On 8th – 9th October 2021, I had the privilege of being invited to deliver a plenary talk at the 10th ELT Malta Conference. This was one of the first conferences to be held internationally following the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, and at the time (a time when vaccines had been rolled out and the Omicron variant had not yet emerged), there was a sense of optimism that we had been through the worst. The topic of the conference, Celebrating Resilience, echoed this collective feeling of hope.
It was in this state of mind that I decided to talk about how ELT, as a collective professional community, could rise up from a devastating crisis, and reforge itself in ways that were more resilient. “In the pre-crisis years, we invested a lot of effort into finding how individual teachers can improve their wellbeing”, I thought, “and what the pandemic showed was how misguided such an approach can be”. What we need, I realized, is a way of professional being that makes us more resilient by caring for each other.
In this post you can find the slides I used, as well as a transcript of my talk, slightly reworked at places to accommodate for the particularities of the blog medium. I hope you enjoy it.
Introduction: What is language teacher resilience?
The organisers of the conference have already said a number of flattering things about me and about my career, but he seems to have left out one thing of which I am especially proud. I identify, first and foremost, as a language teacher. I started out my professional career in English Language Teaching, and although in my current university role, I teach applied linguistics and help pre-service teachers make their ways into education, I still primarily view myself as a teacher of English.
A story of resilience: Looking back at my early teaching
I have not always been a good enough teacher or a very confident teacher. In fact, while it is customary in events such as this for people to give advice, or to present examples of good practice, or inspiring narratives of success, what I would like to do is share a story about my first years in ELT.
I was fortunate enough to get my first teaching appointment shortly after I graduated from university, and in the spirit of full disclosure, the picture on the right shows what looked like at the time: full of myself, and secretly brittle. My employer was a large language school, and they offered classes for different age groups and different levels of language ability. The first classes I taught were a couple of exam preparation courses for older teenagers, and a beginner class made up of a dozen 8- and 9-year-olds.
Of these, the exam preparation courses proved easy, in part because all I had to do was teach to the test; and perhaps also because I was young enough to have good rapport with the students. The beginner class was a different story altogether. What I most vividly remember was that every time I walked through the class door, armed with my books and lesson plans and whiteboard markers, was a vague feeling of trepidation – the unease that comes when one has no idea what is about to happen. When inside the class, I found it very hard to strike a workable balance between being likeable and maintaining standards and discipline; which of course meant that my teaching style was …erratic.
It wasn’t too long before I started having signs of trouble. A few weeks into the year, a student dropped out. This bruised by ego, but I figured that even if my class kept shedding kids at this rate, I would still have at least some students left by the end of the year, so I didn’t need to worry about employment. Then, parents wanted to talk to me. And then, a few more students quit. By Christmas, I was convinced that even if I was not the worst English teacher ever, I was certainly the worst in the history of that school. And that was when I decided to hand in my resignation.
As it turned out, the school management had more trust in me than I had in myself. I was assigned a co-teacher/mentor, and they also regularly made time for me to talk and get advice. This did not change things overnight, but I did manage to stay on in the profession until the end of the school year, and for some years after that.
For a long time, I felt to embarrassed to talk about my first year of teaching, because I thought that it made me look weak. Plus, in my professional culture, we don’t talk much about failure, unless it is someone else’s failure. I don’t know if teachers in Malta are different in this regard. What I failed to realise is that you become stronger by embracing your vulnerable sides, and this plenary is largely about this.
More stories of teacher resilience
It was only relatively recently that I came across a book by Bruce Johnson and his colleagues, which describes the career trajectories of newly qualified teachers. One of the things that they did was ask teachers to draw a timeline of their first year of teaching. In Figure 1, for example, one can see the initial enthusiasm, planning for the lessons, followed by a spiral of despair, a gradual build-up of confidence, crises of self-doubt, a couple of peaks associated with feeling valued and with asserting herself, and some confusion…
I think it’s fairly typical for most teachers to experience such ups and downs; and although this study focused only on newly qualified teachers, I think that the pattern also holds true later in our careers. Perhaps we get better in regulating our feelings, but these ups and downs are there every year we teach.
What I want us to focus on, however, are those points in the chart where the line bounces back upwards. This is where the teacher shows that she’s recovering from crisis. This process of recovery from adversity, and the ability to sustain good levels of professional functioning despite challenging and threatening circumstances, this is what we call resilience, and it will be the focus of my plenary.
As you read on, I will try to walk you through three ways of understanding resilience: I will start of by looking into some early perspectives that were imported from mainstream psychology, and which focused on individual super-resilient people. Then, I will discuss how research in the psychology of language education has shifted emphasis on the resilience of ordinary people. This includes some of my own work, and I will then explain why I think we got it wrong. And finally, I will propose some ways of understanding and enacting resilience that, I have now come to realise, are more helpful for us as a community of teachers working together.
The resilience of ‘Supersurvivors’
The earliest work on resilience was carried out in mainstream psychology in the 1950s and 1960s. The starting point for this research was the observation that there were certain individuals whose past experiences would predispose them towards negative life outcomes, and yet despite this –i.e., in spite of being victims of child abuse or survivors of war– these people not only managed to get by; they also seemed to enjoy considerable success in their personal and professional lives. Based on this observation, those early psychologists assumed that some people had a certain psychological quality that either shielded them from risk or compensated for its effects.
In the 1960s and 1970s there was a lot of research focussing on these so called supersurvivors. Figure 2 shows a selection of these studies, and what strikes me as impressive is their sheer scale: if you read through the table, you will find a 30-year longitudinal study, or a study involving tens of thousands of participants, and more impressive research. You will also notice the type of people on whom such studies focused: children of mentally ill parents, or children who were living in extreme poverty.
This research yielded a phenomenal number of factors that seemed to connect to resilience. Figure 3 shows just a few of them, ranging from early life experiences to affective predispositions to cognitive styles and more.
Limitations of the ‘supersurvivor perspective’
To be very clear: this is all very valuable work, and it has laid the foundations for our understanding of resilience today. But if there is one thing that all this research proves, it is that resilience cannot be boiled down to any single factor. If these factors are all important in predicting resilience, then no one stands out.
Another problem with this perspective is that most of the factors in this list are fairly static. For instance, some studies described resilience as an outcome of the quality of the bond with one’s mother when one is a toddler. However, these studies are not helpful in explaining why resilience might wax or wane over time.
Despite the above, this approach to understanding resilience has inspired a lot of work in language education psychology. So there have been people who published about constructs like grit, and perseverance, and mindfulness, in order to explain how teachers sustain their professional wellbeing. As I said before, there is value in all of this; but this perspective also has very important limitations.
In my view, what is most limiting about the ‘supersurvivor’ perspective of resilience, is that it rests on the belief that resilience is something relatively stable, which resides in the psychology of teachers: i.e., it is something that people (only a few people, to be exact) ‘have’. If we accept this belief, then we should also be prepared to accept its corollary, that some teachers will not have this ‘magic get out of jail card’. To me, this means that if we want to find a theory of resilience that is relevant to all teachers, we should be looking elsewhere.
Resilience as ‘ordinary magic’
And this brings us to a second broad phase of resilience research. Over the last twenty years or so, there has been a gradual rethinking in the way we understand resilience.
Repositioning our understanding of resilience
The shift away from ‘supersurvivor’ perspectives on resilience involves four main theoretical moves.
First, people began to realise that teasing out individual factors and strategies, such as hope, and self regulation and more, was not so helpful, and what was important was their interaction. Resilience is not a sum that comes up when we add various aspects of our personality; it is what emerges when these qualities interact. In other words, it is of less importance to understand which individual or environmental factors are at our disposal. Rather, we should be trying to understand how people combine these qualities, and how this combination makes us stronger.
A second development was a reorientation from the outcome of resilience to its process. In other words, resilience is not a quality that certain people ‘have’. It is something that we ‘do’, when we interact with our personal and professional environment. From this it also follows that, since personal and professional environments will vary, resilience will manifest in many different, situation-specific ways.
One more change has been that psychological research is moving away from studying the exceptionally resilient people, or ‘supersurvivors’. Instead, the new focus is on the capacity we all have to recover from adversity. Ann Masten, one of the leading researchers in the field described resilience as “ordinary magic”, which I think is a beautiful phrase.
And finally, there is a growing realization that our concept of adversity should not exclusively refer to catastrophic risk, such as fleeing from war, or surviving a car accident. Those are important, obviously, but low-level stressors, like facing job precarity are important too, if they are persistent. In fact, even a positive life event, such as a promotion or having a new baby in the family could also trigger the processes involved in resilient adaptation.
Developing a theory of language teacher resilience
So this is the theoretical backdrop against which my own involvement in resilience research began. When I started working with resilience, I was keen on finding out whether it was possible, and indeed useful, to develop a theory of resilience that was particularly relevant to language education, i.e., to the ways in which language teachers cope with adversity.
I had a number of reasons why I thought it was important to develop a tailor-made theory, rather than import whole sale what mainstream psychology had to offer.
- First of all, most teachers did not typically face major life-threatening crises in their work (although David Nunan has told me that he was once stabbed with a knife by one of his students). What most of us do face are questions of self-doubt, language anxiety, job security – things that seem easy to overlook or brush aside, but they can nevertheless insidiously erode our ability to be professionally effective.
- Secondly, in most professional contexts, at least in the western world, we have access to a range of professional support resources: some of us have access to mentoring, or books, or teacher unions. The challenge we face is not one of scarcity of resources, but one of identifying them, mobilizing them, and putting them to good use.
- Lastly –and rather crucially: becoming a more resilient person and becoming a better teacher are not necessarily the same thing. This is a point that I will try to explain in more detail later, but the point I want to make now is that there is a need to identify those processes and strategies that serve both purposes: becoming more resilient and being a better teacher.
Our first attempt to build a resilience model
With these in mind, Anita Lämmerer and I tried to synthesize everything we knew about resilience, and came up with a model of resilience (Figure 4). In a book chapter that we eventually published, we proposed that there are two aspects to resilience: a resilience system, made up of resources and their interconnections, and resilience, as an emergent process running through the system, like electricity running through a circuit.
Our understanding of resilience can be summarised in the following lines:
- Every person has, inside them, a resilience system, which may be richer or more sparsely populated with strengths, resources and strategies.
- These aspects that contribute to resilience can be grouped into three clusters, or nodes: our inherent strengths, such as optimism, or hardiness; social support structures, like access to mentoring, or supportive colleagues; and learnt strategies, like rationalizing setbacks, or going for a walk in the countryside or whatever else might help us to cope.
- We deliberately underspecified the three nodes. The idea was that each teacher likely has a different set of inherent strengths and resources in their environment, and they prefer to cope with adversity in individual ways.
- For us, what was important was not the actual factors, but the interconnections between them. So, for instance, if a person has access to a friendly peer, they might turn to them for advice (this is a learnt strategy), and this will make them feel more secure (this is now an inner strength). In other words, what interested us was not the nodes; it was the lines connecting them.
- We argued, then, that resilience is all about the strength and density of these connections.
In the Language Teacher Psychology chapter, we describe the resilience system of a specific teacher who helped us with our study as an example. However, it may be more useful if you took some moments to think about what makes up your own resilience systems.
Language teacher resilience and immunity
While we were developing our understanding of resilience, Phil Hiver, who was at the time Zoltan Dörnyei’s PhD student, was independently working on a similar construct – although he was using the term ‘language teacher immunity’ to describe his work. There are many similarities between Phil’s theory of immunity and our theory of language teacher resilience. For one, we both viewed the construct in dynamic terms, as something that can fluctuate depending on environmental and developmental factors. Both theories view the construct as something that emerges from the synthesis, rather than the addition of constructs.
But Phil’s theory also had an element that ours didn’t: He cleverly distinguished between positive and negative types of language teacher immunity. Positive immunity makes teachers stronger, that much is clear. But Phil also noted that some teachers might become more resilient by developing a cynical attitude or by becoming apathetic towards their students, and he used the name ‘maladaptive immunity’ to describe these processes.
Phil’s work was very highly original, and the fact that it was developed from scratch for language teachers, without overreliance to the literature in mainstream psychology underscores its value. The one thing that I am, still, somewhat uncertain about is whether coining a new name for a construct is always helpful.
Towards a synthesis
With this in mind, what I tried to do next was develop an understanding of resilience that tried to fuse those insights. The starting point for my thinking was that we are all full, well-rounded people, and we also have a specific professional role.
Developing resilience, i.e., recovering from adversity, is a process that is by definition positive, and it is well understood by mainstream psychologists. However, this process might be compatible with our teaching role, or maybe it isn’t. Sometimes developing resilience means assembling a set of strategies and a set of qualities that make us more effective teachers and more useful role models for our students. Sometimes, it means developing strategies that insulate us from whatever is toxic in our professional environment, including even quitting the profession.
With a nod to Hiver and Dörnyei, I called the latter maladaptive adjustment, which I distinguished from its adaptive form. Again, to emphasise, this is not to say that it is a ‘bad’ or ‘dangerous’ form of resilience, something to guard against. It is just a process of adaptation that happens to be incompatible with our teaching role.
Anita Lämmerer and I did another study to flesh out this theory with some real-world data. We screened all our third-year pre-service teachers and measured their resilience using a psychometric test, and then we interviewed a few of them who had very different resilience profiles. In a chapter that appeared in the Emotional Rollercoaster of Language Teaching, we presented two of our participants: Peter, who was on the way to becoming an amazing teacher, and John, who was at risk of abandoning his studies. Obviously both names are pseudonyms.
Peter was an archetypical gentle giant: he was tall, well-built and he had an impressive beard and a thunderous laughter. He said that his mother had been a teacher who had suffered from burnout, and he had also experienced extreme stress at school, so he had learnt lots of ways to monitor his stress levels; he talked a lot about his contacts who supported him whenever he felt overwhelmed. When talking about himself as a teacher, he described how he handled students who challenged his authority with calmness, and also talked at length and with enthusiasm about how he imagined students would remember him 10 years in the future.
John had a very different way of protecting himself from adversity. He tended to isolate himself by playing videogames, and didn’t have many friends because he seemed to be afraid of bonding too closely and coping with loss at the end of his studies. He avoided preparing for his lesson, because this stressed him out a lot, plus –as he told me– he felt that if he invested much time in a lesson that didn’t work out, that would make him very disappointed. Given what I have just written about him, you’d be surprised to learn that the lessons he taught were actually very good, his students appeared to love him, and he seemed to have an impressive capacity for remaining calm and improvising on the spot. However, it seems that his ways of coping with adversity were not sustainable if he wanted to remain long in the profession.
What does this mean?
Now, to me at least, the main insight from this second this study is that language teacher psychology is a fairly complex phenomenon, and we need to be careful when making claims like “increasing the resilience, or the well-being, or the motivation of teachers will make them better at their jobs”. Very few things in psychology work in such linear ways. It is possible to be a very resilient person and at the same time, a very bad teacher, or a very bad colleague.
And from this, it follows that it is not enough to indiscriminately promote any idea or practice that we come across in the popular psychology literature, and naively hope that this will not only have a positive impact on teacher well-being, and but it will also somehow magically transform into benefits for our learners. Rather, what we need to be doing is carefully select those practices that stand to make us both better teachers and more capable of sustaining our well-being.
Problems with existing understandings of resilience
And there are a number of additional points that I am very ambivalent about, and I would like to address these now.
For instance, I am very conscious that a lot of work on resilience, mine included, has focused on the ‘separate self’, at the expense of a community perspective.
I am also concerned that sometimes, resilience research is taken over by positive psychology narratives. This is the kind of misguided line of thinking that encourages people to sweep negative events and negative emotions under the proverbial carpet, when everything we know about the human condition tells us to confront, accept and overcome.
And lastly, I am deeply troubled that there are people who have happily co-opted work on resilience to advance agendas that are inimical to our profession. Increasingly, we are told that it is our responsibility to take charge of our mental well-being, just as the social and professional support structures that have been in place to protect from risk are left to erode or are being actively dismantled.
It is with these concerns in mind that I would now like to sketch out a different way of understanding resilience, one that emphasizes community and togetherness as means for overcoming adversity.
Towards a collective understanding of resilience
I think that this call for such a re-orientation was made even more urgent by the COVID pandemic. Over the last two years, we all had to face technological and pedagogical challenges very few of us were prepared for, and this was a large enough disruption to make even the strongest among us question our self-efficacy. At the same time, our social and professional support networks were severed and whatever few resources were available were quicky overwhelmed. And even those of us who had experience teaching, found that our experience was not very relevant to an unprecedented situation. Left to our own devices, we either failed or we survived at unacceptable costs. And if we want to prevent such disasters from happening again, the answer cannot be that we should try to become stronger as individuals; it must be that we should become stronger as a community of language teachers.
This is not some kind of groundbreaking discovery that I made on my own during the lockdown. Similar suggestions had been made in the mainstream psychology literature for a long time. For example, in a panel convened by Steven Southwick back in 2014, participants noted the need to re-orient resilience research towards more social perspectives. It’s just that such voices are easy to miss in the cacophony of neoliberal rhetoric that holds the individual responsible for everything that concerns them.
I make no claim that what follows is a comprehensive set of instructions for rebuilding ELT, or that I have a fully worked-out theory at the moment. But I do believe that, unready though we are, this is the time to begin this conversation, and what follows is a set of starting points.
Be more connected
So, I think that one thing we can do in order to make ELT a more resilient professional community is to become more connected. Judith Jordan put this wonderfully: she reminds us that no matter who we are, “we grow through and towards connection” (2013, p. 82), and I think that this applies well to our professional lives as language teachers.
In order to be more connected, we can start by being more open about our vulnerabilities, and more empathic. We should try to have greater awareness of our professional relationships, that is to say, we should strive to understand their quality and to improve it; and need to grow more confident in connecting, reconnecting and resisting disconnection in our professional lives.
Be more intentional
A second dimension to developing the kind of resilience I have in mind is by being more intentional as language teachers. In The Intentional Dynamics of TESOL, a book that Juup Stelma and I just published, we note that a lot of language teaching and learning tends to be contingent or normative. Contingent teaching is the kind of unreflective activity that happens in a semi-automatic way. We don’t necessarily think deeply when grading a spelling test, for instance. Normative activity involves teaching in the way we always did, because that is the way we always did.
The problem with both contingent and normative activity is that they are both very vulnerable to disruption, and that’s what the COVID pandemic has taught us. As an alternative, we advocate for a more deliberate, thoughtful way of professional activity – or intentional action.
Intentional action involves understanding that everything inside and outside our classrooms interconnect, often in ways that are less than obvious. It also involves understanding that everything is subject to improvement – even incremental and small changes that can make the lives of our students and colleagues just a little better. And it also involves becoming aware of all the ways in which our actions can impact others, and accepting responsibility for this.
Be more courageous
One final aspect of relational resilience involves developing professional courage. By this, I mean readiness to mobilise our resources in order to overcome a professional challenge, even in the face of threatening circumstances. I will not presume to suggest how you might develop courage. But I will invite you to reflect on the experience of the last two years: In the face of an unprecedented pandemic, what was one thing that you managed, which you did not think was possible? And how did that make you think about yourselves as language teachers?
This is the kind of perspective that I would like us to carry forward in our professional lives, as we imagine and enact different –and potentially– better ways of professional being.
And on that note, I think it is now time for me to sum up. In this talk, we went over three different ways of understanding language teacher resilience: resilience as a trait, something that people have; resilience as an emergent process, that is, something that all language teachers can do; and – ultimately, resilience as a collective ability to withstand adversity together.
As we tentatively emerge into a post-COVID world, this is an opportunity to re-imagine how we want ELT to be, and to re-define our role in it. And to that end, I would like to once again invite you to make a commitment to be more connected, to be more intentional, and to be bold in everything you do.
Achilleas Kostoulas is an applied linguist and language teacher educator. He teaches applied linguistics and language education courses at the Department of Primary Education at the University of Thessaly, Greece. Previous academic affiliations include the University of Graz, Austria, and the University of Manchester, UK. He is the co-editor, with Sarah Mercer, of Language Teacher Psychology (2018, Multilingual Matters).