Being a language teacher is not an easy job… I know that now. But, and I’m a little embarrassed to admit this, when I first started out as a teacher, I really did think that it was going to be easy. Of course, I knew that I had a lot to learn about the technical side of language teaching, but I was confident that with a little experience, I would be able to master this in time. And when it came to the personal, emotional side to teaching, I was confident that I was a ‘natural’ and that I did not need any real training or work in this area. The point of this confession—and its relevance to my talk—is that I just wasn’t prepared for the long haul, the inevitable bumps in the road. And this lack of preparedness—resulting in feelings of stress and low professional well-being—affected my teaching. There were times when I began my working week feeling like the teacher in this photo.
In my webinar, I want to think about the importance of teacher well-being in the language classroom and consider practical steps teachers can take to enhance their feelings of well-being. I will begin by keeping in mind the words of the famous psychologist Kurt Lewin, who held the view that “There is nothing more practical than a good theory.” This means that I will look at some of the major recent developments in thinking about well-being, and in particular, I want to focus on the concept of mindsets, which is most closely associated with the American psychologist Carol Dweck. Mindsets have been receiving a lot of popular and positive attention in recent years, but most of this has focused on the role of mindsets in learning. In my webinar, I want to turn the tables and look at mindsets in teaching.
At its simplest, the concept of mindsets is based around two distinct worldviews. Some people tend to believe in the fixed nature of humans, that we are all essentially born with certain talents and characteristics and there is little we can do to change them. In contrast, other people see more potential for growth and change; if we work hard enough at something we will eventually succeed. Of course, people may have different mindsets for different areas of their lives, but in education, most of the discussion around mindsets has concentrated on ideas of natural ability and the power to grow through sustained, focused efforts. But what about teachers and teaching? Do mindsets play a role here? I will argue that an understanding of our ‘teaching mindsets’ can help our overall sense of professional well-being.
Teaching is about so much more than the simple transfer of mental knowledge but the interpersonal side to teaching receives relatively little attention, leaving teachers feeling that they lack control or the power to change things. While many teachers are very supportive of growth mindsets for academic learning, they can have very fixed mindsets when it comes to the stressful aspects of teaching. And one reason for this is that we rarely discuss these topics in a way that empowers teachers. One aim of my webinar is to get teachers thinking and talking about what they can do to develop their own growth mindsets. As a concrete example, let’s take the area of time management. One of the major causes of stress for teachers is the feeling of being pulled in several directions, always under pressure to meet deadlines, of simply not having enough hours in the day. However, teachers often see poor time management as a personality feature, just ‘who I am’, and something they cannot change.
I hope to show that there are simple practical steps teachers can take to reduce feelings of stress, to feel more positive and enthusiastic about their work, to essentially change themselves. I also hope to stress the point that thinking about teacher well-being is not an optional extra, but it is an essential responsibility for practicing teachers. Thinking about oneself is not selfish. Professional well-being makes teachers perform to a higher level, it encourages learners to take on bigger challenges, and it results in improved learning outcomes.
Stephen Ryan has been involved in language education for over 25 years and for most of that time he has been based in Japan. He is currently a professor in the School of Culture, Media and Society at Waseda University in Tokyo. His research and publications cover various aspects of psychology in language learning, including the award-winning OUP book Exploring Psychology in Language Learning and Teaching, co-authored with Marion Williams and Sarah Mercer.