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Teacher Wellbeing: A SMART Approach | Sarah Mercer

teacher wellbeing

Teacher wellbeing is an essential ingredient for effective, creative, and motivating teaching. Yet, so many teachers neglect their own self-care, focusing their time and energy on other aspects of their professional practice. In this blog, I outline how we can all become a little ‘smarter’ about our wellbeing.  A ‘SMART’ teacher attends to their Self, Motivation, Activity, Relationships, and use of Time, in order to teach to the best of their abilities so that they can truly flourish as professionals. Let’s look at each facet of a ‘SMART’ approach to teacher wellbeing.

Self

SMART teachers understand the value of self-care, self-compassion, and placing the self in the centre of their agenda. Many educators are naturally orientated towards caring for others as is the nature of the profession. However, this focus outwards often means that their own ‘self’ needs can be overlooked and neglected. Yet, the saying, ‘you cannot pour from an empty cup’, serves as a warning of the perils of not attending to the self. If teachers want to teach to the best of their abilities, they need to ensure they are looking after themselves too so that they have energy and resources to draw on in their professional roles. Self-care is not an indulgent luxury; rather it is the foundation of good practice.

Motivation

SMART teachers are aware of their own motivation. Everybody’s motivation experiences peaks and troughs. The key is to recognise the dips and know what you need to do to help you regain your drive. Humans also have a natural tendency towards a negativity bias meaning we tend to focus on the negatives and sometimes lose sight of the positives. Our wellbeing and motivation can benefit when we deliberately take stock of the positives in our jobs on a daily basis.

At the end of the day, make a note of things you enjoyed, found rewarding, or are grateful for about your job. Looking at the positives is not about denying the negatives which you may still need to address; it is about maintaining a balanced focus. It can be motivating to remind ourselves of what we love about our jobs and perhaps, for some, reconnect with our original motivations for choosing this profession.

Active

SMART teachers appreciate the tight connections between physical and mental wellbeing and the benefits of being active in this regard. Our physical wellbeing centres around what is known as the ‘health triangle’, which involves sleep, nutrition, and exercise. Attending to these aspects of self is a prerequisite for being able to flourish at work. Everyone’s needs and capacities in this regard vary, and each person needs to find their own balance. However, the key is to consciously attend to our health triangle ensuring that quality sleep, healthy nutrition, and time for exercise are not pushed off our agendas by other seemingly more pressing demands. Nothing is more important than your health and recognising this is a critical first step. Human bodies are incredible machines but they also need good maintenance – make sure you look after your body as well as you look after your car, plants, or pets!

Relationships

SMART teachers know just how important relationships are for wellbeing. John Donne famously said, ‘no man is an island’. We are all embedded in a web of social relationships. In the workplace, our wellbeing is boosted through positive relationships with colleagues as well as with our learners. Among colleagues, a special friend at work to connect with and share work ideas with is particularly valuable. In our personal lives, family and friends represent a key source of strength and support. Investing in our social relationships means setting quality time aside to meet, and then savouring the time together without distractions. Making ‘date nights’ with partners and friends remains a great strategy to keep relationships healthy.

Time

SMART teachers have strategies for managing their time effectively. Good time management is not about being efficient so you work even more and even harder! Good time management is about finding ways to work effectively, so you can create more time in your schedule to engage in self-care, do exercise, be with family and friends, and spend time on hobbies and other aspects of life which refresh and motivate you. Being able to manage your time means knowing what needs to be done, keeping an overview of deadlines (long- and short-term), and understanding when you work best on what kinds of tasks. Check your priorities and organise your time accordingly – that includes making yourself and your relationships a priority fixed in your schedule like any other important appointment.

Teaching is a wonderful profession, which can be extremely rewarding and meaningful. However, the passion and dedication that many teachers exhibit often means that they neglect their own wellbeing. ‘SMART’ teachers know that making their wellbeing a priority is not selfish or something to feel guilty about. Instead, it is a recognition of personal worth and the fact that everyone – teachers and learners – benefit if teachers look after themselves and are wellbeing-SMART: Self, Motivation, Activity, Relationships, and Time.

 


 

Do you want to discover more great strategies for nurturing and promoting your wellbeing? Read Teacher Wellbeing, by Sarah Mercer and Tammy Gregersen – a practical guide for language teachers!

 


 

Sarah Mercer is Professor of Foreign Language Teaching at the University of Graz, Austria, where she is Head of ELT Methodology. She is co-author, with Tammy Gregersen, of Teacher Wellbeing, published by Oxford University Press. Her research interests include all aspects of the psychology surrounding the foreign language learning experience, and she has written and edited prize-winning books in this area. She is currently vice-president of the International Association for the Psychology of Language Learning (IAPLL) and serves as a consultant on several international projects. In 2018, she was awarded the Robert C. Gardner Award for excellence in second language research by the International Association of Language and Social Psychology (IALSP).


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5 Ways to Improve Feedback in your Classroom

Teacher and student high-fivingEffective feedback is the key to successful assessment for learning, and can greatly improve your students’ understanding. So how can you ensure that your feedback is as effective as possible? You need to understand what level your students are at and where they need to improve. Your students will also find your feedback more useful if they understand the purpose of what they are learning and know what success looks like.

 

Try these 5 tips to improve feedback in your classroom:

1. Ask questions to elicit deeper understanding

Most questions asked in the classroom are simple recall questions (‘What is a noun?’) or procedural questions (‘Where’s your book?’). Higher-order questions require student to make comparisons, speculate, and hypothesize. By asking more of these questions, you can learn more about the way your students understand and process language, and provide better feedback.

2. Increase wait time

Did you know that most teachers wait less than a second after asking a question before they say something else? Instead of waiting longer, they often re-phrase the question, continue talking, or select a student to answer it. This does not give students time to develop their answers or think deeply about the question. Try waiting just 3 seconds after a recall question and 10 seconds after a higher-order question to greatly improve your students’ answers.

3. Encourage feedback from your students

Asking questions should be a two-way process, where students are able to ask the teacher about issues they don’t understand. However, nervous or shy students often struggle to do so. Encourage students to ask more questions by asking them to come up with questions in groups, or write questions down and hand them in after class.

4. Help students understand what they are learning

Students perform better if they understand the purpose of what they are learning. Encourage students to think about why they are learning by linking each lesson back to what has been learned already, and regularly asking questions about learning intentions.

5. Help students understand the value of feedback

If students recognise the standard they are trying to achieve, they respond to feedback better and appreciate how it will help them progress. Try improving students’ understanding by explaining the criteria for success. You can also provide examples of successful work and work that could be improved for your students to compare.

 

Did you find this article useful? For more information and advice, read our position paper on Effective Feedback:

Download the position paper

 

Chris Robson graduated from the University of Oxford in 2016 with a degree in English Literature, before beginning an internship at Oxford University Press shortly afterwards. After joining ELT Marketing full time to work with our secondary products, including Project Explore, he is now focused on empowering the global ELT community through delivery of our position papers.


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What does Assessment for Learning look like in the classroom?

What does Assessment for Learning look like in the classroom?

Assessment for learning (AfL) is a catchphrase with which many teachers may be familiar and yet may not feel confident that they know what it means in terms of classroom practice. Here I outline the basic ideas behind it and the kinds of classroom practices AfL may involve.

At heart, it’s what good teachers do every day:

  • they gather information about where learners are in their learning, what they know and don’t know;
  • they help their students understand what, and why, they are learning and what successful performance will look like;
  • they give feedback which helps learners ‘close the gap’ between where they are in their learning and where they need to get to;
  • they encourage learners to become more self-regulating and reflective.

The evidence is that, done well, these practices are among the most effective ways of improving learning and outcomes.

Assessment in this process is essentially informal, the information teachers gather comes in many forms, for example, through classroom dialogue, following up on unexpected answers, or recognising from puzzled looks that the students have not understood. Tests play a part, but only if they are used to feed directly into the teaching and learning process.

What would we expect to see in an AfL classroom?

Diagnostics. There would beevidence of teaching and learning that is active, with students involved in dialogue with their teachers and classmates. This goes beyond simple recall questions and will include seeking out students’ views (‘what do you think….) and giving them time to think about their answers – often with a classmate (‘pair and share’).

Clarity about learning intentions. This requires teachers to be clear about what is to be learned, how the lesson activities will encourage it, and where it fits in the learning progression. They then seek to make this clear to their students by linking it to what they have learned already and showing why it’s important. Expert teachers will use imaginative ways of introducing the learning intentions (‘why do you think we’re doing this?’) rather than routinely writing out the learning objectives.

Teachers will also clarify what a successful performance will look like, so that the learners can see the standard they need to achieve. Teachers may do this by negotiating with the class about what the learners think a good performance might involve (for example: ‘what would you look for in a good oral presentation?’). Another approach may be to exemplify the standard by using examples of work (best as anonymous work from other students). A teacher may give the class two pieces of work, she may then give the class the criteria for assessing the work (no more than two or three key criteria) and ask them, in groups, to make a judgement about their relative quality. This also provides a vital step in being able to evaluate the quality of their own work and become more self-regulated learners.

Giving effective feedback. Providing feedback that moves learning forward is a key, and complex, teaching skill. We know from research that feedback is hard to get right. Good feedback ‘closes the gap’ between a learner’s current performance and the standard that is to be achieved. Some of the key features in quality feedback are:

  1. It recognises what has been done well and then gives specific advice on what step the learner can take next. General comments such as ‘try harder’, ‘improve your handwriting’, or 7/10, do not provide the detail needed.
  2. It is clear and well-timed. The teacher gives feedback in language the learner understands and it is given when it is most useful.
  3. It relates to the success criteria and focuses on the key next steps. We may sometimes give too much feedback if we start to comment on presentational features (e.g. spelling) when these were not part of the learning intention.
  4. It involves action and is achievable.

In all this, the aim of assessment for learning is to encourage our students to increasingly think for themselves, and have the ability and desire to regulate their own learning.

Gordon Stobart is an assessment expert that has contributed to the latest Position Paper for Oxford University Press, ‘Assessment for Learning’. Download the paper today to learn about effective feedback, close the gap between where your learners are and where they need to be, and get access to exclusive professional development events!

Button to download the Assessment for Learning Position Paper.

Gordon Stobart is Emeritus Professor of Education at the Institute of Education, University College London, and an honorary research fellow at the University of Oxford. Having worked as a secondary school teacher and an educational psychologist, he spent twenty years as a senior policy researcher. He was a founder member of the Assessment Reform Group, which has promoted assessment for learning internationally. Gordon is the lead author of our Assessment for Learning Position Paper.


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Where there is well-being… there will be learning

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.


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Too many to talk! Helping students interact in large classes

As ELT teachers we aim to create purposeful communication in the classroom because for many of our students it is their only exposure to the language. Institutions may, for a variety of reasons, try to get as many students into a single classroom as possible, inevitably creating large class sizes. So how do we manage to give students in such a setting the opportunity to really interact orally in the target language (TL)?

How large is large?

Firstly, it is worth considering whether size actually matters:

“the size is relative and a matter of perception that varies from teacher to teacher.” (Shamin et al, 2007)

I went from a relatively small class size of 15 in the UK (feeling it was a large class when asked to teach 17/18), to teaching classes of 60-80 in rural Nepal, which felt truly daunting.

In order to do the teacher training required, I needed to experience and understand the difficulties of the teachers to try to help them find solutions. One such solution was to divide the class into units: 10 groups of 6 students were somehow easier to deal with mentally than 60 students. If you are going to break the class down in this way, you do not need to have them all doing the same thing at the same time.

It’s not only the what, but the how

Various studies have been carried out over the years on the effects of class size upon learning, but the conclusions are mixed. Interestingly, the disagreement is often over whether the main factor is the class size or methodology.

I would dare to suggest that the key is to adapt our methodology. If we use the same methodology that we would use with 15 students, with 60-80, then we’ll forever be fighting to keep all our students attention. The class takes on a controlling environment, for the teacher to be able to get the same message across to everyone at the same time.

When you change the methodology, you also change the role of the teacher. You may need some adjustment. I have found that it takes a lot more preparation, for example, for the different groups to be getting on with their task smoothly. Clear instructions that are written down (either on the board, a slide, or on a worksheet) allows students to double-check should they forget along the way, what it was that they were supposed to focus on. This frees up the teacher because students don’t need to keep checking with them, thus allowing some quality time to be spent with each, or a select group of students. The teacher gets regular snapshots of the students’ language abilities, as well as being able to add relevant input if required to keep students on the right track. The teacher, therefore, becomes a source of advice/suggestions and needs to think on their feet according to the task/the students in the group/the difficulties.

If the teacher knows their students well and has carefully planned the tasks around them, many of the issues can be anticipated. Which brings me on to a crucial question, how do we get to know our students if there are so many of them?


Zarina Subhan is an experienced teacher and teacher trainer. She has taught and delivered teacher training at all levels and in both private and government institutions in over fifteen different countries as well as in the UK. Early on in her career, Zarina specialised in EAP combining her scientific and educational qualifications. From this developed an interest in providing tailor-made materials, which later led to materials writing that was used in health training and governance projects in developing countries. Since 2000 she has been involved in Content and Language Integrated Learning (CLIL), materials writing, training trainers and teachers in facilitation techniques and teaching methodology. Zarina is published and has delivered training courses, presentations, spoken at conferences worldwide, and continues to be a freelance consultant teacher educator.


Reference:

Shamin. F., N. Negash, C. Chuku, N. Demewoz (2007) Maximizing learning in large classes: Issues and options. Addis Ababa, British Council.