacher Skill or Preparation. In this sense it seems to me that students hold teachers more accountable for increasing student performance than they do increasing student effort. But at the same time it is clear when looking at the students’ combined experiences over individual experience that the most common reason a teacher gets mad has to do with student behavior.
I cannot name the amount of times I have heard students say things like: “Yeah, I didn’t read the chapter, but she didn’t have to be such a bitch about it.” In this example, the student is stating partial cause for the anger as having to do with Teacher Personality, despite knowing full well of the external cause for the anger. Even in cases when the student found the anger to be an appropriate response, internal causes were still attributed to the display of anger. Thus, there is a sense that a teacher would get angry about something that anybody would, but the teacher did not have to get angry. This belief addresses the issue of perceived control. The most unexpected finding of the study was that students felt the teachers were in most control the more aggressive their expression of anger was. But the more I thought about my own experience in an instructional role, the more I felt this finding was accurate.
I used to coach a competitive all-boys soccer team when I was in high school. These boys were 3-4 years younger than me, and I was the only female coach. I noticed coaches that were male and much older than the boys were treated differently than I. For example, if a boy showed up late (which usually meant a punishment of laps) the boy would more often than not approach me about his tardiness than the other coaches even though the punishment would be the same. Likewise, the boys talked back to me more often and fooled around most when I was leading the practice. On the other hand, when coaches took part in practice play, the boys more often wanted me on their team as opposed to the older, male coaches, citing that I was a better player. Because I felt that it was not my skill, but the assumption that I was “weaker” perhaps based on age and sex, I was the most aggressive coach in expressing frustration with the boys’ behavior. But regardless of the fact that I was more likely to dole out a punishment for tardiness than the other coaches, the boys would still come to me to address the issue. I felt that the more aggressive I was in expressing how I felt about the boys’ behavior, the more in control of them they believed me to be. And if I was more in control of them, then it makes some sense that I would be more in control of myself.
Even if the boys felt that my anger was also partially more my fault (according to the study), they responded better to more aggressive expression over assertive, calmer expressions. Of course coaching might not parallel teaching in an academic setting as far as the study goes. But in the larger scheme of things I felt that the study was addressing issues of authority and how people respond when the authority displays emotional weakness. Anger is not always considered a “weak” emotion, but getting an authority figure to “break” and show emotional vulnerability questions the absolute role of an authority. My assumption is that students found teachers to be more to blame for emotional response internally has to do with the idea that an authority figure is not expected to be vulnerable. I feel like if the type of emotion studied was sadness instead of anger, the correlation between internal causality would be the same. The Fundamental Attribution Error, in this sense, is that students do not attribute emotional vulnerability to figures of authority, such as teachers. Therefore when a teacher responds emotionally to a classroom situation, students might think they are responding outside of their role, as if teachers should not take things personally.
I personally prefer when a teacher is assertive in expressing their anger, but I cannot deny the aggressive approach can have a greater effect (on both sides) depending on the situation. I think that rather than using the study as a guide for how teachers should express their anger, the study serves a good reason for teachers to be aware that students will partially blame internality for their anger, and they should not take this assumption personally. In other words, students’ overestimation in attributing anger as being internal is a Fundamental Attribution Error that just comes with the job.