Adaptive and maladaptive language teaching resilience

A while ago, while I was still working at the University of Graz, one of the research projects that I was working in involved developing an understanding of the resilience of language teachers. How I got to be involved in this research, and why I am no longer pursuing it, is a story for another time; but on a somewhat more pleasant note, I was just informed by our publishers, Multilingual Matters, that the long-awaited book The Emotional Rollercoaster of Language Teaching, edited by Christina Gkonou, Jim King and Jean-Marc Dewaele, is about to be published. Among the 16 great contributions that make up this edited collection, you will find a chapter on language teacher resilience by me and my former research associate, Mag. Anita Lämmerer.

You can pre-order the book directly from the publishers’ website, or from your preferred vendors. In the meanwhile, you might be interested in this brief overview of our chapter, in the paragraphs that follow.


What is language teacher resilience?

Resilience does not come from rare or special qualities, but from the operations of ordinary human systems

Masten et al. (2009: 129)

In psychology, resilience refers to the ways in which people cope with adversity in their lives. Typically, such adversity was understood as involving catastrophic events and situations that would put people at risk of psychopathology, such as as dealing with abusive parents during childhood. More recently, however, some research has focused on the ways in which people cope with lower-intensity, but persistent stressors.

The research that I carried out in Graz, with Anita Lämmerer and (initially) Prof. Sarah Mercer, aimed to understand if there were stressors specific to teaching (which is very plausible), and whether there a teaching-specific form of resilience (which is a rather more problematic premise). We knew, from the literature, that when a person undergoes a stressful experience, they might fail to recover, they might recover partially or fully, or they might even experience ‘resilient reintegration’, meaning that they might bounce back stronger. What we did not really know was what the conditions are which lead to one outcome rather than another, and what ‘resilient reintegration’ means in the context of language teaching.

Resilience and the resilience system

Building on the literature and our own work, we eventually developed a model of resilience, which consisted of two elements: a resilience system and resilience itself. The resilience system was a cluster of various traits and resources that a teacher might mobilise in order to cope with adversity: e.g., friends, professional support networks, personal qualities, cognitive or behavioural strategies and more. We grouped these traits and resources in three broad categories: inner strengths, learned strategies and external support.

Despite pressure to bring our work closer to the positive psychology paradigm, I insisted that the model included a social component: language teaching takes place in an organisational and social context, which can be supportive to differing degrees, and I was concerned that if we overemphasised the intra-personal components of resilience at the expense of its social aspects, this might legitimise policies that strip away what little organisational provision there is to support teachers.

The interaction between the various components of the resilience system (we went on to suggest) produces resilience, which we described as an emergent phenomenon. You might want to think of this like energy running through the system. Once produced, resilience further shaped the system. In some cases, aspects of the system that proved successful might be reinforced, whereas others might fall into disuse and atrophy. As Lämmerer and I write in our chapter:

if a teacher perceives that a mentorship scheme is supportive, they might actively seek guidance from their mentor in order to deal with persistent challenges that threaten their confidence; a successful mentorship encounter could reinforce the guidance-seeking strategy, and repeated successful encounters could lead to the development of stronger self-efficacy beliefs.

Kostoulas & Lämmerer (2020)

Of course, nothing in human psychology works so simply as that. It is equally likely that some aspects of the system might ‘wear out’ and become less available for future use. The precise mechanisms, however, are not very important, and we did not venture any predictions in that direction. What is important, from a theoretical perspective, is that the resilience which the system produces comes back to recursively shape it; the actual ways that this happens are situation-specific, and should be determined empirically for every case.

Language Teacher Resilience (Kostoulas & Lämmerer 2020)

What’s so special about language teacher resilience?

There is little reason to think that language teachers experience psychological phenomena differently from other people

Much of what I have described so far applies to all domains of life – it is a description of resilience proper, as opposed to language teacher resilience. In fact, despite some claims made in the field of language teacher psychology, there is little reason to think that language teachers experience psychological phenomena in different ways from other professionals.

However, we wondered whether the resilient qualities that one develops, or the strategies teachers learn in response to adversity make them better in their professional roles or not. Phil Hiver and Zoltán Dörnyei (2017) have suggested that when teachers respond to environmental stressors they might develop what they defined as ‘productive’ or ‘maladaptive immunity’ [1]. For example, developing a tolerance for mild disruption might be helpful in terms of overall personal development, but it may be incompatible with one’s professional role as a teacher. We therefore distinguished between general resilient adjustment, which is by definition positive, and domain-specific adjustment, which might be adaptive or maladaptive. [2]


Our study

The study that we report in Christina, Jim and Jean-Marc’s book was an attempt to empirically validate the language teacher resilience model that I described above. We worked under the assumption that resilience would be easier to observe at a time of relatively greater stress, so we decided to tap on the experiences of pre-service teachers who were doing their first practicum. As instructors in the teacher training programme where our participants were enrolled, we were anecdotally aware that many pre-service teachers perceived their first practicum as a rewarding but stressful experience, and we were also keen to find out how we might best help them cope with its more challenging aspects.

Our research design

Our research design involved two steps. First, we measured the resilience levels among a cohort of 94 pre-service teachers who were enrolled in our Introduction to Communicative Language Teaching course [3]. The instrument we used was a questionnaire called CD-RISC, a 25-item inventory designed by Kathryn Connor and Jonathan Davidson (2003). Although the instrument had been validated in German, the native language of most of our participants, we had to use the English language version, and we were also made to remove an item that asked about the participants metaphysical beliefs, which was deemed ‘unscientific’ [4]. We then used the participants’ resilience scores to divide them into three categories: low, average and high resilience.

Distribution of resilience scores among pre-service teachers (Kostoulas & Lämmerer 2020)

Following that, we interviewed seven participants from across the resilience continuum, and asked them to talk to us about their practicum experience. In the chapter that appears in The Emotional Rollercoaster of Language Teaching, we report on two of these participants, Peter and John [pseudonyms], who were in the low and high resilience categories respectively.

Peter and John’s language teacher resilience

When designing the study, we assumed that we would be able to capture the development of resilience in almost real time, as it emerged in response to the stressors of the practicum. We were probably naive to believe this: the processes associated with resilience take much more time. But even so, all the interviews produced some interesting findings about resilience, which we had not expected.

Peter

For example, Peter, the high-resilience participant, told us about a number of significant incidents that seemed to shape his resilience system: as a child, he witnessed his mother, a teacher, suffer from burnout, and later he also suffered from a nervous breakdown triggered by a high-stakes examination. As a result, he became proactive in managing his stress, by planning ahead, using humour to diffuse tension, and seeking support from his friends and family. He spoke with enthusiasm about how he envisioned his future life as a teacher, and described with calm confidence how he used humour to deal with a student who was challenging his authority. His interview gave us an unexpected glimpse into the long-term development of his resilience, and how he drew some of the aspects of his resilience system in his professional role as a teacher.

John

John’s interview was also interesting, for a very different reason. His preferred way of coping with stress involved isolating himself, sleeping and playing online games. He avoided dealing with stressors, by postponing the meeting with his practicum mentor and doing virtually no preparation. Perhaps surprisingly, given this lack of engagement, his performance in the practicum was above average – but John was reluctant to talk about it, or even acknowledge his success. To me, that suggested that he did not want to engage with the thought of becoming a teacher. What is interesting, in John’s case is that he was also resilient in his own way: his strategies worked for him. However, they were not helpful in relation to the career he was preparing for, and they therefore constituted maladaptive adjustment.


The memories of the interviews are still very vivid in my mind, and I wish I could convey Peter and John’s emotions more fully. This blog post is not the space for that, but the interview extracts that we have included in the chapter are engaging, and I think they do a reasonably good job conveying our participants’ personality. [5]


Some key takeaways

Overall, our study pretty much failed to show what we had expected it to show. We had expected to find a type of resilience that was specific to language teachers, and trace its development in near-real time. We did not manage to do this, and I am very doubtful that it is possible. There is an important lesson to be learnt there, about not crossing disciplinary boundaries before one is not competent to do so.

But the study also showed that there are diverse ways of being resilient, some of which are more useful for others in relation to the demands of teaching. Our data also show that engaging with the negative aspects of life is an important part of the human condition. As Emmy van Deurzen reminds us “we cannot have happiness without being prepared for unhappiness” (2009: 91). And that too is an important thing to remember, in view of the aggressive promotion of psychological perspectives that overemphasise positivity in language education.


Notes

  1. There is much overlap between the way we have defined resilience and the way Hiver and Dörnyei conceptualise immunity. However, there are also important theoretical differences, which Phil Hiver lists in the chapter he contributed to Language Teacher Psychology. [back]
  2. Despite an extensive search in my notes, I can honestly not remember why we went for the term ‘adaptive’ rather than productive in our article. I am not sure it was the best choice either. [back]
  3. Technically, it wasn’t a full cohort: course participants were asked to opt-in to the study, and several didn’t. I don’t think that this self-selection bias had much impact on the findings. [back]
  4. Although I have no metaphysics myself, I do think that belief in a higher power is an important aspect of resilience for some people. That is why, even as we did the project, I felt that removing that item from the validated scale was a poor methodological decision. I regret that, at the time, I was too eager to please the head of my academic unit, and not confident enough to stand my ground. All that having been said, I believe that even in its revised form, the scale did its job well enough for our purposes, i.e., ranking participants according to their resilience. [back]
  5. Guys, if you are reading this, it was great working with you, in class and in this project. I hope you’re doing well!

4 comments

  1. This is really interesting, Achilleas. I like the idea of a wide variety of resilience strategies. I am looking forward to the book!

  2. It was a real pleasure working with YOU on that project! Thank you for all your hard work and the inspiring meetings!

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