Language Teacher Resilience

In psychology, resilience most commonly refers to an individual’s ability to recover from traumatic or distressing events. However, the construct also seems relevant to dealing with the less intense, but persistent stressors associated with teaching and learning. With this in mind, this project aimed to generate a domain-specific understanding of language teacher resilience.

Researching language teacher resilience

This project consisted of a series of interlinked exploratory studies, which aimed to develop a theory of resilience for language education. The studies were conducted between 2015 and 2018 at the University of Graz, and explored different aspects of the resilience of individuals involved in language education.

The pre-service teachers study

The first of these studies (conducted by me and Anita Lämmerer, under the guidance of Sarah Mercer) looked into the resilience of pre-service teachers, immediately before and after a practicum that formed part of their teacher education programme. Building on the anecdotal observation that many students perceived the practicum as a stressful period, we hypothesised that psychological phenomena connected to resilience would be more discernible during that time.

The study involved two stages. First, we measured the resilience of pre-service teachers (n = 97) using a well-known questionnaire, the CD-RISC (Connor & Davidson, 2003), and used Exploratory Factor Analysis to tease out the underlying constructs that made up their resilience. We then interviewed a smaller number of students (n = 7), to gain deeper insights into their thinking processes, beliefs, emotions, and behaviours, as they connected to language teacher resilience. Findings of the study are reported in the following publications:

  1. Lämmerer, A. (2016). Exploring the role of resilience in the first practicum of trainee ELT teachers. Paper presented in the Individuals in Contexts international conference (Psychology of Language Learning 2), hosted by the University of Jyväskylä, Finland.
  2. Kostoulas, A. and Lämmerer, A. (forthcoming). ‘Pre-service teachers developing resilience.’ In C. Gkonou, J.-M. Dewaele, & J. King (Eds), Language Teaching: An Emotional Rollercoaster. Bristol: Multilingual Matters.

The teacher educator study

The second study aimed more explicitly at theory generation. In order to build a theoretical model of language teacher resilience, we used data from a case study of a language teacher who was transitioning into a new phase in her career, as a teacher educator. Again, we assumed that this transition period would create uncertainties, renegotiation of her identity, and stress. We therefore expected to be able to observe the development of her language teacher resilience in real time.

Drawing on existing literature in general psychology, we tentatively hypothesised that she would draw on a combination of (a) inner strengths, (b) external support structures, and (c) learnt strategies. Drawing data from two interviews, we aimed to further specify our tentative model and see how its components connected. What emerged was a picture of resilience as a dynamically fluctuating construct, which was very sensitive to contextual influences.

This study has been reported in:

  1. Kostoulas, A. (2016). Teacher resilience in a period of transition: A case study of a language teacher trainer in a university context. Paper presented in the Individuals in Contexts international conference (Psychology of Language Learning 2), hosted by the University of Jyväskylä, Finland.
  2. Kostoulas, A. and Lämmerer, A. (2018). ‘Making the transition into teacher education: Resilience as a process of growth.’ In S. Mercer and A. Kostoulas (Eds), Language Teacher Psychology (pp. 247-263). Bristol: Multilingual Matters.

Other studies

Plans were in place for additional research, using interview data from early career teachers in their placement year, as well as a more ambitious study focussing on the resilience of teachers across their career trajectory. These plans have been put on hold, for two reasons.

Firstly, our the initial studies (above) made salient the methodological challenges of studying resilience, in the context of teacher education. Resilience develops in the context of discernible adversity, not unlike an airbag that is deployed during an accident. This created tension between our role as researchers, who would be interested in finding examples of adversity, where resilience would be discernible, and our role as educators, which entailed providing our learners with an emotionally safe environment.

The second problem was conceptual, and related to the lack of evidence for a domain-specificity of resilience. The language teacher resilience project only made sense if it could be empirically demonstrated that the psychological processes of resilience were manifested differently in language education than they were in other aspects of human activity. This did not seem to be the case, and it therefore seems that language teacher resilience is a redundant construct.

Knowledge transfer

Findings from the project were used to inform a series of workshops and talks, aimed at raising language teachers’ awareness of their resilience, and facilitating its development. These include:

  1. Kostoulas, A. (2016, April). Surviving and Thriving in the Language Classroom. Workshop during the Teachers of English in Austria Biannual Conference (Graz ConneXion 2016).
  2. Kostoulas, A. (2017, June). Developing Resilience in Language Teaching. Eight-hour workshop for language teachers, organised by the FH Joanneum University of Applied Sciences.
  3. Kostoulas, A. (2017, December). Understanding Resilience in Language Education. Paper presented at the Language Education Across Borders international conference, organised by the University of Graz, Austria.

Featured Image: ‘One against many’ by Ahd Photography (CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0)